A seat apart

This is the first in a three-part series about seating and meeting.

Have you ever sat in a subway car that was nearly empty when you boarded but began to fill up as your ride continued?

If you have, you may have noticed that boarding passengers enter the subway car (or bus, or what have you) and choose their seats in a very particular way.

The first few people to enter the car will sit as far away from each other as possible. If you’re seated in the center of the car, for example, and two additional people enter, one will generally move to the far end of the car and the other will choose the opposite end.

As additional passengers enter, this pattern continues until every other seat is filled—that is, until there are no empty seats remaining except seats between two passengers already seated.

Only then—slowly, hesitantly, gingerly—will entering passengers begin to place themselves between already-seated riders. And even then, some prefer to stand and hold the hand rail rather than sit so close to someone else.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Groups of friends, for instance, tend to enter and sit together. Couples sit as closely as possible, if not physically on top of one another. And people with a lot of luggage tend to sit near the closest door, no matter what that means for proximity to others.

For the most part, though, I’ve observed this phenomenon frequently while riding the subway in Boston, and I think there must be some sort of complicated social dynamic working itself out before my eyes. For those of you more versed in social theory, perhaps what I’m noticing is elementary and has already been analyzed by some well-known study.

So humor me.

Riding the subway as frequently as I do, I’ve often wondered why it is that fellow travelers would seemingly rather do anything else before sitting down next to someone else going in the same direction. The phenomenon becomes even more pronounced when you observe that the same people are each listening to their own individual iPods or carrying on their own individual cell phone conversations or doing their best not to make (gasp!) eye contact with anyone around them.

Why the desire for isolation?

Before I get any further, I should make it quite clear that this line of questioning is not meant to be finger-pointing. I am definitely including myself in the group I’m analyzing, since I’m as much a seat-apart-sitter as the guy sitting… two seats over.

So if anything, I think I have even more of a right to explore the issue.

I know not everyone is this way. I have one dear friend, for example, who will board a bus carrying only one other passenger, sit down right next to him, and strike up a conversation.

In an all-but-empty bus.

Isn’t that wild? I mean, I don’t know about you, but my mind can hardly fathom that one. It’s gutsy, to say the least.

The fact remains, however, that most of us place a major premium upon personal space, and I continue to wonder why. It used to be that people were comfortable in very close proximity to one another. If you don’t believe me, just watch Gladiator. For that matter, watch Shakespeare in Love. In the Roman Empire, in Elizabethan England, and for all of the time in between, people in a variety of social settings were all up in each other’s stuff, and thought nothing of it.

And we can be sure that morning breath was a lot worse back then, too.

But at some point after that—and who can say when—people decided that being physically near one another was to be avoided, at least for the most part. Parties began to be seated separately at dinner, rather than at common tables. Benches in theaters, public transportation, and even stadiums came to be replaced by individual seats. Meanwhile dancing, which in former years was elaborately constructed to keep partners as far apart as possible while still touching, has now become one of the very few times when total strangers seem comfortable being intimately close.

I’m not sure whether this is a manifestation of a preoccupation with hygiene, or mental solitude, or civilization, or what…

But on some level, I think it’s a little sad.

Are we most comfortable when we’re left totally alone? A huge surge in social networking and status updates in recent years seems to suggest otherwise.

Are we afraid to be close to others? Is there an intimacy in casual physical contact that makes us uneasy? Perhaps.

Whatever it is that makes us sit a seat apart, though, I think it shouldn’t happen every day without our questioning it, at least a little bit. We should at least consider the possibility of the alternative.

And over the next few days, that’s just what I will try my best to do.


1 Comment

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One response to “A seat apart

  1. C.

    Hi James! What a delightful blog. I’m coming out of the shadows to comment because I notice and think about this phenomenon all the time. (Tip: if there are two consecutive empty seats on a not-too-crowded train, sitting in the middle is in many ways the neatest option, even if it doesn’t look comfy)

    You know, maybe it’s the surge in social networking—in the number of people we can and do keep in touch with, to whom we want to assign a nonzero portion of our time and energy—that makes us long for more and more solitude. I have a hard enough time keeping in touch with the people I desperately miss. I don’t think I have enough social energy left these days to be chatty on the T. (Though I’m sure many people are congenitally more socially energetic than I am.)

    Also, when I’m out with someone I care about, I’m usually loathe to use that time on someone / something else. Recently I was visiting a friend of mine in California, and we had just enough time to grab lunch in a crowded diner. We were eating doughnuts that looked weird enough to provoke a question from the guy sitting alone next to us. The conversation that began was more than just fluid—it was warm, genuine, and funny. But after a couple minutes I realized that my friend and I had limited time together, and that I’d rather risk seeming cold than waste our precious minutes on getting acquainted with someone I’d never see again.

    Finally, there are a lot of creepsters out there, and I feel just a bit more secure when strangers (especially of the male persuasion) make it clear that they’re not taking a particular interest in me, whatever the nature of that interest.

    Anyway, hope all is well with you, James. Thanks for all your lovely thought-provoking posts! 🙂

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