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the empty seat

Like on any public transportation, an empty space on the seat next to where you are sitting is highly coveted – this has been proven with money (after all it talks) when airlines started offering “an empty seat next to you as long as it is not a full flight” as one of the benefits for being a super premier member, the elite amongst all the elites (e.g. United Airlines’ 1K members).

I take the commuter train to and fro work every day and have been intrigued by the phenomenon surrounding the “The Empty Seat” (“TES” henceforth) Syndrome; in my perverted easily-amused mind, this is an anthropological subject waiting to happen: talk about cultural and social boundaries and unwritten rules being played out here, much like what one can observe inside an elevator. Only, on the train, I have an entire hour to watch the dance between two strangers forced to sit side by side for an extended period of time, sometimes, egads, with arms and/or legs touching!

It is curious even though there is no rule on this, it does seem that people always sit by the window if they are the first to occupy a seat. This is after all good civil etiquette. However, immediately following Rule #1, Rule #2 commands, “Unless there is NO MORE empty seat on this train cart, do NOT come sit by me! Consider TES next to me only as a last resort!” Whoever breaks Rule #2 is immediately looked upon with suspicion and even alarm.

TES is subtly guarded with vehemence – just look at the purse, the briefcase, the newspaper, the magazine, the book, the shopping bag, and the McDonald’s paper bag placed on where there another person could have been sitting. This gesture murmurs loudly, “Yes, you are of course welcome to sit here, but I’d prefer if you don’t!” Some people seem to have taken TES as their god-given right: instead of the subtle act of leaving object on TES, they simply plot themselves down PAST the invisible dividing line on the two-person seat. Men tend to do this a lot, and oftentimes I am tempted to ask whether they are ready to have the conductor punch two holes on their tickets. (And I am more than ready to punch two holes on somewhere else other than their tickets… I am passionate about things that don’t matter like this…)

The most intriguing is the act of “choosing a seat” on a train that no longer has any TES left. Every single chair is occupied, with someone sitting by the window. And here you can tell roughly what kind of person each one of us is:

Health warning: Since we are NOT in B-school and I don’t work for any of the management consulting firms, the following attempt at metaphorically grouping passengers on MY train is by no means MECE. Anybody that complains, “But it’s not MECE!” will die a horrible death…

The forever conscientious: these people, mostly women (and not young), move their belongings onto their lap as soon as they see new passengers coming. But very seldom do I see people ready to 1. move their bag all the way to the floor, 2. move themselves closer to the window so as to make more space. “Please, please, please. I want to do the right thing but please don’t pick me…”

The “I have done my share so what do you want from me”: these people will continue to do whatever they are doing. They have kept their belongs relatively close to themselves so there is still reasonable space for a relatively normal-sized person to sit in TES. Maybe they really are so engrossed in the book or the scenery outside. They will simply ignore you, and not budge while you sit down.

The “Yeah I see you but I am not happy about moving my stuff”: maybe they are simply pretending that they don’t see you coming. You need to actually ask these people, “eh, excuse me…” The nicer ones would quickly move their stuff, some even apologetically. The not so nice ones will furrow their brows as if you are asking them to give you their first born. When you sit down, you are made to feel ashamed for encroaching on their carefully constructed personal space.

The “I am sitting here and you’d better not try and squeeze in beside me”: These are the aforementioned (mostly male) passengers. Their body takes up so much space, mind you, not because they are overweight, but because they do not make the attempt to “be one with the window”. They leave so little space that only a waif could possible sit by them – perhaps that is the intention… I am not sure. Though I often, as I mentioned above, wanted to confront them, I have never actually tried to sit down, afraid that they may turn out to be truly jerk-offs – They may NOT budge an inch, and I will have to suffer either the shame of getting up from a seat and moving to another seat (a questionable act on the train unless you have an excuse that EVERYBODY else could see and could easily understand…) or the agony of being squeezed into a space fit only for a waif, for an entire hour!

Tomorrow, I will blog about the agonizing thought process of when I choose a seat on the train back: So many choices, so little time…

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