Evaluating the Power of Social Cues in Public Encounters

Are we losing our sense of social appropriateness? Or are transgressions more exaggerated now that we interact more frequently in the digital space where important social cues tend to be missing? Read on below the jump for an ethnographic account of my my run-in with an older man who just needed someone to talk to.

Coming home on the LIRR the other night, I managed to grab one of the remaining window seats. I prefer to sit on the inside so I don’t get bumped by the people carrying bags and packages moving in the aisle, but sometimes the inner seat can be a trap. I settled in for the ride as the train filled up, taking advantage of the fact the seat next to me was empty—though I knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. And I was right. Within a few minutes, and older Jewish man shambled up the aisle, hoisted his very heavy briefcase up on the overhead rack, and muttered loudly: “I missed this train by ten seconds last night.” I looked up in surprise because my commutes on the LIRR are fairly quiet affairs. Most people are either sleeping or trying to finish some work or reading.

Having noticed my attention, he seemed to be waiting for a response. So I said, “Wow, that’s awful.” I should have kept reading—and honestly, I knew that was the case the instant that I saw his face: he was looking for someone to talk to. Anyone would have done. I just happened to draw the straw that night. He plopped down in the seat and continued: “Oh, yeah. Isn’t that terrible? Ten seconds! Now, five minutes is a different story, but ten seconds makes you feel bad. Well, I don’t have a wife to keep track of these things, so what can you do?”

Trying to head him off, I gave him a sympathetic nod and went back to my laptop but the invitation had already been offered and he continued on—loudly. “I can’t find a nice girl to marry me. All they want is money. That’s how they’re being raised. Once they hear I’m a lawyer who makes less than $100,000.00 a year, they’re done with me. It starts when they’re young; their mothers teach them to look for men with money. They would rather be single and childless than married to me.” Wincing at his words, I thought in my head, I think I can understand why, and I’m sure a few passengers around us probably had a similar thought as well. He continued in this way for most of the trip, talking endlessly despite the fact that I made a great show of working diligently on my laptop. Finally, I cut him off explaining that I needed to transfer trains, and got up to wait by the door.

While I was waiting for the train to pull into the station, I reviewed the social cues I had used to indicate I wasn’t interested in chatting. I thought they were fairly clear signals: failure to engage in conversation being a large point, but also the busy-ness that I tried to convey. Perhaps these cues weren’t powerful enough on their own. Should I have just told him I didn’t want to be disturbed? What would you have done? I’m not sure it would have mattered—meaning that, I think he would have continued on anyway because he didn’t seem to register my non-responsiveness. And if I had plainly asked to be left alone, it might have antagonized him—and having an angry seatmate is probably worse than an over-talkative one.

Update: Rob Oakes of Apolitically Incorrect has posted a well-written response to this discussion which looks at my behavior from the POV of the older man in this scenario.

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18 responses so far

  • Jack says:

    This is why I keep my earbuds on (in?) even after the battery is dead. And I avoid eye contact with people who look eager to start a conversation.

    • kdcosta says:

      I usually have something to read, and I knew I was in trouble when I caught his eye. I might not have minded as much if he hadn't been so vitriolic.

      • Annabel says:

        If he was really vitriolic then you were right not to take the direct approach.

      • Jack says:

        I once had a fellow passenger who insisted on starting conversations even while I was reading a book and had earbuds (with music) in both ears. She gave up after a few short tries, and finally asked me whether the train would be driving in this direction for the entire trip (!), because she had issues with not facing the direction of travel. True or not, she got the staff to seat her with a new victim.

  • Annabel says:

    I don't think we're losing our cues of social appropriateness or perceiving transgressions more acutely. The people (especially in a place like New York) who sigh and mutter loudly in the hope of finding someone to talk at are already demonstrating a lack of social appropriateness from the outset. You gave him all the opening he needed the minute you made eye contact and verbally responded.

    I think you need to be serenely self-confident to pull that off the direct approach. If you say you don't want to be disturbed in a timorous way then that sort of person might very well get huffy and keep going on and on. Even if you can pull it off, I would avoid it with anyone that seems the least bit drunk or crazy and just get away from them even if it means having to stand the rest of the way.

    If you don't want/need to give up your seat and don't feel like the direct approach will work for whatever reason, the best thing to do is put on headphones, close your eyes and pretend not to hear. Or decide to be amused rather than annoyed and see it as an opportunity for field study.

  • tawaen says:

    Have you tried pretending your cell phone is vibrating and you have an urgent call/text? And have to (pretend to) answer it? Sometimes the interruption of their stream of consciousness rambling for a few minutes is enough to spare you from further interaction. Sometimes not.

    Although I have to say (as a woman travelling alone), creepy, inappropriate verbal diarrhea from strange men on the Metro is much preferred to random guys trying to strike up a conversation with me. It always feels like they're skeevily hitting on me, no matter how respectful and nice they seem. Actually, it's worse when they're nice and respectful, because then I start to feel bad about suspecting them even though it's a self-preservation mechanism.

  • Hi,
    I'm from the UK. I grew up in rural Northern Ireland to be specific. Perhaps, this is why my assessment of this situation is different to yours.

    Real life isn't like virtual life. You are physically sharing the same space, and I think it would be nice to acknowledge the humanity of the person who sat beside you. Is your time really so precious? What was so awful about the conversation with this person that you had to get up from your seat and stand (where I guess you couldn't work at all) by the door.

    In fact, I was so taken aback by the tone of this post that I wondered if it wasn't a spoof. Have we really become so distant from each other than we can no longer tolerate the eccentricities that add value to our lives? Is work so all pervasive that even when we are in a public space we feel that anyone disturbing this must have no sense of social rules? Has civility died?

    Anne Marie

    • kdcosta says:

      Hey Anna Marie. Thanks for chiming in - I really appreciate the cross cultural viewpoint on this.

      You ask:
      "Is your time really so precious? What was so awful about the conversation with this person that you had to get up from your seat and stand (where I guess you couldn’t work at all) by the door."

      My time is valuable to me, but if the conversation had gone differently, I might have been willing to talk to him. However, he was loud, abrasive, and the topic of his conversation was offensive--not just to me, but I imagine to a number of Jewish girls who were riding the train. I didn't give you line-by-line repeat of his monologue, but he was rather abusive. Since I actually needed to change trains, I don't think I lost anything by getting up a few minutes earlier and removing myself from an unpleasant situation.

      There are definitely certain behavioral codes that are in place for LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) commuters. For example, loud cell phone talkers are not tolerated. This isn't just enforced by ticket collectors, but by passengers themselves who will shush loud talkers, and ask them - sometimes nicely, sometimes not - to be quiet. There are codes regarding seating arrangements. There are codes about using portable music devices. None of these are written as laws, but they are changing to reflect the times. And it's telling that they're enforced by riders because it shows the ways that they are actually shaping their environment.

      I don't think civility has died, but it is changing. And the social web has greatly contributed to the changes that are taking place. Increasingly, here in New York City, there are signs of the ways the virtual is encroaching on the real. For examples, see here: http://www.anthropologyinpractice.com/search/label/digital%20media.

      Your perspective on this is really interesting, and a reminder that there is no uniform social code.

      Thanks for writing in!

    • physioprof says:

      There's another big difference between rural Northern Ireland and New York City besides "cultural norms", and it's got nothing to do with having "become so distant from each other than we can no longer tolerate the eccentricities that add value to our lives".

      There are so many people packed so densely in NYC and environs, that if you were to embrace all the eccentricities of all the people around you seeking your attention, you'd never have a single moment alone with your own thoughts. The rude people in NYC are the ones who selfishly exploit the natural human tendency to respond to social overtures as a means of intruding on others' solitude, not those who wish to be left alone with their thoughts.

      Although nice try with judging things you apparently know nothing about.

    • ewe-man says:

      I grew up in the rural US, and we spend a lot of time acknowledging the humanity of strangers. I now live in a more urban area, and visit very large cities regularly.

      What's galling to me, Anne Marie, is that this guy sat down and expected to be able to engage a woman's attention and have her sympathize with all the vitriol he was spewing about women. His actions--in the US, anyway--reek of entitlement to someone else's time and energy, just by virtue of being female and there. I don't live in New York, and in my smaller city 'lonely' older men have followed me on solo runs, begging me to chat with them because they just want someone to listen to their problems--they're not going to hurt me or anything, they promise, so why do I have to be so mean and ignore them?

      In DC a man once chased me down the street from the Metro station I'd just exited because he thought I'd been 'bitchy' when I politely turned down ('No thank you, but good luck') his sales pitch for a local paper. These are just two out of many, many stories I have.

      It's all very well to discuss our 'shared humanity' but the problem with men who behave like this (and in my anecdotal experience in multiple locales in the US, it's never been women--nor do my male friends experience similar levels of persistent expectation from older women) is that they're not willing to recognize my autonomy and respect *my* shared humanity by respecting my social cues and my wish not to engage with them.

  • kdcosta says:

    @ Annabel and @Tawaen - I've both seen those tactics employed and used them myself. Unfortunately, in this case, I really had provided the opening he was looking for. It just caught me completely by surprise. And I did get something out of it--a blog post! (And he got to vent.) So all in all not to bad!

  • Christina Pikas says:

    This guy was abusive and unpleasant - so that's different - but sometimes there are lonely old guys who just need a human to talk to. They show up at the public library and chat (interminably, it seems) with the reference and circulation staff. They show up at the grocery store and chat with the check out clerks. My dad used to encourage me to let old men open the door for me and to give them a cheerful smile - he thought they might kick the bucket and remember me in their wills. New York is different and this guy was different... but I'm kind of with Anne Marie on this one.

  • stripey_cat says:

    I'm another Brit (born northern, living in the south), and I'd find such a conversation to be beyond the bounds. Not that he spoke to you when you made eye contact, but that he kept going when you were clearly doing something else.

  • Sam (New Yorker) says:

    For the folks arguing for the human connection here, you're definitely missing the point of the post. The point is that for whatever reason Krystal did not want to engage with the man. It had nothing to do with the value of her time or being cheerful or making the human connection in real life. This was about whether this guy could pick up on her signals, and he couldn't. Maybe he just wanted to talk, but his comments were inappropriate. Her question is how could she have made it clearer that she was not interested in discussing his issues. I'm not sure I have an answer, but she certainly has a right not to participate in a conversation that disturbs her.

    I will agree that I don't necessarily think this is a digital thing - but there are tons of oblivious people floating around. Like the ones who hit you with their giant backpacks on the subway or stop in the middle of the sidewalk to check their email on their smart phones.

    Good post and an interesting read. Keep writing!

  • LovleAnjel says:

    Getting up & changing seats is really the only way to deal with someone like that (which is why I try to sit on the outside of the seats on the L, even though I get bumped by people, I can make a quick getaway). If there is another seat available, just make something up and move to it. Say your seat is wet. Or that you smell something funny. Or you feel some motion sickness coming on. Or just say "excuse me" and walk away. You don't owe a belligerent stranger your attention, time or pleasantries.

    I do see Anna Marie's side of this-- if someone truly just needs someone to talk to, I put down my book and listen. Two incidents stand out-- a woman with an O2 tank every else on the bus avoided (turns out she had no family or counselor and her insurance was resisting paying for her treatment), and a crying drunk man who it turned out had been out on a bender the prior week when his grandmother died and had been prevented from attending the funeral by his family. People in need of positive human contact, the latter giving off the vibe of a person desperate enough to harm themselves (he kept looking at the tracks). I know I didn't solve any problems and not everyone is comfortable being random counselor, but to me 30 minutes is a small sacrifice to make under those circumstances.

  • [...] while I was looking through Twitter, I came across an extremely interesting blog post by Dr. Krystal D’Costa, the author of the Urban Ethnographer.  (Though perhaps not for the [...]

  • Katherine says:

    Not really sure why several people here think someone spewing bigoted opinions about a group of people deserves to be given the time of day, let alone an enthusiastic conversational partner. Glad you got a blog post out of it at least!

  • Dustin says:

    "Should I have just told him I didn’t want to be disturbed? What would you have done?"

    Stating simply, assertively, and politely that you were busy was the appropriate response. If you were genuinely concerned with being assaulted or otherwise having your rights violated you would not have continued to listen for as you did. Given that you did in fact make a choice to listen to him, expecting another human being to read your mind - call it social cues if you like - is asking more out of the social contract than you are entitled.

    For some perspective on why I might feel this way, I was raised in a rural environment (southeast Tennessee), possibly with "outdated" social mores (though I don't think so!), but travel widely for my work, and must use public transportation frequently. That someone not willing to verbalize their intentions (in this case, making the man leave you alone) did not have them realized is not surprising to me at all.