A man sat next to me on the bus the other night. The bus wasn’t crowded- there were plenty of free seats around me. It was late in the evening, the second last bus of the night. He sat next to me and, without reacting visibly in any way, I noticed all of those things. I saw the empty seats around me, I remembered that it was late and, from then on, began to take more detailed notice of my surroundings, very aware of exactly where he was, how he was sitting, where the closest other people were. I kept on reading my book- I wasn’t about to let some guy with a less than stellar grasp of social niceties keep me away from Emma Woodhouse- but I did keep a closer eye on my surroundings than I had been doing. As you do.
I’ll bet that’s familiar to most of you, right? A stranger invades your personal space in public in a minor way. You’re not scared or tremendously put out, but you do notice, and you do find yourself alert to the possibility that they might, possibly, follow the minor invasion with something a bit more substantial.
I don’t think that guy on the bus was a terrible person. I don’t think he had any idea whatsoever that he was causing me discomfort- I’d be willing to bet that he was as wrapped up in his own day and thoughts as I had been before he arrived. I was sitting in prime bus territory, after all- right up front on the top floor. The spot with most leg room and the best view of where you’re going- extra handy on a dark, damp night when it can be tricky to see where you are. And the man on the bus had every as much right to sit there as I did, regardless of what other seats were taken.
Of course, that trifle was something I connected immediately to things that hadn’t been quite so trifling. The people who sit next to you and don’t see a book or a pair of headphones (or, in one impressive incident, a pair of headphones and my best impression of someone fast asleep) as the sign to leave me alone that they are. Or, of course, the people who will sit far too close, push their leg against mine (oh, I hate this so much), or, of course, actually get gropey. That last one isn’t as common for me as I’ve heard it is for others, but it’s happened. And it’s horrible.
None of those things happened the other day, but they’re things I couldn’t but be aware of, along with the sinking feeling that if any of them did, my chance of having a quiet trip home after a long day was over.
I’ve no reason to suspect he had any idea that he was causing me discomfort. He probably had no idea that sitting next to a strange woman on the bus when there are plenty other seats around will likely make her feel a little bit penned in, uncomfortable, and wary. In a way I almost feel embarrassed to write about it at all, because he is probably a perfectly nice person who just wanted to get the best view and the best legroom. And it’s a tiny, tiny thing that didn’t make a massive impact on my evening or even stop me reading my book for more than a few seconds. A trifle, really.
That’s the problem though, isn’t it? I know not to sit next to a stranger on public transport if there are other seats available. I’ll bet that most of you who, for one reason or another, feel vulnerable in public know the same. And yet if you’ve never been in the position of feeling that way, it’s likely that it simply wouldn’t occur to you, or that the idea would seem ludicrous. It’s a public space in a city, after all- of course there are going to be strangers in close proximity! Where else would they be, am I right?
I’d love to say something like “listen, guys, heads-up: taking seats next to people when you don’t have to doesn’t just impact their legroom (although it does that, and who wants squashed legs when they can help it?). Especially if they’re women, or if they’re otherwise more physically vulnerable, you’ll likely make them feel uncomfortable in ways they’ll almost certainly not tell you about. So, eh, maybe don’t do that if you can avoid it?”.
Of course, we all know how well a “don’t do that” goes, when it comes to giving women space in public. But y’know, just in case you didn’t know, and you are up for hearing it: it’s probably a thing not to do. Even though doing it doesn’t make you a bad person. Even though you’re not going to get touchy with anyone.
If you get too close in public when there’s plenty space around, then the person you’re getting too close to is going to be on her guard. If you don’t want her alert to the possibility that you might escalate the situation? Leave her her bubble. Even if you do end up in a slightly less prized seat in the process.