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Enjoy the silence: commuters are ‘nonsocial’ for good reason

On public transport, there’s an unspoken rule to not take the seat next to someone if there are other seats available. In especially longer public transport commutes, the entire ride can be done in silence…

Don’t want someone sitting next to you? You’re not alone. j.o.h.n. walker

On public transport, there’s an unspoken rule to not take the seat next to someone if there are other seats available. In especially longer public transport commutes, the entire ride can be done in silence with people keeping to themselves.

But why is this? And what does it say about the way we interact with others in public spaces? My research study on long-distance commuter buses pointed to some possible answers.

In my bus travel study, published recently in Symbolic Interaction, I found people make active effort to avoid others by privatising public spaces.

There were various ways in which people formed an invisible bubble around them. Their greatest task was to prevent strangers from bursting their invisible bubble; in this case, to prevent others from sitting next to them.

a e e o yurri

For more than two years, I hopped on long-distance commuter buses and jotted detailed notes about the buses, the people, and bus terminals. I didn’t have any agenda in mind because I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

After a few long exasperating trips, I began to think I wasn’t getting anywhere with the project because nothing seemed to be going on.

I continued to take rides across the United States hoping to see more action. But routinely, one-by-one passengers got on the bus, one-by-one they sat in empty seats, and one-by-one they got off the bus. Most of the journeys had been quiet and uneventful. So it seemed.

On one trip, a fellow passenger asked me: “Want to take a hit?”. Manny, a 33-year-old frequent commuter bus traveller, was planning to purchase a joint from another passenger whom he referred to as the “Greyhound dealer.”

I told him that I’m not a smoker. He responded: “Yeah sure, no-one here is, but you gotta do what you gotta do to survive.” I returned with a sly smile and shook my head. “You sure?“ said Manny. "It’ll take the edge off.”

Thad Westhusing

I asked Manny if others travelling on the bus also smoke up to “take the edge off.” He said: “I don’t know. But I’m sure people do whatever it takes to put up with this crazy ride [pause] and crazy people.”

When I enquired about the “crazy people,” he responded: “The weirdos who talk. Who wants to talk on this long-ass ride?”

Upon reviewing my field notes, I realised that I had been misinterpreting the silence. In fact, there was a lot of action taking place.

In my observation, there were several reasons why passengers on long commute buses avoid social contact with others. First is the uncertainty about strangers. While Greyhound buses in the past have been a common mode of transportation for people from all kinds of backgrounds, today it is stigmatised as a dangerous option.

To prevent potential dangers, passengers opt to avoid others altogether in order to minimise instability. Passengers also avoid other people due to aggravation from bus delays and extended rides, which cause people to be physically and psychologically exhausted.

Some passengers gave me hints on how to disengage with the public world around you. During those rides, I also found myself exhibiting nonsocial behaviours by becoming an expert “private space maker".

soilse

Although I attempted as best I could to keep up my role as a researcher and ask questions, I found myself wanting to be left alone. On my second trip from Illinois to Texas, I remember texting a friend: “No one wants to talk to me or sit next to me.”

My friend texted back: “Go sit next to someone. Talk to them you’re good at that.”

Little did we know that this was breaching the rules on the bus. By randomly sitting next to strangers when there were other open seats, I am certain I was black-labelled as one of the “weirdos who talk,” according to Manny.

In a space where nonsocial behaviour takes place, a certain atmosphere is created, and this in turn shapes the social environment for others who occupy the space. New people who enter the space typically follow established social norms and protocols in order to maintain a coherent social order.

Since people respond in accordance to a general atmosphere of a social situation, the cold and avoiding characteristics of nonsocial behaviour is usually met with a similar behavioural response.

In other words, people have a mutual understanding: they neither step into other people’s boundaries nor allow others to step into theirs.

Examining the nonsocial transient spaces allows us to understand what occurs during periods when strangers are together for long stretches of time.

While avoiding potential danger is important, what’s troubling about nonsocial transient behaviour is that these behaviours may trickle into our everyday lives.

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49 Comments sorted by

  1. Joseph Callingham

    Student of Astrophysics at University of Sydney

    Interesting article but I have an additional theory that I think is also at work to the one you analysed. My theory probably plays a greater part on work commutes (e.g. train rides 30 minutes+)

    I think there is a contribution that talking to a stranger can be seen as 'work'. A lot of our interactions will people have a goal of helping ourselves. People have their own pre-occupations that makes them uninterested in starting a conversation with strangers as it is unlikely they will help solve any of their issues. The conversation can quickly become trapped in banalities, such as the weather, wasting time that person could have been considering their own issues.

    People who generally talk on public transport as not busy with their own thoughts and need to be entertained. Hence, they begin conversations.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Joseph Callingham

      "People who generally talk on public transport as not busy with their own thoughts and need to be entertained. Hence, they begin conversations. "

      I don't think that applies to every "weirdo that talks". It is possible that some people can read other passenger's body language, and looking to strike up some friendly banter to distract that passenger from what may appear to be an absorption in negative thoughts. As good will, not just entertainment. Maybe also to raise the emotional tone of the…

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  2. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    Not non-social ... anti-social.

    Disinterested, disengaged, resenting the intrusion of others - outsiders - into our bubbled daily life. Yes work indeed - being part of a social species. Let's not. Not danger - it is talk - just intrusion, annoyance, someone I don't care about. Someone who has nothing to offer me.

    Disinterested, disengaged, dehumanised.

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    1. Peter Reefman

      Project Manager

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter,

      Good to see your prescient comments across a range of subject areas - with the "conversation" in this case being by far more stable than the lengthy "discussions" on a Climate thread from a few days ago. That sequence seemed to confirm the impression that there are people out there who take a position and accumulate "facts" to reinforce it. Refreshing by comparison to see Esther collating her thoughts with an explicit intention to see where the details lead her, rather than looking to prove something.

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    2. Caitlin Whiteman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Oh come now, don't you think that's just a tad sweeping? I prefer not to talk to people on public transport because I enjoy detailed and meaningful conversations of the sort that are difficult to have with total strangers in cramped public spaces. I also enjoy quiet time thinking, looking out the window, etc. And I respect other passengers' right to some space and peace. It hardly means that I am hostile to those other passengers or would fail to help them if they looked to be in need of it.

      We aren't required to socialise every waking hour to qualify as human.
      You might see someone on a train with their nose in a book or even, horrors!, fiddling with a smartphone, but you're looking at a tiny portion of their day and their life - you don't see that person while they're volunteering, sharing a meal with family, or any of a million deeply human and engaged things, and it's a huge and unsupported leap to assume that those things aren't happening.

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    3. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Caitlin Whiteman

      I spend a lot of time on country trains. I suspect that for some folks this is their only social outlet, this proximity to others. Some like a chat. This does not cost us anything and there are polite ways to opt out. But we seem to have lost those skills of manners and polite chatting.

      Instead I see people actually ignoring another's efforts to say hello, turning their shoulder, pretending not to hear, or just changing seats indignatly..

      Not all our social interactions must be deep and…

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    4. Kris McCracken

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Caitlin Whiteman

      Spot on Caitlin. I read on the bus primarily because a) I like reading; and b) I have two small children that means the act of reading at home is a little more difficult. Outside of this little act of 'selfishness', I do parent help in my son's school, volunteer for a couple of causes in my own time, regularly donate blood, volunteer with Auskick etc.

      One this that I'm reasonably certain of is that I remain 'human'.

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    5. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter,
      From an introvert’s point of view...
      My brain function is such that the language path in my brain is longer. It takes more work to talk. My responses are therefore slower. Additionally, some get a buzz from bright lights and movement; I find it overloads my senses very quickly.

      If you take these aspects and dilute them to the simple train trip then yes, people might need to have social contact but others not so much. The motion of the train might be enough for the senses and adding in…

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    6. Caitlin Whiteman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      It’s simply not true that talking to people ‘costs us nothing’. As Rob pointed out, for those of us with a more introverted disposition, making polite chit-chat actually requires a great deal of energy – energy that we don’t always have in excess supply at the end of a long day or when tired or stressed.

      I’ve often wondered why, then, one person’s valid desire for social interaction is so often seen as morally trumping another’s valid desire for peaceful decompression time... ?? (and would welcome…

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    7. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Caitlin Whiteman

      No Rob - a skillful communicator does not have to feign enthusiasm or have conversation forced upon them... they have the ability to say something like "sorry I've gotta be getting on with this" or gently deflecting their unwanted chatster.

      I suspect it's got a lot to do with crowding - being forced to share public space when we don't want to. And I suspect more of us don't want to.

      That's my point - not so much that we should be sociable, but to think about why we're not anymore. Yet…

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    8. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I see.

      That is covered by a study in the fifties or sixties and is related to Architectural Philosophy and Town Planning.

      8000 is the magic number. More than 8000 in a place and you do not know everyone anymore. We should actually be living in pockets of 8000 people and not in large cities. A sub set of that is a building should never be more than 4 stories high. Higher than that and you lose connection to earth and you start going bonkers.

      The aspects you describe are predictable human behaviour, or at least they were 60 years ago. To override them would take some serious social engineering as well as making cities social centres and not economic centres.

      I would suggest you are a natural result of the rule of 8000.

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    9. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Caitlin Whiteman

      Nice set of observations Esther,
      So Caitlin & Kris, engagement is on your terms or not at all (I'm guilty on this point as well)? Rather makes Peter's point though, doesn't it. Good reason, or not, it is a fine line between non-social and anti-social.

      Rob, I'm not convinced by your brain function - path length argument and your implied causal attribution to introversion. Some of the brain function - path length research shows up some correlations between, say IQ and path length, but it seems…

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    10. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      I would imagine that 8,000 would be a magic number in so far as the balance of people/skill to resources/needs occur, not so much how many people you know. Honestly, who actually knows 8,000 people? Hardly anyone, if at all.

      100-200 tops is a realistic figure for the social aspect. 8,000 would allow for 40 such interdependant networks, room to blend in not just room to be connected.

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    11. Caitlin Whiteman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      No, not at all, Dennis. I engage with people I'd prefer not to frequently, I'm simply saying that sometimes - for example on PT - my *preference* is solitude. I also happen to think I'm still human, decent and socially engaged and resent almost evidence-less assumptions to the contrary.

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  3. Mark A Gregory

    Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

    In Melbourne there is a good reason for not sitting next to someone else or opposite someone else if possible. The seats are too small and close together. On trains here you need to put your feet under your seat with an angle at the knee that may be very bad for people susceptible to DVTs.

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  4. Kris McCracken

    logged in via Facebook

    Mark makes a good point, as someone who commutes by bus to and from work everyday and is 'tall-ish' (194 cms), two to a seat can a bit of a squeeze on my knees. That said, I can't say I resent it.

    Some Ghanese friends tell that the tendency of locals to all sit apart and silent amuses the, as it is wildly different where they're from. That said, a couple of them studied in Oslo for a time, and reported that they were the same there.

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  5. Judy J
    Judy J is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD student

    Hi Esther,

    You may be interested to know that on the 3-4 hour train trips between Newcastle and Sydney in NSW they recently trialled and have now instituted 'quiet' carriages in the last and/or first cars depending upon train length (4 or 8 carriages). The idea is that no-one talks on these carriages, so they are quiet. The silence was popular, so the quiet carriages remain.

    Having lived in the States for many years, public transport in Australia does differ from that in the US. Many people…

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    1. Thomas Boyle

      Research Consultant at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to Judy J

      Great article, thanks Esther.

      In reply to Judy - I catch the train from Newcastle to Sydney daily and observe changes in behaviours depending on which train I catch.

      Thinking about peak periods, the majority of patrons appear to be commuters, based on repeat faces I see (no surprise there).

      In comparison to pre-peak - mostly seniors in small groups with soft conversations - and post-peak - mix of demographics, silence punctuated with those whom like to make their presence know, for better…

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  6. Adam Rosalky

    Public Servant

    I think you're also forgetting the digital element. When I commute, everyone is on their smartphones.

    I think since the bus is full of strangers and people can be connected to their friends and colleagues through smartphones, people are faced with the choice of interacting with their circle of friends and colleagues digitally or with strangers face-to-face.

    The 'lack of interaction' you perceive may simply be people choosing the former.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Adam Rosalky

      It is now but that doesn't explain the attempts at isolation that happened on trains before mobile phones became common place.

      I'd say technology - phones and music devices - are just more tools to create the bubble. But it is interesting that people will talk with their friends on their phones but ignore the people around them. Although many conversations, when heard, are the same "This person at work is annoying and I'm sick of their crap" "Don't forget to pick up X child from X location" "Are we still going out for drinks on Saturday?" "How did you go at the mechanics? Will you be able to give me a lift from X?" "Shh, we can't talk about that now, I'm on the train"

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  7. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    I have asked many people here (Canberra) why they don't commute via public transport. Some -- and these are overwhelmingly males -- have been honest enough to admit that it's not just the inconvenience and unreliability of public transport, but, most importantly, it's about the desire for personal space (which they have in their cars), and the strong desire to avoid unwelcome intrusions into that space by 'strangers' and 'fat, smelly people' (ie, the perceived situation on buses). This issue has been discussed in various urban planning blogs, but it cannot be overstated: if public transport is to be made more attractive to more people, then more attention needs to be given to the size, design & layout of passenger seating. One simple and effective arrangement was the 'staggered' (ie offset) seating in Oslo city buses in the 1970s, which delivered some psychic & physical personal space.

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  8. Catherine Ayres

    PhD Candidate

    Hmmm, as a 'mobilities buff' myself, this sounds like a great project, but I'd hesitate to characterise what happens on bus trips such as this as 'nonsocial'. I think, perhaps, sociality is just a little less obvious and visble than we might be used to.

    I found myself on a 27 hour Greyhound trip in the USA once, and I had what I would call ephemeral friendships with four Amish people, a recent refugee from Sudan, a three-year-old girl who introduced me to about 17 of her favourite dolls, and…

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  9. Peter Reefman

    Project Manager

    Esther,

    A thought provoking article - especially when it confronts MY OWN commuting experience. I was intrigued by the notion you presented that the pattern of isolation is communicated as a social expectation which then contributes to the forming of our own behaviour. I know that now in my commuting I treasure my "alone" time on the trains (I still have 5 children at home which could contribute to this) as it currently coincides with about the only time I can get to read my books.

    On the…

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    1. terry lockwood

      maths/media/music/drama teacher

      In reply to Peter Reefman

      Finally someone mentions schoolkids. I gather they still interact loudly everyday catching up on the goss? Enjoying eachother's company. Perhaps a bit of flirting or even copying homework. Better knock that out of them before they join the workforce. Wouldn't wanna have fun would you?

      p.s. Totally unrelated but as a Chemistry teacher, I used the Esther's above mentioned empty seat rule to teach Chemistry - as electrons fill the s,p,d,f subshell's orbitals. Each orbital can house two electrons, but all the orbitals get one electron before any orbital gets two. Just like 'Strangers on a Train' (and yes I would play the song of that name by 'The Sports').

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    2. Caitlin Whiteman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to terry lockwood

      Mmm, interesting point! Schoolkids *are* always socialising on the train. Perhaps mainly because they're with friends though?

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  10. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    I don’t know so much about this article.

    For me, I am an introvert. The absolute last thing I am ever going to do is strike up a conversation with the person next to me.

    The second last thing is to keep it going should they strike one up.

    Far more satisfying to put the headphones on, enjoy the gentle motion of the train, stare into space, and enjoy my own company.

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  11. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Commuter hostility in Sydney is a sign of impending social collapse. Or the total triumph of neo-liberalism, which ever comes first.

    I long ago adopted a hostile attitude to my fellow captives by actively engaging in broad ranging political discussion whenever I found a willing conversationalist. The last time this happened it was with a bloke a little older than me; we had a great chat about his experiences, and mine, as members of the BLF, about how unions had gone to the dogs because of careerism…

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    1. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      So that's your game Mr Nolan, contriving at squeamish subversion of the suburban commute. How absolutely confrontational and alarming.

      That settles it - next time I'm forced into a confined space with strangers I'll be packing my glock. So don't even smile buddy - or you'll make my day.

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    2. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Now don't you try starting up your card-carrying conversations with me boyo - no matter how animated!

      I'm here to mix with nice decent folks ... people who are living rich fulfilling lives awash with social engagement. We have no interest in chatting to the likes of you with your sotte voce socialism!

      Now off with you my lad before I pull the cord, and summon the peelers.

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    3. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      You'll need help pulling the cord, methinks. One hand on the zimmer frame you old revanchist! Besides, wasn't it you with whom I had a nice long chat on the 08:05 to Central about how astonished we were that it had taken so long for the world's oppressed to drop a bombe on the Yanks? And how the total death toll in the World Towers was only about the death toll that the Yanks caused when they went into the slums of Panama after Noriega?

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    4. Peter Reefman

      Project Manager

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I had to look up revanchist - Thanks for expanding my vocabulary!

      I trust that your on-going repartee with "young Peter" (of the zimmer frame) is as mutually tongue-in-cheek as it appears! That would be in keeping with Peter's historical contributions. Often blunt and forthright, while fundamentally well considered, or thick slabs of wit.

      On reflection, your "occupations" make you a likely (likeable) pair - a farmer with a ruminant!

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    5. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Peter Reefman

      Careful Peter ... that's how he does it you know... one minute your sitting there watching the suburbs speeding past happily - next you have the sinister hiss of Anthony Nolan breathing his messages of class struggle long gone ... replete with $20 words drawn from the darker - less perused pages of the OED... a blarney kissing bolshevik if ever there was one!

      Glocks all round I say!

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    6. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Oh the farmer always reckons he has it over the ruminant but we nurture our plots of global revenge.

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    7. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Plot away all you fancy you and your fellow cud-chewers... I knew you were up to something belching your vast clouds of methane into our atmosphere.

      You just wait till that wrecking ball tax comes slithering up in the long grass and strangles you like a cobra ... then we'll see who ends up on a burger bun with lettuce, beetroot and a dollop of something bernaise.

      Damn I've just trodden in another of your vile plots.

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    8. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Pigs! Don't go bringing pigs into it. The late night train to Woolibuddha is chockers with them, snorting and behaving abominably every single night.

      I jam my ipod into my ears and tap away on my smart phone sending faux messages to non-existent Facebook friends but they pay no heed whatsoever to my subtle hints, grunting their appalling grammar right in my face.

      Seriously, how much can one say about the deteriorating standard of slop served up on Big Brother?

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    9. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      AKN, duude! regrettably, i have no word of the one who goes by the name Ootz . i miss his avatar and the good sense he brought when he came along. so, as we know, all considered, i too hope its going well him. he told me, at the time of its closing, to look for LP tragics over at "Cafe Conversations", but, though i cruise by there from time to time since then, i haven't seen him, or any of that old crowd, there. some we know are occasionally at Quiggen's place or Crikey, but that's about it as far as i can tell. and Ormonde, i know now, can be counted on to give 'em heaps here & at Crikey. i miss LP - i look in vain for some place that has the same verve, contemporaneity, passionate dialogue & policy favourable to pseudonymous commenters. yrs, a.v.

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    10. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to alfred venison

      So that's his plan is it? To be stacking out my first class carriage with a block booking of his fellow travellers hauled in from steerage!!!

      Welcome aboard Monsieur V ... now just sit yourself over there and under no circumstances attempt to make eye contact or engage in small talk. I am immune to your smooth tongued blandishments and remember, lest you make even a twitch towards chatter, I am armed to the teeth and will repel any who seek to invade my privacy.

      My carriage crawls with folks who have ideas well beyond their station.

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  12. Mathew Carter

    PhD Candidate at University of Western Australia

    Thank you, Esther, an interesting piece to read that has generated some thought-provoking discussion. Unfortunately your article remains locked behind a paywall at the Journal site, is it available elsewhere to read?

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  13. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    Pre FM I have had some very enjoyable chats on public transport - well on the morning commute anyway. Did not happen on the way home - my work then in public housing meant I had had enough of public interaction by home time.

    Now, given my limited energy levels, I retain my energy levels by creating the "do not approach" bubble.

    However, an interesting article with a list of responses even more entertaining.

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  14. Ian Tait

    logged in via Facebook

    There is also the physical arrangement of seating and potential for eye contact that influences conversation.

    I am old enough to remember when long distance trains were arranged in compartments with seats facing each other. In this situation it was almost impossible to avoid eye contact and at least an introductory greeting and often longer conversation ensued.

    In modern planes and buses where seats all face one way it is easy to avoid eye contact and there the necessity of acknowledging someone else in your "space".

    In many Sydney trains the seats are reversible, I beleive for those people that like to face forward. It is interesting to note those who are comfortable to leave pairs of seats facing each other and those that always reverse the seat so they cannot establish eye contact.

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  15. Francis Ivory

    Student

    Hi, I am a design student working on a project aiming to improve people's journeys and experiences of travelling on public transport. This conversation interests me, as I was thinking of designing a system to help people be more sociable on public transport, to ease the boredom and negative connotations associated with travelling.

    However, from reading the posts on here, it seems that not everyone wants to talk to strangers, and that the boundries people create are for a reason.

    What I am interested to hear is if anyone has any suggestions for a design to encourage interaction, or whether this would infact be unwanted and unnecessary? Would a system where people could subtly notify others when they would welcome social interaction, and when they would want to be left undisturbed, be a good idea?

    Any opinions on this would be most welcome!

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