Wednesday, April 13, 2011

At my most alluring

There was an article a while back in the NYT about how, if you're a black man in the US, dressed however professionally, no one will sit next to you on a commuter train in a white area. I must be whiter than whiter than white, or something, but I have the opposite problem: everybody, but everybody, wants to sit next to me on the Paris bus. There can be empty seats next to other people that are closer to the doors. Empty seats next to other empty seats. Facing front, even. Doesn't matter. People make a beeline for the seat next to the one I'm in. It doesn't matter if I have lots of bags with me and need to adjust those to make room. The seat next to mine is never empty for long.

While it's easy enough to figure out what the NYT writer was experiencing - hmm, black, in the US, might it have been... racism? - I'm finding my bus situation, though of course far less upsetting than racism, far more mysterious. I'm by no means the whitest person riding public transportation in Paris, nor am I the smallest. The latter is sometimes the case in NY, which is why, when the empty seat next to me on public transportation back home inevitably fills, I'm not that baffled. I'd think that those with racist tendencies would not be inclined to park themselves next to someone as non-Gallic-looking as I am, but that the occasional riders wishing to make a PC point would opt for someone more of-color, veiled, or both.

This aside, I tend to think I give off an air of unapproachability in public, even when not intending to, honed from... years spent riding subways and buses in big cities. People do not gravitate to me in this way in other public situations. So, what is it, and how can I make it stop?


Anonymous said...

People tend to sit next to attractive people; I guess you will have to make yourself less attractive.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Nice idea, but attractive people also tend to, well, attract wherever they go. My appeal seems to be largely specific to public transportation.

Sheera said...

I don't know about Paris, but in Chicago I tend to find the least sociopathic-looking human, invariably ending up right behind one of those Greyhound cannibals (remember that?). One time the bus broke down (the 55!), and said crazy was talking about stabbing everyone...everyone on the bus! Which brings me to my maybe point, perhaps you don't project aloofness; perhaps you seem safe, after all.

Though I still think anon. might have something. People who aren't necessarily "single&ready2mingle" like to check others out on public transport. It's a nice way to play out some fantasies or live vicariously or do anything but just travel from a to b!

Must go shower now! Must.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Blogger-eaten comment from "Stendhal":

I think you had your finger on it with your "air of unapproachability."

If the objective is to not be disturbed en route, sitting next to a person who appears non-crazy, well-groomed (read: not smelly), and unapproachable seems ideal.

This strategy even yields a positive expectation against an empty seat on a busy line (high probability of adjacent seat being filled * moderate probability of unpleasant seat-filler = negative expectation).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


OK, I just Googled "Grayhound cannibals." Eek. But yes, what you say re: seeming safe makes sense. Granted, unlike the 55, the dorm-to-library bus is filled with frightening people only if, for example, you find yourself wondering what little old ladies did during the Vichy years. The Paris crazies tend to be sitting with a bottle of wine on the sidewalk, and only occasionally make it onto the bus. Which is actually strange, given that, unlike in NY or Chicago, bus tickets are legally but not practically necessary for getting on the bus.


Good points. I guess what I need to do is smile at people as they get on the bus, greet them with a hearty, "Bonjour!", and watch as they run screaming in the other direction.

Britta said...

I have that problem on public transportation in the US. People *always* sit next to me, even if there are other vacant seats (I've sat at almost the back, and have had people literally walk past an entire bus of empty aisle seats to sit next to me). I try to look unfriendly, but it really doesn't work. I also get approached for directions all the time, and panhandlers, and basically any other time people need something from a random stranger.

In terms of race, I consciously try not to avoid sitting next to black men on a bus, even if it occasionally makes me uncomfortable, because I don't want to contribute to making someone feel like they are being avoided based on their race. I also have a real dilemma when the only seat left is next to a homeless person. I really hate sitting next to smelly people, and the thought of my clothes touching theirs grosses me out, but I also think it's extremely rude to stand rather than sit if there's an empty spot. If the person looks really smelly, I usually stand, if the person just looks off-putting for other reasons that don't look dangerous or completely unhygienic, I generally sit. I do on occasion encounter the problem that a white woman choosing to sit next to a black man is so rare, people sometimes read it as significant and assume I want to be hit on, which is uncomfortable. I try to link taking the seat with looking aloof, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

Another big bus dilemma is, if you do end up sitting next to said undesirable seat mate, and the bus clears out, do you move to a more vacant seat? On the one hand, that seems rude. On the other, it also seems weird in an empty bus to be sitting right next to someone, especially if you don't want to be next to them in the first place.

Britta said...

Oh, P.S. no advice how to make this stop, obviously, but if you figure out a way, let me know.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I feel like your case is less of a mystery, because you actually are of whiter than white extraction, and thus precisely the person someone who wants to avoid sitting near "ethnics" would head towards, especially in a city as racially, uh, tense as Chicago (at least when I lived there...). This might also tie in with why you get approached off-transport as well, something that happens to me occasionally but not more than it does to others.

My desire to sit on transportation is great enough that I go for the closest empty seat (on the train), or on the bus, a seat at the back that seems like it will provide me with extra space for at least a time, where I won't be trapped behind a lot of people when my stop comes, etc. I can't say I'm generally aware of thinking about the race of those I'm sitting closest to, but given the above-mentioned constraints, whatever racial anxieties/PC inclinations might be buried in my subconscious, they don't get to express themselves. On the rare occasions I'm not simply obeying some preset plan re: seat arrangements, I'll pick sitting next to a woman over a man, and someone small/legs not spread/without lots of bags over someone who, between self and person, has not left the seat next to them partially occupied.

I'm also probably insufficiently wary of sitting next to The Smelly, and once, on a bus in Brooklyn, had the unfortunate experience of a man with wet pants (no, not from rain) falling backwards just about onto my lap. But as a matter of principle, I think it's totally OK and PC and wise to avoid sitting next to people covered in filth.

Re: the move or not dilemma, I vote move, because I don't like being at the window seat on a mostly-empty bus, with someone next to me in the aisle seat and not budging. If I knew they were doing this, for example, to make a PC point about their willingness to sit with a Jew or an American or who knows, I'd still wish they'd consider being progressive in another way instead.

Britta said...

That's interesting. Do you think people care about shades of whiteness where they would seek out a seat from a blonde woman before a brunette? I always assumed anyone sufficiently not threatening, e.g. Asian women, would have similar experiences.

In terms of black males etc. I wouldn't say I seek out sitting next to them, but I try to consciously not avoid it, e.g. by walking past a black man in order to sit next to a white woman. I do make exceptions, as in if a black man has a "don't sit next to me" look or is doing the leg spread, I usually won't sit down, unless it is absolutely the last seat on the bus. If it's equally convenient, I will almost always choose to sit next to a woman rather than a man, or a professionally dressed person etc.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It's not necessarily brunette vs blonde, but whiteness is, of course, subjective. A brunette who looks ethnically ambiguous might set off anxiety alarms re: whichever group (Latinos, Algerians, Jews, a particular subset of Asians) has the "in my country there is problem" set concerned.

Anonymous said...

Pheromones? Cologne? Good point about people wanting to sit next to a petite woman in the U.S. Getting to be rarer than ever to find a person who only takes up one seat (or less). JM