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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Subway Seat

“What makes you decide on where to sit?”
This is a question I have been meaning to ask random people on the subway. Why that particular seat? Why not the other one, or even none?

Sense of Ownership: Comfortable Rider, NYC Subway, October 2009
By taking a closer look to peoples’ facial expression and body language for choosing a seat after entering the subway, which for me is always a fun people-watching game, we can see that most people take action after taking a quick scan around the subway. Some rush to grab the first available seat that immediately catches their eye, some wait around for others to take a seat first then decide, some notice a small space between two other seated persons and somehow manage to squeeze (or even force) themselves into that space, and some even choose not to sit at all while there are a few available seats. What are the indications for such decisions and behaviors? Why do some assume that they have the right to be inconsiderate of others, force themselves to spaces and peoples boundaries, without asking or thinking twice?  

Assumed Rights: Inconsiderate Rider, NYC Subway, December 2009

But wait, the story continues even after a seat is chosen...

I am sure you have seen –if not taken such action yourself, as I have observed many times by many people, that some leave their seat, or walk to the other end of the subway car, or even walk out to the next car, once they are being approached by a ‘homeless person’ (which I in fact dislike this disrespectful phrase) performing and/or asking for money. Its fine, no need to feel guilty if you too do so –as we can categorize you with the other group of people that their personal social-standards drive such behavior. I actually once noted a family of four (good looking parents, early 30’s, with a 3 or 4 year old boy in mommy’s arms and a cute baby girl in her stroller being pushed by daddy), step into the subway, take a close look around and leave for the next subway car (decision made by the wife) just because a homeless person started speaking out loud to the crowd after simultaneously entering at the other end of the same subway car. Interesting, right?
Reality: NYC Citizen, Brooklyn, December 2009

 In contrast, we often see, not as frequent though, that some people very politely offer their seat to elderly, pregnant women, mothers carrying an infant, or someone with too heavy bags/packages. It feels nice to see how some of us could be so considerate of others and aware our surrounding.
Respected Social Values: Happy Riders, Berlin Subway, June 2010

I think our behavior and decision making in social settings, partially depends on how much we are willing to make a simple and short connection with a stranger simultaneously using the same public space, and add a personal touch to it. Regardless of how we read it (as either taking a risk or being too easy going), they too, as much as we do, have the same right of using that space to their own desire as long as everyone is respectful of each other. But, how can we define ‘respectful of each other’, when we are sharing a public space only for a short period of time, while being strangers without knowing who the other person is? Yet, by default, we all expect that everybody must have a good understanding of the most fundamental principles and values of social behavior and respect –common sense, right? Except how realistic is this expectation? How did you and I personally learn to respect these values and be considerate of others? That’s right, through our parents, family, teachers, good friends, higher education, etc. However, did we all (everyone, from all socio-economical levels) receive an equal amount of attention and education throughout life to have an equal comprehension of respecting social values? –One of the most fundamental and crucial factors for our most common behaviors in public settings. It is this inequality that results to the shaping of a society containing various socio-economical layers, with members that are individually dissimilar to each other. Even though, it plays to our advantage by creating a uniquely energetic and interactional community, neighborhood, or city, but it also directs the individuals, as well as the groups as a whole, to define a fine line of categorization between each other, as an indication of which bubble they belong to including assumptions of which spaces they have granted access and rights to.
Social Action: Locally-Organized Public Pillow Fight, Union Square NYC, April 2010

Social Attraction: "The Artist Is Present" by Maria Abramovic', Moma NYC, March 2010
Linking our story here today to my blog entry earlier this year on April 1st 2010 –“Share a Cab”...Actually Lets Rephrase That: “Rule-out the Poor Again, (that takes a look at the socio-economic justice of the “Shared-cab” program (Share a Cab) implemented by the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) and how it could changed the public ridership face of uptown NYC), the following question is raised: Would a well-supported high-society person living in a McMansion in the Hamptons of NY, or a luxury condo on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, be willing to share the same cab for 10-15minutes with a hopeful hardworking immigrant living in the dark and poorly ventilated tenement building units located in the same flattering and fashionable city of Manhattan (not even Harlem, Bronx, or Queens)? It’s a brilliant idea, as I always support novel proposals favoring our society, but while we are spending the time/energy/funds for a new plan, why not plan on implementing a new program in such way that could benefit a larger group of users or even majority members of our society, rather than catering to a particular group of users? Isn’t this type of social-injustice (sometimes even environmental injustice) considered as Classism –discrimination on the basis of social class?
Breaking a Bubble: Private Wedding/Dinner Rehearsal Planned by Hotel on Public Sidewalk, Berlin, July 2010
But maybe this Classism is just an innocent result of the education inequality that we talked about earlier. Should we just surrender to this dismantling injustice by accepting the isolation and categorization it creates, and presume that it’s inevitable? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we, as individuals living in the American/Western world, are known to living an isolated lonely life. Living a conservative, riskless, structured lifestyle has become the main principals for many assuming to have a safe and comfortable life. Why not be more spontaneous, open to making new connections, and mix-in with other NYMates –society members in general?
Public Family: Sunset Park Community Members Unite After Disaster, Brooklyn, NY, September 2010

Try turning off your iPod while riding the subway to home and let a random person start a conversation with you. Take off your Ray-Ban sunglasses while rushing through the Midtown crowd and allow a tourist to ask for directions. Rather than sitting on the same bench to read your book in Central Park every Sunday, choose a bench next to a homeless person that is people-watching. Or go have a drink one Friday night in Harlem instead of your favorite bar in the East Village. Think about all the random incidents and encounters you have had so far in life by coincidently running into an old friend, a successful businessman, or a well-known author, that have brought you unexpected and desirable future opportunities; or perhaps how you have had the chance to become a helpful link for them. We never know who we come across in our life, right?

As I always say “meeting a person is always an experience for me, because ‘everybody’ has something to say”.

Think about it, it’s true. The admired professor at Harvard, the famous Italian designer, the teenage rock-star featured in People, the best-selling New York Times author of the year, the successful restaurant owner in East Village, the responsible Target employee, the respectable train conductor, the hardworking graduate student, the out of control cab driver, the unemployed alcoholic, and even the unpleasant homeless person... they all have an interesting life story behind their cheerful or exhausted face, that if not connecting us to future opportunities, as least we can always learn a lesson or two from it. I am always intrigued by such stories, so I’ll leave you with that thought hoping to have brought out a tiny portion of the ‘risky side of you’!
One of Us, Storytellers: NYC Citizen, Manhattan, September 2010


  1. My god, Q, I love this post! It's a brilliant midnight rant (I'm assuming haha) of deep sociological insight. Never read a piece that connected subway behavior with social justice before. First, I've always been perplexed, and sometimes offended, by the idea that interaction with diverse people will help build a more equitable society, especially, as you said, if the interaction is a short while only in a public space. I'm sometimes offended because the idea assumes that difference caused by inequality, such as classism, is justifiable as long as people know what the other side feels like. A well-off person may become empathetic with a poor person, but how does the poor person improve her life by sitting next to a rich person on the subway and talking to him? The benefit is not reciprocal. They talk and then return to their own lives, with the rich person mildly emotionally moved for a few minutes. I see it largely as an insult to marginalized people because the idea is similar to the ubiquitous "awareness campaigns" that you see everywhere about every kind of issue that caters mostly to privileged people. As long as Americans can walk through a slum in India and as long as a doctor can hear the struggles of a janitor, the world can keep moving on as if equality has been attained. This is why I often believe that the argument that public spaces promotes diversity and inclusion is a sham because it only serves to make well-off people feel less guilty, but it ultimately has not improved the lives of the disenfranchised.

    On the other hand, I totally understand and have experienced how sharing stories can create a more equitable society through empathy. Like you said, class creates social exclusion and isolation. Sharing stories and spaces in the public can break down walls and help us see that we are all part of the human family and that we need to help raise each other to reach a good quality of life. Seeing and communicating with the other in person can help us soften our hearts and empathize, which can dramatically lead to social policies that do help marginalized people.

    Second, where do you think that modern, urban people get such an introverted personality from? I'm pretty introverted and I don't care to interact with strangers in the public, not because I'm afraid, but because I really do enjoy my mp3 player and reading my book more. But I also think that maybe this introversion is not as simple as a personality trait, but rather a trait that belongs to the larger society in general due to some environmental factors. For example, people always say that New Yorkers are tougher. This is a personality trait that applies to most people of a social/geographic group. Do you think that the lack of interaction in public spaces is a social problem, an individual personality trait, or somewhere along the spectrum between those two theories?

  2. Great, keep up the good work!