Aug. 14, 2012 at 8:50 AM ET
Maybe it was the guy who hit him on the head with an umbrella because he was writing on his laptop. Or maybe it was the strange woman who took his picture, then followed him to work because she was smitten with him. Or maybe it was the gentleman who pooped his pants.
Whatever the case, daily bus rider Jonathan Shipley has come up with a number of tactics to avoid sharing his seat with questionable commuters.
"You have to have strategies when riding public transportation," says the 38-year-old writer from Seattle. "You don't want to be at the whims of fate because fate will undoubtedly stink and/or shout at you."
Instead of trying for his own seat, for instance, he'll often sit next to an old woman. "Old women rarely stink," he says. "Old women are rarely crazy."
Other strategies include putting a bag on the empty seat beside him, pretending to be asleep and flopping halfway onto the next seat and avoiding both the very front and the very back sections of the bus, which are often occupied by what he terms either "nutjobs" or "hooligans."
Odd as it sounds, Shipley's tactics are right in line with those discovered by Yale University's Esther C. Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology who recently published a paper in the journal Symbolic Interactionregarding the lengths commuters will go to avoid sitting next to each other on public transportation, something she refers to as "nonsocial transient behavior" or NTB.
"Nonsocial transient behavior is basically an active effort to avoid other people," says Kim regarding these unspoken commuter acts. "The difference between simply not paying attention to someone and nonsocial transient behavior is the active, calculated way of deterring strangers from engaging in any kind of social interaction."
For her research, Kim took a series of cross-country Greyhound bus trips over the course of two years, observing behaviors and talking to passengers about their commuting experiences. Some of the tactics for fending off fellow passengers she saw included people who would fall asleep, pretend to be busy by checking their phones or rummaging through their bags or don a "don't bother me face," which she calls the "hate stare."
Other common tactics for avoiding a seatmate -- particularly what fellow passengers referred to as "the crazy person" -- included making no eye contact, stretching out legs to take up both seats, putting a coat on the seat to make it appear that it's already taken and simply lying and telling people that someone's already sitting in the seat.
Kim says NTB is rooted in our desire to keep ourselves safe and comfortable and that it's not necessarily limited to buses.
"This type of behavior can be seen in any place -- even at a public park where someone may not want to share their public bench," she says.
She adds that nonsocial transient behavior stems from our frustrations about having to share a "small public space together for a lengthy amount of time." Although on Greyhound bus rides, other factors such as the passengers' transient nature, fear of potential danger, physical exhaustion and confinement in a small space without privacy also cause people to actively disengage, she says.
Along with avoidance behaviors, the researcher also noted big commuting no-nos, such as sitting next to someone when other seats are available, which one passenger said immediately branded you as "weird."
As for how to deal with the occasional stinky commuter, Shipley says he puts antibacterial lotion on his hands to mask the smell or wears loose tops that he can stretch up over his face.
"In winter, I'm a fan of the turtleneck just for that reason," he says. "Turtlenecks are terrible for fashion, but great to breathe through on public transportation."
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