The no eye-contact, bag-in-the-seat next to you, pretending to be asleep moves are ones that most savvy travelers have tried and tested. Once entering a flight, one can only pray and hope that the seat next to you isn't filled. The moment when you realize your flight is about to take off and no one is sitting next to you, is a feeling of pure contentment unrivaled by not much else.
Now you can spread your arms out, leisurely put your legs up on the seat next to you and not worry about feeling claustrophobic smooshed in between two other people in an already too-small seat. This feeling is totally normal, but why do we do it?
Esther C. Kim a Yale University doctoral student is probing that very question in a new study published in the journal Symbolic Interaction. The bag in the seat next to you move is just one of many that Kim studied and that she calls "nonsocial transient behavior." These are tactics that people use during travel to keep strangers away.
The trend among travelers to avoid contact while in small spaces like buses, trains and planes is different from the way individuals in small quarters like elevators give each other space out of respect. Kim found that the nonsocial transient behavior is more about wanting to be invisible. "You want to pretend that that person doesn't exist -- and that you don't exist to that person," said Kim to USA Today.
She adds that there is nothing wrong with trying to avoid people and that "people are just trying to protect themselves physically or mentally. They want to avoid discomfort and aggravation."
In elevators for example people politely arrange themselves in a square without eye contact or coordination, when people get off they reshuffle to give more space and privacy for others. What is interesting about nonsocial transient behavior is that "respect is not a concern," Kim wrote in the paper. "It's not about affording other people the courtesy of elbow room; instead, it's telling your neighbors "overtly not to step into [your] territory."
The study happened because Kim was studying undocumented workers and was traveling on a bus from Connecticut to New Mexico for two days in 2009. During this time she started to observe the behavior of passengers and started taking notes.