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The Art of Picking Seats

August 21, 2008

Have you ever thought about what is involved when deciding which stranger to sit next to in a public place, like on a commuter train or bus? I recently started to contemplate this after having the epiphany that strangers often pick the seat next to me last, and then nine times out of ten it’s an older, perfume-laced woman who habitually rifles through her bottomless, jangling bags. Why?

Ladies rifling through bags are common fare on the Hudson Line.

Women rifling through bags are common fare on the Hudson Line.

I would generally consider myself to be the ideal person to sit next to; I have a thin build, so I give plenty of space allowance; I often sit reading a book, so I would imagine I project quietness and little threat of intrusion; I don’t think I look like a maniac or serial killer; if I have that rare moment when I am on my cell phone, I speak in the lowest voice possible. I’m who I would want to sit next to, maybe.

Perhaps I am too inviting. In NYC, when you offer up too much people get suspicious.

I sat next to a pregnant woman my age the other day. There were plenty other vacant seats available, next to occupants of one variation or another. I can’t recall exactly what the other choices were or why I made this choice, but after I sat down, the protruding mother-to-be immediately angled herself in a way that projected disassociation, accenting the message of disassociation by flipping open her laptop to work on something. It might have been a bad idea for me anyway. She looked like she was due any minute, in which case I might be obliged to become a surrogate father and spring into action. But perhaps the biggest problem here is that I might have looked like the father of the unborn child to anyone looking our way.

A reverse psychology element could be brought into play as well. What if the pregnant woman thought I wanted to intentionally project that perception of us as a couple? What a creep I would be.

In this Facebook/MySpace/social networking age perhaps choices in “friends”, even as strangers on a commuter train, take on a categorical undertone that translates to daily life. It’s not likely to the degree I suggest here. That is, I’m not sure if people would choose to sit next to someone because the stranger fits a particular digital profile. But on a subconscious level, maybe selective association really is something that takes place.

There’s no denying it. Everyone goes through a quick assessment period when making that choice about where to sit, and who to sit next to ( or not). Here are some sample considerations:
1. Is the seat facing the right direction?
2. Is the seat close enough to the exit?
3. Does the seat provide the optimum view?

Then, once those questions are resolved, the complexity of seat partners kicks in:

4. Is the stranger eating?
5. Does the stranger have too many bags or other things that might invade space?
6. Are there kids of any age present?
7. Is the stranger talking on a cell phone?
8. Is the stranger with friends in a lively conversation?

This list could go on and on. But what about the more abstract variables?

9. Is the person too similar to me?
10. Does the stranger look nosy?
11. Is there potential for associative misperception?

Reading this, you might ask yourself “so what? Let people think what they may.” Yes, that is generally my attitude. Yet, there is a subconcious element to the art of picking seats. So, why does the jangly, older, overly perfumed lady always pick me?

Perhaps it’s just that she’s always the last one on the train, and the seat next to me is the only one left.


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