Writing Prompts: Social Cues

Inspired by this post over at the Monthly Mosquito, I thought I might talk about social cues, and drift into social awkwardness too, and maybe also talk about a bit of social awareness.

How about some dos and don’ts on the train?

Angela’s post referenced the tendency of some travellers to place a bag or rucksack on a neighbouring seat on a train. This is to try and deter someone from sitting next to them, and also possibly for convenience (on a long journey, the train may hold snacks, books, or other items that you want close by). Either way, the bag occupies a seat, and whilst the latter reasoning is one thing, there may come a point where the train gets busy, and you’ll have to move your luggage. At that stage, I’d like to think most people would move their bag to allow someone to sit, but I suspect some people are not inclined to give up their convenience, or their personal space, for the benefit of others.

On some level I can relate to this. I don’t especially like having strangers sit next to me on the train or on the bus. I don’t feel comfortable squeezing in next to a stranger on public transport. I value my personal space. My suspicion is that a lot of us value our personal space. However, a crowded bus or train means certain sacrifices have to be made, right? It’s common curtesy to make some room for someone to sit.

If the train is not busy, then it’s considered somewhat unusual for a stranger to park themselves in the seat next to another person, and I for one would A: not wish to some random person to join me, and B: not wish to be the random person joining someone else. I think in those instances, operating with some sort of barrier is a social signal that says ‘please leave me alone’. Despite this, some people have zero understanding of personal space, and will crowd when it’s not necessary.

Sometimes this takes a decidedly unpleasant turn for the worse. There are several stories of men choosing to sit with women travelling alone, despite plenty of room available elsewhere. Despite the presence of other social deterrents (headphones for example), these men will try to strike up unwanted conversations, and even go as far as to become sexually aggressive. In some places (such as Japan) the problem of unwanted groping has become so bad that there are now women-only carriages on some trains.

So, you might say that in these circumstances, respect can travel both ways, and relies on the situation. If a train carriage is largely empty, placing one’s bag nearby (both to ward off potential unwanted companions, and for ease of access) is fair play. Others should respect that signal. If the train gets busy, it is reasonable to expect someone to move their luggage, and make space for others to sit down. What happens if that someone does not move their bag?

Well, this is where we enter into other social conventions that are easy for someone, and uncomfortable for others. Asking someone to move their luggage is the obvious move, but this feels awkward to do for some. I for one will ask, if I have to, but it makes me feel a little anxious. The alternative is to move the bag, however that involves handling someone else’s property, and I can guarantee that is A: even more awkward and B: likely to provoke a more unpleasant reaction than asking someone to move it. No one particularly wants a stranger handling their stuff!

Social cues can be tricky. Reading people does not come naturally to everyone. I think I’m ok at it, because for the sake of my job, I have to be. However, a tendency for people to communicate by text or message has maybe blunted our ability to read and interpret social cues. There are certain instinctive elements to understanding body language and tone of voice, but we cannot use those instincts if we are talking via a screen. I wonder if this has dented younger generations, and their powers to understand certain conventions.

It’s not really related to the idea of social cues, but the other day, as I was walking home, there was a bloke walking in my direction. He had his head down, buried in his phone, and he had absolutely no awareness as to where he was going. He nearly walked into me, as he was barely walking in a straight line, and not once did he look up. How can you demonstrate any form of social awareness when you’re that absorbed in a screen?

I’m not one to complain too hard. I have my ‘screen time’. I am thoroughly aware of that. However, in a social setting, surrounded by people, I try to be aware of my surroundings and of my behaviour. I try to be polite. I don’t aim to become so wrapped up in my devices that I am unaware of what’s going on around me. That said, if there are spare seats around on the train or bus, please don’t sit next to me!

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