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Anne-Louise Quarfoth

It's after morning rush hour and you're sitting on a bus with plenty of available seats. At the next stop, someone gets on and instead of picking a bank of empty seats, he plops down right next to you. If you're like most people, this audacious seat selection will irritate you. But why do we feel this way?

Esther Kim, a graduate student at Yale University who travelled thousands of miles on Greyhound buses to explore these "unspoken rules and behaviours of commuters," published her findings in the recent issue of Symbolic Interaction.

The study reveals the strategies that passengers use to avoid each other, which Ms. Kim describes as "non-social transient behaviour."

To examine her subjects, she took multiple long-distance coach trips across the United States over a three-year period, first travelling between Connecticut and New Mexico – a trip that took almost three days – and then from California to Illinois, Colorado to New York, and Texas to Nevada.

The No. 1 unspoken commuter rule, Ms. Kim found, is that you shouldn't sit next to someone if there are other seats available. The reason? Passengers said it made you "look weird." Like a silent game of musical chairs, seated passengers will deftly avoid having to sit next to other commuters as they get on the bus or train.

"We live in a world of strangers, where public spaces feel increasingly anonymous," Ms. Kim says in a press release. "However, avoiding other people actually requires a lot of effort and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport."

Some of these avoidance tactics include placing a bag on the seat next to you, pretending to be busy or sleeping, looking through your bag and avoiding eye contact. And when we don't feel like pretending, we just put on our "hate stare" – a no-nonsense look that says, "don't bother me." When it comes to who we avoid, Ms. Kim found that race, class and gender weren't key factors that influenced behaviour. Rather, commuters were united in trying to avoid the "crazy person" – a behaviour that's driven by safety concerns.

Are you a "non-social" commuter? Do you have any tactics for avoiding other passengers?

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