Human beings are strange animals, and this becomes especially manifest on coach journeys. If you hadn’t already thought so yourself, you were probably waiting for a psychologist, a sociologist or a cultural anthropologist to point it out.
Turns out a Yale sociologist by the name of Esther Kim, and two psychologists, Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau, will do just that. Kim rode coaches for three years to study human behavioral traits in connection with the way we treat public spaces and concluded that a lot of it concerns avoiding interactions between people.
“We live in a world of strangers, where life in public spaces feels increasingly anonymous. However, avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport,” reads the press release Kim released at the time she concluded her investigation.
Chances are that you will agree wholeheartedly with Kim as you will have observed this yourself too. The question is why most coach passengers prefer to be isolated from fellow travellers. At parties, which also involve groups of people in a confined common space, we tend to exhibit rather different characteristics.
Kim’s three years of painstaking record collection on coaches has provided a solid answer. Human beings keep to themselves during coach journeys in order to maintain a small but important space to stretch their legs, and have the option of curling up. However, courtesy dictates that riders share their seats when asked.
She published her research in the prestigious scientific journal Symbolic Interaction. “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'”, she wrote.
Even though that is all pretty straightforward common sense knowledge, Kim also investigated so called ‘unspoken rules’ of coach passengers which amounted to strategies commonly used to keep a free seat. Most people display nonsocial behavior as part of a social code which is activated when people share a public space for a certain amount of time, according to the sociologist, who termed this ‘deliberate disengagement’.
It is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces. To hold on to as much public space (the free seat), people tend to avoid eye contact with others, lean against the window and stretch out their legs, sit on the aisle seat and listen to music, place items in the empty seat to make it time-consuming to move, look out the window with a blank stare, or pretend to be asleep. In some cases people lie and say a seat has been taken by someone else.
So in case you regularly resort to some of the above tricks, you’re not alone (pun intended).
Other research into relations between strangers in public places has revealed that these peripheral ties, ironically, far outnumber the average person’s close relations. It is an area that psychologists are increasingly beginning to pay attention to, something that is evident from the popularity of the term ‘consequential strangers’, which was coined by Karen L. Fingerman and subsequently developed by the psychologist Melinda Blau.
Consequential strangers are personal connections other than family and close friends; everybody who, broadly speaking, occupies the social territory between strangers and intimates. What is especially fascinating, is that where traditionally psychologists have been more concerned with people’s primary relationships in assessing both their psychological and physiological well being, more recent analysis of the broader social landscape including our relations with strangers, suggests that contact with ‘consequential strangers’ can make people similarly wholesome as dealings with intimates.
Even though strangers on a bus are not universally beneficial, research by Fingerman and Blau shows that to thrive in a modern society, it is vital to at the very least have a variety of connections.