Are we losing our sense of social appropriateness? Or are transgressions more exaggerated now that we interact more frequently in the digital space where important social cues tend to be missing? Read on below the jump for an ethnographic account of my my run-in with an older man who just needed someone to talk to.
Coming home on the LIRR the other night, I managed to grab one of the remaining window seats. I prefer to sit on the inside so I don’t get bumped by the people carrying bags and packages moving in the aisle, but sometimes the inner seat can be a trap. I settled in for the ride as the train filled up, taking advantage of the fact the seat next to me was empty—though I knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. And I was right. Within a few minutes, and older Jewish man shambled up the aisle, hoisted his very heavy briefcase up on the overhead rack, and muttered loudly: “I missed this train by ten seconds last night.” I looked up in surprise because my commutes on the LIRR are fairly quiet affairs. Most people are either sleeping or trying to finish some work or reading.
Having noticed my attention, he seemed to be waiting for a response. So I said, “Wow, that’s awful.” I should have kept reading—and honestly, I knew that was the case the instant that I saw his face: he was looking for someone to talk to. Anyone would have done. I just happened to draw the straw that night. He plopped down in the seat and continued: “Oh, yeah. Isn’t that terrible? Ten seconds! Now, five minutes is a different story, but ten seconds makes you feel bad. Well, I don’t have a wife to keep track of these things, so what can you do?”
Trying to head him off, I gave him a sympathetic nod and went back to my laptop but the invitation had already been offered and he continued on—loudly. “I can’t find a nice girl to marry me. All they want is money. That’s how they’re being raised. Once they hear I’m a lawyer who makes less than $100,000.00 a year, they’re done with me. It starts when they’re young; their mothers teach them to look for men with money. They would rather be single and childless than married to me.” Wincing at his words, I thought in my head, I think I can understand why, and I’m sure a few passengers around us probably had a similar thought as well. He continued in this way for most of the trip, talking endlessly despite the fact that I made a great show of working diligently on my laptop. Finally, I cut him off explaining that I needed to transfer trains, and got up to wait by the door.
While I was waiting for the train to pull into the station, I reviewed the social cues I had used to indicate I wasn’t interested in chatting. I thought they were fairly clear signals: failure to engage in conversation being a large point, but also the busy-ness that I tried to convey. Perhaps these cues weren’t powerful enough on their own. Should I have just told him I didn’t want to be disturbed? What would you have done? I’m not sure it would have mattered—meaning that, I think he would have continued on anyway because he didn’t seem to register my non-responsiveness. And if I had plainly asked to be left alone, it might have antagonized him—and having an angry seatmate is probably worse than an over-talkative one.
Update: Rob Oakes of Apolitically Incorrect has posted a well-written response to this discussion which looks at my behavior from the POV of the older man in this scenario.