Bus Seat Politics, a Social Observation

Picture the scene.

You board a bus, pay your fare, turn from the driver and begin to choose your seat. Your preferred choice of sitting alone is unavailable, there are seats but all are next to strangers.

Photo by Luana Azevedo on Unsplash

Your palms start to sweat, you have a short amount of time to choose the right temporary travel buddy but you can’t look at each face for too long or they may notice you staring. You must keep moving up the bus or else the faces may stare at YOU, the wide-eyed weirdo stood in the aisle eyeballing everybody.

OK, it isn’t that stressful for most of us.


I sold my car a few months ago and as such have spent many hours on buses. As a self-confessed people watcher, I’ve witnessed a few in a state of panic when faced with this dilemma.

Who to Sit Next to?

Walking up the bus, the back seats are looming closer, you have to make a decision, do you sit next to the guy who is already smiling at you, the sweet looking old lady or the dude with the mohawk who’s music you can already hear from four rows away?

I believe this situation triggers a primal, judgmental subconscious decision in us.

You have to judge somebody based entirely on their appearance (unless you can smell them) before sitting down next to them for an unknown time period.

In reality, whatever choice you make won’t actually make a difference (unless you can smell the person), as nobody really talks to each other on buses anyway.

Regardless, most who board a bus will quickly scan the faces already on there in order to make a decision on where to sit.

Nonsocial Transient Behaviour

It goes without saying, if there are two free seats next to each other, the best option to take and the unspoken rule of bus travel is that you sit alone.

While planning this article, I was pleased to discover a study existed on public transport behaviour by Esther Kim from Yale University.

Esther intentionally travelled thousands of miles on public transport in order to further understand people’s behaviour when it comes to bus travel. She also studied the social aspects of sharing such a confined space with strangers. From this study, she coined the phrase ‘nonsocial transient behaviour’.

In Kim’s words, “avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport.”

The full journal can be found below;

Esther C. Kim. Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus

Esther studied both those already sat in their two-seat birth and those getting onto the bus.

Race, gender and class don’t really factor into the decision for those choosing a bus buddy so much as people’s weight (space and likelihood to smell) and those who look like a ‘crazy person’.

Always avoid the crazy person.

Esther also found that there are conscious or subconscious tactics involved in those already sat down to ensure they keep their double seat for as long as possible. These ‘tactics’ include avoiding eye contact (a favourite of mine), stretching out your legs (unavoidable at my height), placing luggage on empty seats and even staring out the window blankly so as to appear crazy.

Relieved it isn’t just me who has this issue and that my social observation isn’t the result of an overactive imagination or social paranoia, I began to wonder what it is we judge people on.

Judging People With a Glance

Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

Walking up the bus, there are so many faces. Which one is most likely to smell good, be mentally sane and most importantly, be quiet?

In 2006, Princeton psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis wrote an article entitled ‘First Impressions’ for the July issue of Psychological Science.

The premise of the experiment was to determine how long it takes for a stranger to judge a person based on looking at pictures of faces. They found that it takes just 100 milliseconds for us form an impression of somebody based on their face and the longer participants looked at photos for didn’t much effect results.

The experiment focused on five attributes - attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness - and results were measured from perceptions of faces having been shown to the subjects for 100ms, 500ms, and 1000ms. Attractiveness and trustworthiness showed the highest correlation.

Based on evolutionary psychology, Willis and Todorov predict that the ability to quickly and accurately judge trustworthiness may have evolved in humans as a survival mechanism.

When people glance at you, there could be more in it than you thought.

Who to Sit with on the Bus?

Bringing this back to our bus scenario, attractiveness or likeability are unlikely to sway a decision, nor is race, gender or class. It is trustworthiness and potential aggressiveness that will.

You have to trust somebody not to be crazy and it would be just great if whoever you sat next to didn’t start to assault you.

The reality is, I can’t tell you who to sit next to when you get onto the bus, your brain will make that decision for you quicker than you think.

So complex are people that even the everyday occurrences that happen are the result of millions of brain neurons working to alter millions of tiny circumstances which all collate into one moment.

This is why watching people is so fun and interesting, I’m embracing my period of bus travel.

I will admit, however, that I look forward to having a car again so I can choose who sits next to me in transport.