The bonds of strangership: How our brains work while we ride the bus

Originally published at

(Graphic by Austin Yao)

(Graphic by Austin Yao)

Don’t talk to strangers. It’s perhaps the most common warning spewed from children’s shows, school presentations, and parents. Growing up, we begin to make our own judgments on people we don’t know but there’s still a sense of uncertainty towards strangers.

This uncertainty forms a set of social guidelines for how to behave in public spaces, and the bus is no exception.

The unspoken rules of taking the bus are based on our innate social behaviours to disengage with strangers.

It’s common knowledge not to sit next to someone on your way to school if another free seat is available. Putting in your headphones as soon as you see the OC Transpo bus coming or taking out your phone is a common, easy way to look occupied. But what is so terrible about these casual social interactions? Ever wonder why you have such a strong need to avoid others on the bus?

IPods and blank stares

For two years, Esther Kim, a sociology PhD student at Yale University travelled around the United States by Greyhound bus trying to find the answer to these questions. She published her findings in a study entitled Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus in 2012.

Equipped with emergency contacts at close hand and extensive research on the dangers of the bus system, she said she went in with a “stigmatized, negative perspective” on the bus.  Observations however, sent her in a different direction.

“People are trying to avoid each other,” Kim said. “Children are taught not to talk to strangers and it has become embedded in our culture.”

In her study, she explored the “active effort” people put into disengaging with others. Kim challenged the theory of Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, who believed people demonstrate “civil inattention that is almost respectful” on the bus.

Kim said it is not respect that causes this insociability.

“Where nonsocial transient behavior takes place, respect is not a concern. People do not disengage to respect other people’s space, but rather because they prefer to be invisible,” she wrote in her study.

“Individuals are more deliberate and active to remain unnoticed—they do not want to acknowledge the presence of others and they do not want others to acknowledge them,” she wrote.

During her two years on the road, Kim said she took part in casual conversation but let the talking arise naturally.

She noted it was not until all 23 rows were filled that people would begin sitting next to each other.

Loretta, a 19-year-old Indiana University student Kim mentions in her study, told Kim she knew “all the moves to keep her adjacent seat empty.” These included avoiding eye contact, blasting an iPod while sitting in the aisle seat, or giving people blank stares, “which makes you look crazy,” Kim said Loretta told her.

Kim described this as the “symbolic shield of privacy,” observing it was very common in bus passengers, but maybe not as consciously performed as Loretta.

It was from experiences like this that Kim began creating a list of methods illustrating how and why people avoid one another on the bus. The main points, she said, include the uncertainty of strangers, bus delays and aggravation, and physical and psychological exhaustion.

Although Kim personally didn’t experience any extreme negative or dangerous situations, she said that’s not to say they don’t happen.

When rules are broken

Even though there are unspoken codes of conduct on a crowded public space like a bus, we all know the awkwardness that comes with breaking them. Maybe you’ve accidentally landed in someone’s lap or touched someone’s hand without meaning to. Everyone grimaces in embarrassment and moves on. But what happens when the rules are more disruptively broken?

Sanita Fejzic, a Carleton graduate, was struck in the face with a bottle on an OC Transpo bus when she was in her teens.

“It was New Year’s Eve and we were bussing downtown and a young girl came on the bus with a bottle of vodka. I don’t remember exactly what happened because I lost a bit of memory,” said Fejzic.

“I collapsed, there was a lot of blood and I was taken to the hospital.”

Fejzic, who now travels by bus daily with her two-year-old son, said her negative experience didn’t affect her trust and gratefulness to the service the bus provides.

“Any experience you have in life is not a reflection of that experience but it’s also an expression of your attitude and outlook,” she said. She said the incident she experienced “could’ve happened anywhere.”

As a bus traveler for over a decade, Fejzic said she has had many conversations with strangers on the bus, but recognizes that the purpose of the bus is not to make new friends.

“It’s not a social experience it’s an individual experience, getting from A to B,” she said. “The behavior that I have on the bus is always friendly. I don’t connect with everyone most of the time because that’s not what it’s for.”

With a toddler, Fejzic said people are more likely to be interactive in engaging in communication.

“Children have a magnetic field that attracts smiles . . . they take away your inhibition,” she said.

“I’m conditioning my son to understand the social rules that come with taking the bus. I have to tell him: you have to be quiet, don’t disturb or sing. I am teaching him in a public place, this is how you behave.”

In her study, Kim talks about how each public space has its “own set of norms, routines and unspoken rules of conduct.”

These are the very societal boundaries Fejzic is teaching her son.

“It’s too bad that he’s being conditioned that way,” she said. She agreed with Kim that many social rules on the bus are unspoken, and said various levels of communication are also unspoken.

“There’s different ways of engaging in conversation, you can have a pleasant smile, a nod, or just saying ‘hi’ while you’re moving. That’s a form of communication, it’s just more subtle on the bus,” Fejzic said.


Mervyn Horgan, Secretary of the Canadian Sociological Association and professor at Guelph University, described this subtle contact as the “mutual agreement” associated with “strangership.”

“We have an agreement not to disrupt one another, of course we could exchange common courtesy but that to me demonstrates that we have a shared interpretation of public space,” Horgan said.

“Strangership refers to a relationship characterized by indifference.”

On the bus, along with other places of mobility, Horgan said there is a “normative commitment to solidarity,” wherein it is understood that passengers typically do not interact, which is why accidental moments of interaction become so awkward.

“Technology has facilitated the personal distractions we can use to perform this indifference to others. But the idea of there being a strategy of demonstrating indifference in situations where humans are packed together has existed as long as we’ve had social forms,” he said.

A hundred years ago, Horgan said people would read newspapers and books on the bus as it was never a place for socialization, regardless of the role of technology.

“You always have to be busy in order to avoid that awkward contact with someone else,” said Brina Rozman, second-year psychology student at Carleton and daily bus traveler.“I won’t go out of my way to make conversation with people,” she said.

Kim said through her two years traveling by Greyhound bus, as well as experiences on the city bus, technology has played a significant role in perpetuating isolation in public places.

“We’re creating this sphere around us that already cuts people off I think that creates that culture of avoiding people,” she said.

Maggie Williams, a second-year Carleton student, said she notices people making a conscious effort to avoid each other on the bus, and she tries to respect their efforts.

“If there’s an empty seat, you always go for that empty seat. I usually try to sit alone because sometimes I feel like I’m uprooting someone else if I sit beside them,” she said.

“Technology makes it easier to go on the bus because you don’t have to talk to people, there’s no need for communication.”

This “active disengagement,” Kim wrote in her study, is due to a “fear of potential danger, physical exhaustion, and confinement in a small space without privacy.”

Kim said although she didn’t go through any dramatic experiences, she collected hours of observations demonstrating the unspoken rules of taking the bus, and this collection became a study in itself.

Not talking to strangers is one of the social guidelines we mutually understand the moment we step on the bus without ever having to say a word, Kim explained. And whether rules are meant to be broken or not, appropriate social behavior exists in public spaces and for the most part, these kinds of rules are ones we subconsciously follow.

“When I was analyzing my data I kept thinking all the things I wanted to write about, how dangerous the Greyhound buses are, nothing like that came out,” she said. “I was a little bit disappointed, not that danger didn’t happen, but that I had nothing.”

The most surprising part of the project, she said was recognizing that what she’d thought was “nothing” was, in fact, a fascinating look into human behavior.

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