Are you practicing civic inattention?

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Public transit can get us where we want to go, but can it teach us about our society and ourselves?

Imagine you're on the subway, and the guy across the aisle is staring at you. You feel it first, a strange hot feeling and when you do finally look up, sure enough, there he is. Your initial reaction is to look away, to break the eye contact. Then you look back, hoping it was a coincidence but there he is: still staring.

Maybe you have something gross on your face and, like a spectator at a car crash, he just can't look away. Maybe he's not looking at you, just zoning out in your general direction. Maybe he is a crazed lunatic and has picked you out as his next victim. Or maybe, he is a behavioral psychologist who has chosen you as a research subject.

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Indeed, for psychologists looking to study the way people interact with each other, the subway or public transit system is an ideal laboratory. As sociologists M.L. Fried and V.J. De Fazio explained:

The subway is one of the few places in a large urban center where all races and religions and most social classes are confronted with one another and the same situation.

In fact, researchers have taken an interest in public transit as a social space since the earliest modern systems were established. German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in 1912 that, "before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another." Since then, our experience on the morning train, the evening bus, in the city and in the suburbs, has changed the way we interact in public.

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In the 1970s a new ritual, dubbed civil inattention, was defined as the curious behavior of acknowledging a fellow passenger's presence, but not closely enough that it made him feel "a target of special curiosity or design." Staring, obviously, violates this tacitly accepted convention and studies have shown that people respond more positively to requests made from questioners that do not stare first than those that do.

Our stress levels, too, influence the way we interact with one another on public transport. Your stress level increases the longer you are in transit. Crowding also increases passenger stress. Not making a change reduces your stress. It may seem obvious but these subtle shifts in the way we feel about ourselves change how we treat others around us. On the subway and the bus this is often manifested by shifting elbow and hand positions and the frequency of casual contact.

The most interesting idea to emerge from this research, however, is the realization that the transit system is not a vapid network of person containers. Though we may bury ourselves in our books or zone out with our headphones, we cannot remove the emotion, the community, the excitement that emerges anytime a group of people form; even if they are simply commuting.