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Culture & Religion

Why Americans Seek Social Isolation in Public Places

As urban populations continue to grow, we increasingly lead our anonymous lives in public. That results in people employing some interesting strategies to avoid interacting with strangers. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Ironically, Americans seek out social isolation in public places, particularly on public transport networks like bus and metro routes, says a new study of social norms. The study, carried out by Esther Kim from Yale University, took the researcher on bus trips across the country for three years, culminating in an assessment of how we deal with strangers in public. “Kim found that the greatest unspoken rule of bus travel is that if other seats are available you shouldn’t sit next to someone else. As the passengers claimed, ‘It makes you look weird’. When all the rows are filled and more passengers are getting aboard, the seated passengers initiate a performance to strategically avoid anyone sitting next to them.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The objective of not sitting next to anybody changes drastically when the driver announces that the bus is full, changing from sitting alone to sitting next to a ‘normal’ person. “Kim found that race, class, gender and other background characteristics were not key concerns for commuters when they discovered someone had to sit next them. They all just wanted to avoid the ‘crazy person.'” As urban populations continue to grow, we increasingly live our anonymous lives in public. “However, avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport,” said Kim.

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