Yale study reveals how people avoid the ‘weirdo’ on the bus

Jordan Chittley
Daily Buzz

Ph.D. candidate Esther Kim took numerous cross-country bus trips to see how people disengage when on public transit

Millions of Canadians rely on public transit to get to work or school each day and for a large majority of those people, complaining about the transportation is a popular pastime.

There are "technical issues", buses run late, trains are overcrowded, the general smell isn't always the best especially when it's raining outside and in some cases we have to sit next to or be close to questionable and sometimes smelly characters.

But luckily a lot of people have solutions for these issues that allow them to make their commute easier. For many people it's all about keeping from sitting next to, standing by or talking to "weird" riders. A quick survey around the newsroom reveals people quickly put their cellphone to their ear, pretend to sleep and hunch over the seat next to them, read a book, put headphones on even if they aren't attached to a device and even act odd themselves so other people will avoid them.

[ More Daily Buzz: Jet skier easily breaches $100M airport security system ]

"You have to have strategies when riding public transportation," said Seattle writer Jonathan Shipley to NBC's Body Odd blog. "You don't want to be at the whims of fate because fate will undoubtedly stink and/or shout at you."

Shipley often tries to sit next to old women because they rarely stink or he puts a bag in the empty seat next to him.

If you thought you were the only one who knew some of these tricks, you'd be wrong. Esther Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Yale University has just published a paper in the journal Symbolic Interaction that discusses the lengths commuters go to avoid others on public transit. She calls it "nonsocial transient behaviour" or NTB.

She writes people engage in this behaviour because of "uncertainty about strangers, lack of privacy or absence of personal space and exhaustion."

[ More Daily Buzz: Whale breaches metres away from B.C. boat ]

To gather this data she had to hop on board. Kim took a series of cross-country Greyhound bus trips over the course of two years where she observed people and talked to passengers about their commuting experiences. What she found was right in line with what most of us do. She saw people falling asleep, pretending to check their phones and rummaging through their bags. In an effort to keep "the crazy person" from sitting next to them they would avoid eye contact, stretch out legs to take up both seats, put a coat on the empty seat to give the impression someone was already sitting there or lie and say someone is sitting in the seat.

Kim said we do it because of a desire to be safe and comfortable plus our frustrations about having to share a "small public space together for a lengthy amount of time."

However, she found this all changes when people learn the bus will be full and there won't be any empty seats.

"The objective changes, from sitting alone to sitting next to a 'normal' person, Kim told Science Daily. "This deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces."

(CP photo)