Remember the last time you got on a train, only to find all the seats occupied by people … and their bags? Boy, bags really do like aisle seats, you may have said to yourself. Or maybe you just shook your head and moved on to the next car, annoyed by the passive-aggressiveness of it all: “Seat’s taken!” the bags scream in silence, while their owners turn and stare out the windows.
You might deplore such behavior when you’re the one schlepping down the aisle in search of an open seat, but admit it, you’re probably guilty of piling your suitcase next to you too, when you’re the first on board. So why do we do it?
That’s the question Yale University doctoral student Esther C. Kim explored in a new study published in the journal Symbolic Interaction. The bag-in-seat move is just one among a collection of similar strategies she observed, which she calls “nonsocial transient behavior.” In less academic terms, they’re tactics people use while traveling in an attempt to keep strangers at arm’s length, or farther away.
Kim cataloged these various habits over two years of research. Like any good ethnographer, she lived the life of her study subjects, taking multiple cross-country bus rides — from Connecticut to New Mexico, a trip that took two days and 17 hours; California to Illinois; Colorado to New York; Texas to Nevada. She spent hours stuck in dingy terminals, used rusty washrooms and took notes on the sly, watching people through the slit between bus seats to collect her data. (Not since Menelaus pursued his Helen has one showed such commitment to a cause.)
In the resulting paper, Kim lays out the hows and whys of nonsocial transient behavior, but first, she differentiates it from previous and seemingly comparable concepts like civil inattention, i.e., when strangers in close proximity try to respectfully keep their distance. Civil inattention drives phenomena like “elevator osmosis,” for example: if there are four people in a car, they will politely arrange themselves in a square, without coordination or eye contact. As people get off, the square becomes a triangle, then the triangle become a hypotenuse, each remaining passenger reshuffling to provide maximum space and privacy for the others.
Find out the rest here!