rubbing shoulders on the bus isn't exactly networking
August 15, 2008 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Public transit personal space etiquette question.

I take public transit just about everyday to and from an University campus. Sometimes the person(s) next to me will press arms/shoulders against mine. This happens more frequently when I'm wearing a tank top that leaves my arms and shoulders bare.

People from S. Asia or from the mainland, I understand, have different ideas about personal space than most North Americans.

I'm not talking about these persons.

Typically, they are female or gay men with a wide spectrum of physical attractiveness and apparent personal assuredness. Sometimes they'll even initiate incidental leg/foot contact.

When this happens I usually discretely give them their space, if possible, but they just shift and re-initiate contact again. They'll typically have adequate space on their other side and are not in contact with the person on their other side or there is nobody on their other side. Sometimes they'll even fiddle with something in their purse or a binder/newspaper/audio player/whatever that offers them more contact with me. When I try to smile and initiate eye contact, they never return the eye contact.

Mind you, I'm not complaining here. I've been told that I have nice shoulders - that they're starting to develop and are well defined - but the rest of me amounts to "short, skinny ugger" so this phenomenon is just baffling.

Anyone able to shed any insight on what's going on here?
posted by porpoise to Human Relations (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe they're actually fiddling "with something in their purse or a binder/newspaper/audio player/whatever." I can't tell you how many times I've accidentally played footsies with someone at a meeting table, even though there is adequate space for me not to but foot just wants to be 2 inches over or whatever. I'm sure I've done it on the bus, too, though I can't think of a specific example.
posted by Airhen at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2008

You don't say where you are, which is relevant.

Most people I've run in to that do that here in Baltimore are either unable to avoid it due to crowding, oblivious or assholes pushing their dominance on everyone else. I ignore all three. The first isn't avoidable, the second isn't dangerous and the third I don't want to win, nor do I wish to play their silly game.
posted by QIbHom at 9:54 AM on August 15, 2008

Maybe they think you're good looking and want to start a conversation. Maybe they just get a thrill out of touching people. They could be seeing if you have anything in your pockets worth stealing. Probably not since you don't mention anything being missing here, but it is something to be aware of.

If you find someone who you think will give you an honest answer and not be offended, why not ask?

And if you do, let us know because I'm curious myself.
posted by theichibun at 9:55 AM on August 15, 2008

Anyone able to shed any insight on what's going on here?

They think you're an attractive guy and they're unconsciously trying to get closer. Bet they don't even know they're doing it. When I find someone attractive or am drawn to them, if we're walking together, I keep walking into them. It happens all the time and it's really embarrassing. After being married forever I still keep bumping into my husband when we walk together.
posted by iconomy at 9:57 AM on August 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

posted by fixedgear at 10:01 AM on August 15, 2008

I've accidentally fondled someone's foot before, thinking that it was part of the seat. It's embarrassing and I was always glad that the foot's owner was discreet enough to gently shift their foot so that I realized my mistake.

Just incidentally, how do you know that all of these random shoulder-touching men are gay? The lack of eye contact indicates that they are probably not touching you to get your attention.

The next time you brush shoulders and it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you could say, "oh, pardon!" like you were the one causing the contact. This could at least make them aware that you are noticing their proximity and may keep them from pressing on you.
posted by amicamentis at 10:02 AM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: QIbHom - Vancouver, BC.

It's typically not crowding, and I'm not talking about the personal-space-asserters (younger guys or bodybuilders or short-men-syndromees). It's probably just obliviousness, then, as per Airhen.

theichibun, maybe I'll say hi or comment about their book/binder/whatever when trying to initiate eye contact the next time... I'm pretty sure they're not pickpockets casing a mark.

I wish, iconomy and hahahahaha! fixedgear.

amicamentis - when I move away, typically, they'll extend just ever so much to re-initiate contact. As for gay, this is Vancouver and being obviously openly gay isn't a problem. It's my inability to initiate eye contact that makes this so confusing and by no means does it make me uncomfortable, just baffled.
posted by porpoise at 10:05 AM on August 15, 2008

Frequently on the bus a man will sit down next to me and sprawl his legs out as wide as possible, taking some of my legroom in the process. He probably expects me to demurely put my legs together and take up less space. But I like to sit with my legs sprawled out, too, so I stand my ground even if it means his leg keeps pressing against mine.

Similarly, when standing on the bus, some people seem to want to claim an entire pole for themselves, as though the rest of us don't need to not fall down, too. In those situations I touch the person if necessary in order to hold on for dear life. Could your situations be more like that than you think? Could you be taking up what they perceive as too much space and they are asserting their right to be there as well?
posted by hydropsyche at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

They may be moving closer to you due to the jostling of the bus etc. They may not really be moving any more than they would have before because they were already in contact with your shoulders and so that was stopping them from moving any further. Once you move they're no longer blocked by your shoulder, so the jostling of the bus may carry them over further your way. Since it's annoying to keep jostling someone, they might unconsciously resist going back further over to their seat only to hit you again when the bus makes another turn/bump/etc.

(Also, beware of men in puffy jackets on the DC metro! I once sat next to a guy who got mad at me for not squishing myself over into a corner of my seat to accommodate his jacket, and he almost hit me! Puffy jacket man, you are not forgiven!)
posted by onlyconnect at 10:15 AM on August 15, 2008

If I feel like my personal space is being threatened by someone playing the asshole game, I'll generally do something like exaggeratedly shift positions in my seat or try to stretch out my leg or fish around in my bookbag so that I can come back down in my spot and "accidentally" stick my elbow into whatever part of them is up in my shit. Then I'll say, "omigosh I'm sorry!" but stand my ground, which almost always makes them not lean on me anymore.

As for standing...usually if I've got to stand and someone is crowding me, it's because the bus/train is really crowded and it's almost always unintentional.
posted by phunniemee at 10:18 AM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: hydropsyche - no, I'm pretty good about respecting other people's personal space and when standing, I'll usually shift to a more uncomfortable position on the pole to free up space if I notice someone having problems finding someplace to hold onto, so no, phunniemee, it's probably not the asshole game.

onlyconnect is probably right; I'm not sufficiently icky enough for people to stop touching me and straight guys around here don't care to rub shoulders with other dudes, I guess.
posted by porpoise at 10:26 AM on August 15, 2008

I've ridden tons of transit in Vancouver and have never noticed this phenomenon, so I'm leaning towards the fact that you're just lucky. But if you're riding some of the more popular routes, basically anywhere where you're usually forced to stand, personal space is definitely at a premium, almost a luxury, and i've found people are more likely to infringe for their own personal benefit -- ie for the prime spots near the door, or because they need in their pack and can't get to it any other way, etc. Even if the bus has space, people will sometimes shove in towards the back, to open up the front for reasons that you might not see right away (wheelchairs, strollers, drivers request b/c there's a ton of people at the next stop, etc). Backpacks and the like also tend to take up more space then they should (Take off your backpacks, people!).

But if you're on the skytrain with only four people standing and you're arm-to-arm with the other guy... yeah, that's just weird.
posted by cgg at 10:37 AM on August 15, 2008

Another Vancouverite here, also haven't noticed this at all... the backpack situation however is OUT OF CONTROL! lol.
posted by Cosine at 10:40 AM on August 15, 2008

Some people are pervs.

But a LOT of people in this world are oblivious. like, AMAZINGLY oblivious. It's taken me years to even start to grasp- if I accidentally touch someone, I move away instantly. There is no possible way, if I'm conscious, I could fail to notice my body touching theirs.

But years of experience have convinced me this is not the case for everyone.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:41 AM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I took transit to UBC daily for two years and I never noticed this beyond normal bus crowding. Might be a bit of confirmation bias too, whenever someone bumps up against because the bus is crowded it may seemed like another case of getting rubbed all weird, but it's really just people not moving to the back of the goddam bus.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:47 AM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: This is usually sitting down situations. About half the time I'm the first seated, the other half, they're seated first.

Yes, this is the UBC route (I used to be on the 41, now it's the 99 - happens on both routes, to and from campus). This actually happens more during the summer (or I notice it more since the buses typically aren't super crowded); it's a different kind of contact than during - say - September/October when every bus is crammed like a sardine can.

Yeah, people can be really stupid about their backpacks around here (I have a leather messenger bag that I unsling and keep on my thigh, parallel to my leg, when I'm seated - and yes, if I'm seated next to someone, I keep my knees mostly together so my legs are either parallel or perpendicular to the bus).
posted by porpoise at 10:56 AM on August 15, 2008

Sometimes I feel like people just want to fill up the space. This drives me crazy when I am waiting in line for something and the person behind me starts crowding me. So I inch up a bit further.... and then they inch up even further and crowd up my space even more. Ugh! When I rode public transit for work I often found that, while sitting, even if I would inch away closer to the window or the aisle so I didn't have to touch the person sitting next to me, they would shuffle to make sure that I was touching them.

I'll grant I'm a weirdo who likes plenty of personal space, but the seat-crowders were the biggest thing I disliked about riding public transit. Also, the people who would sit next to me when the bus or train was almost completely empty.
posted by sutel at 11:11 AM on August 15, 2008

Are you sure you're just not noticing more contact due to bare arms? You might be noticing an in increase in contact which might be a normal amount in situations where you're wearing more clothing. Do you notice this phenomen when you're wearing shirt sleeves?

Or you're just making a big deal out of nothing - contact happens.

I ride public transportation and have noticed people in other peoples personal zones or even mine despite how empty the train or bus is. People get into a spot and more or less won't move unless they're forced to.
posted by AMP583 at 11:47 AM on August 15, 2008

I'm thinking that it's a mix of people having different definitions of personal space, plus a little bit of the confirmation bias Nelsormensch mentions. I'm pretty psychotic about my personal space, so if someone's sleeve so much as brushes up against me, I'm liable to leap out of the way before I even realize it. Other people seem to practically sit on my lap and not even notice it.

What I've found can be pretty effective is the passive-aggressive approach of surrounding yourself with stuff. Keep a bag next to you and it's pretty hard for people to try to lean on your shoulders.

Or just wear one of these. (Sans the mask, if you'd like, though wearing that may ensure that no one sits next to you in the first place.)
posted by fogster at 11:47 AM on August 15, 2008

Sometimes they'll even fiddle with something in their purse or a binder/newspaper/audio player/whatever that offers them more contact with me. When I try to smile and initiate eye contact, they never return the eye contact.

I don't understand why you view this behavior as them deliberately trying to touch you, or in fact as doing anything more than fiddling with their belongings to give themselves something to do. The reason they don't return eye contract is because they're likely not playing with their ipod as an excuse to touch you, and don't want to be get involved with random bus strangers any more than necessary.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:09 PM on August 15, 2008

Keep a bag next to you and it's pretty hard for people to try to lean on your shoulders.

I hope you're not suggesting keeping a bag on the empty seat next to you cause that is so lame.

I agree that people are oblivious to personal space, or they are being deliberately rude and trying to make you move over. I encounter both of those scenarios on public transit every day.
posted by agregoli at 12:17 PM on August 15, 2008

I hope you're not suggesting keeping a bag on the empty seat next to you cause that is so lame.

No no, definitely don't be the jerk that spreads stuff across multiple seats. On your seat or on your lap, but as far off to the side as is reasonable.
posted by fogster at 1:08 PM on August 15, 2008

All of the above explanations make sense to me. There are various reasons people might do this, and one explanation doesn't fit all instances. There are also lots of people who don't do it, but you're not as likely to notice when it doesn't happen.

Here's one more theory: people have differing needs/desires when it comes to the company of strangers. For instance, when my wife and I are roaming around the city, looking for a place to eat, I see an almost empty restaurant, and I think, "That looks nice. Not too many people." But to her (a much more outgoing person than me), it looks depressing. Now, if we eat in a bustling place, it's not like she's going to talk to anyone besides me. But she likes having people around, just as ambiance. I don't.

Yesterday, the train was really full, and so this guy took the one remaining seat, which was right next to me. Totally understandable. But then a bunch of people next to him got off, and what was left was me, him, and then like five empty seats. Had our positions been reverse, I would have immediately moved down, giving us both more room. I would have done this even though our bodies weren't touching. I would have done it almost without thinking. In any room full of strangers, I naturally seek the loneliest spot.

But the guy was perfectly content to remain next to me, which made me more and more antsy, until finally I got up and moved to one of the seats on the opposite side of him.

He wasn't trying to make me nervous. He just had different boundaries from me. And notice that I have different ones from you: I was bothered by his needless proximity, even though our bodies weren't touching.

I suspect that some people -- people who are constituted differently from you and I -- unconsciously move to be close to other people. Again, I don't think this is the only explanation. I just suspect it's true some of the time.

But a LOT of people in this world are oblivious. like, AMAZINGLY oblivious. It's taken me years to even start to grasp- if I accidentally touch someone, I move away instantly. There is no possible way, if I'm conscious, I could fail to notice my body touching theirs.

This makes me laugh, because I feel the same way. It seems to me that there's no way I could fail to notice physical contact, because it's such a big deal to me. However, I must point out the confirmation bias here. If you or I aren't noticing some contact, there's no way we can notice that we're not noticing it.
posted by grumblebee at 1:57 PM on August 15, 2008

Our buses here have narrow seats which require touching even if you are skinny. Some people have an unhealthy paranoia about this and try to hog two seats or hover in front of the exit when there are open seats which makes it a pain for people trying to get off the bus. Hell, on airplanes these days you can't get away without rubbing elbows or shoulders so I'm not sure why you think this is an etiquette issue. It is a design issue.
posted by JJ86 at 2:22 PM on August 15, 2008

This happens more frequently when I'm wearing a tank top that leaves my arms and shoulders bare. ... I've been told that I have nice shoulders....

They think you're an attractive guy ....

Are you a man or a woman? Are you stereotypically gay- or straight-looking?
posted by JimN2TAW at 2:44 PM on August 15, 2008

Sometimes on the bus I lean on the person next to me a little just because they hold me up. I hate the way the bus makes me sway around and prefer a little stability (I don't transfer weight on to them, just touch slightly). This is why I like to sit by the window or stand next to a pole, then I can lean on the actual bus instead. It's generally a subconscious thing and I won't notice until I get up to get off or whatever that I was doing it, but then I spend all my bus time totally zoned out and trying not to think about the people around me (I'm a loud headphones person too). So it's feasible that I'd end up touching you in the way you describe, assuming you look non-scary and don't smell, without thinking about it and without actually being interested in you at all.
posted by shelleycat at 3:31 PM on August 15, 2008

Depending on the driver and route, and lack of seat belts, and depending on seat design, or if standing room only, it can be difficult at times not to bump into someone else. Buses suck. The reason why I preferred commuting by bike instead. Took about the same amount of time too, with the benefit of exercise.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:25 PM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for your input everyone!
posted by porpoise at 6:14 PM on August 15, 2008

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