Friday, September 09, 2005
Ever played seating bingo? You know - you're sitting at the back of a bus or the coach of a train and you watch people coming in and speculate about which seats they're going to take (actually, you can do this pretty much anywhere where there's free seating - in theatres, in classrooms, etc. but public transport is best because you have far more people travelling alone). There's a terrible amount of stereotyping involved, of course, but it's scary how accurately you can sometimes predict where people are going to sit, based purely on age, gender, race, clothes and a few miscellaneous factors (like does the person have an iPod, for instance). It's amazing how people seem to have almost a pecking order of who they will sit with*, seeking out the people they're most comfortable with (now there's an interesting social psychology study just waiting to happen). Plus of course, there's risk aversion, which seems to drive how quickly people give up, how willing they are to compromise. Just from body language you can often tell which people are going to grab the first empty seat they find and which ones are going to keep going right to the end hoping they'll get something better. (Those familiar with the MBTI will recognise the distinction between P and J types)
A variant of this (if you happen to have an empty seat next to you) is the siege perilous game - the one where you check out every single person who steps into the bus and calculate the odds of them sitting next to you. This is a more participatory sport, of course, since within limits you can do things to encourage / discourage the people you want. It's tricky though, specially if there's a whole group of people entering. If you scowl and look tough you might scare people away, on the other hand if the car fills up later you're going to get stuck with some muscle bound freak who'll push you into one corner of your seat with his / her sheer bulk. So maybe you should smile and look encouraging. Only then you'll end up sitting next to some little old lady who will take fifteen minutes to collect all her stuff and clear the way for you to get out when you have to (thus ensuring that you miss your stop). Or someone'll decide you look safe enough to put their kids next to, so you'll have some hyperactive brat screaming in your ear the rest of the trip. (good-looking young women, of course, are completely out of the question - you're exactly the demographic - mid-20s, asian, male, scruffily dressed - that they're least likely to sit next to).
Understand I'm not claiming to be any good at this game - my predictions are wrong more often then they're right, and if you correct for random chance, I probably don't manage more than 10% correct predictions. It's fun to watch though - to observe how people walk boldly along and then hesitate at one seat or another, to try to imagine what they're thinking in their head, to watch how the other person reacts to being sat next to (or being ignored and left alone). Like watching some sterile, innocent soap opera of your own.
*Of course, seating bingo is only exciting in that middle period when there are no completely empty spaces left, but the seating is not so full that people don't have choices any more. It's watching them decide where to sit and who to sit with that's fun.