Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bus Seat Solitude

Frank Capra's classic screwball comedy "It Happened One Night" is based on a chance meeting on a night bus that leads to romance-obviously with several hilarious bumps in the road along the way. It's the original road trip comedy and if you haven't seen it-you have to! But, everyone who has seen this film, whether it be when it was originally released, or now, nearly a century later, absolutely understood that it is a romanticized fantasy ideal of traveling in the least glamorous way possible-a crammed bus. Anyone who has taken a bus across town or even worse to a destination a couple of hours away knows that buses smell (often of urine-why?!), are uncomfortably crowded, and inevitably lead to awkward encounters. You will most assuredly not end up being an heiress on the run sitting next to a dashing Clark Gable who you will fall in love with by the time you reach the next city. Nope. But you may have a screaming baby puke on you, an overweight man take up most of your seat space as well, or be forced to sit next to someone you swear you saw on America's Most Wanted.
The sociology of bus travel was studied by Esther Kim of Yale University who recently published her results of "non-social transient behavior." She conducted the study traveling by bus across the US for three years to examine the unspoken rules and behaviors of commuters.
As we know, on the bus-or any kind of mass transportation, personal space is at a premium. But "avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport." She explains she found that "We engage in all sorts of behavior to avoid others, pretending to be busy, checking phones, rummaging through bags, looking past people or falling asleep. Sometimes we even don a 'don't bother me face' or what's known as the 'hate stare'." All of this dramatic territorial effort is to keep from being too close to anyone and most importantly from having to share a seat. Kim says that the smaller space we are in for a longer period of time leads to more frustration which then leads to our wanting to disengage from social interaction because we assume everyone around us is potentially as cranky as we are. This is true. I definitely don't want to deal with anyone when I'm traveling on any mass transit. Being in transit I'm already frayed and more volatile. I just want to put my ear buds in and get to where I'm going. I don't want any trouble along the way. And Kim also pointed out the obvious safety concerns of engaging in conversation with strangers and people's underlying fear of the weirdos-whether they be dangerous or not, no one wants to end up having to sit next to someone who is talking loudly to themselves or is peddling pamphlets on armageddon.
So here we are as a culture, constantly desiring to network and communicate via our social media, but at the same time working our hardest to ignore those around us. Maybe we should open ourselves up more. Maybe a Clark Gable is sitting right next to us waiting to sweep us off our feet. Or maybe that guy is really just a creep waiting to sweep our purse right out from under our feet. Guess we are safest in the end just pulling a Mckayla Maroney hate stare.

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