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Train Territoriality

A train ride is a wonderful thing for a behavior scientist interested in territories.The things we do to protect our personal space always capture my attention.

Quite some time ago I learned from colleagues studying passenger behavior on trains that a train appears to be full long before every seat has been occupied. I am sure, every one of us can cite several personal experiences to support this. The reason why this happens is not that people require so much space for themselves, but that they appreciate some distance between themselves and other people. They use their belongings to keep others from taking a seat next to them. This method is quite effective, as it requires from other passengers to address us (a stranger), and ask us to remove our belongings, in order to be able to sit next to us (still a stranger). Social interactions with strangers are usually something we tend to avoid. As I am writing this, I sit in a compartment with six seats with another three passengers. At every stop, people enter the train, look into the compartment and move on. No big surprise. All of us have placed our belongings in such a way that the middle seats are unlikely to be occupied. It is no coincidence that none of us chose a middle seat. Our behavior ensures a comfortable distance to the strangers with whom we have to share space on our journey. In addition, all of us wear headphones, perfect tools to keep others at bay acoustically. We are adding a communication barrier, making it less likely to be addressed by a stranger, and we keep out the sounds other people generate.

What happened to travel companions like we know them from Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, or Murder on the Nile? Travel back then seems to have been a most gregarious experience. The trains and planes I usually use are different: They are places involuntarily shared by people with similar destinations, who prefer to stay the strangers they were when they boarded. Hercule Poirot would be most unhappy on my train, and he likely would unnerve today’s travelers with his attempts to initiate social interactions.

As it is, we have an informal understanding of how to behave in this moving territory, which nowadays seems to be a mutual attempt to minimize exposure. Travel nowadays is not so much about experiencing excitement on the way, learning new things and meeting new people. We expect all of that to happen at the destination of our journey, so we attempt to conserve our social energy for when we get there.

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