In high school, my best friend and I would practice making the “crazy person face” to deter people from sitting next to us when we traveled alone. My mother has always told me that people will always sit next to young women on planes and trains because they feel they have a right to get all up in our personal space. “Wait until you get older; they’ll respect you more,” she would tell me. For some reason, the majority of people are more comfortable sitting next to women on public transportation. I’m certainly no exception! Ever since I was an unaccompanied minor, my mothers words – “Find some nice lady to sit next to” – resonate with me to this day if there are no seats available alone.
Slate writer Katy Waldman addresses this seating preference in her essay “On Planes and Trains, Everyone Prefers to Sit Next to Women. Lucky us.” Based on Waldman’s survey of friends and coworkers, there seems to be a pervading belief that women are less intrusive than men, therefore making them better seat-neighbors. Waldman found that there is a “belief that women won’t retaliate if disturbed, for instance, or that they are more inclined to share […] They are ‘socialized not to take up too much room,’ and are less likely to be […] ‘a talkative chatterbox’ or ‘disrespectful.’”
I know I am guilty of this bias. For some reason (some prejudice, I should say), I think that women on trains are less likely to engage me in conversation. I dread the “What are you reading?” that many men (and hardly any women) have asked me on planes. Newsflash: if I’m reading, I don’t want to chat. Thanks to Tumblr, we all know that men are probably more likely to take up space and that women will likely be more conscientious. But, of course, these are cultural expectations, not die-hard rules by any stretch of the imagination.
Waldman notes that one reason women prefer to sit next to women is to avoid getting hit on; “I probably would pick a woman in my age range with the hope she’d be less of a creeper, won’t try to talk to me or hit on me,” one woman told her.
Surprising social assumptions about women surface in Waldman’s piece: one gay man tells her of his choice to sit with women, “I assume that women are much less likely to be homophobic and be offended (perhaps to the point of aggression) by my presence than men are.”
Clearly, stereotypes about women (and men) cause commuters to flock to women. And this is discouraging and frustrating because we certainly have as much of a right to personal space as men do. Honestly, the only reason I carry a purse it to mark my territory on the train and to dissuade people from joining me.
But these societal expectations about female commuters do lend women some startling advantages when it comes to space. Waldman writes, “‘On balance I’m more likely to intrude into the armrest area if the neighbor is male,’ confessed one male coworker […] ‘I’m less aggressive about space when next to a female. I’d rather be disliked by a guy than a girl,’” reported [another].”
The important thing is that everyone recognizes that sitting next to a woman doesn’t give you a right to space or chitty-chatty time any more than sitting next to a man does. Everyone’s personal space should be respected, and we have as much of a right over ours as any guy around! And we also need to recognize that not all men are greedy and disrespectful, just as not all women are polite and accommodating. That kind of thinking doesn’t help anyone of any gender.
What do you think? Does everyone always sit next to you, welcome or not? Would you rather sit next to a woman or a man?
Thanks to Slate