The ‘uncomfort’ of strangers

George Ferrandi

A recent article in The Atlantic called: How New Yorkers reacted when a stranger slept on them in the subway’ gave me joy. The article is about an artist and sculptor, George Ferrandi who takes the subway and ‘falls asleep’ on strangers, whilst her friend films what happens. There’s something charming and funny about this approach and what ensues. It also raises an interesting question: what are the rules when it comes to public transport? Is there a June Daly Watkins Guide to Etiquette on Public Transport, and if there isn’t, could someone please invent one?

I’m passionate about this topic as I’ve had two recent encounters where I wished desperately that I was part of a performance art piece, but somehow I don’t think edgy New York style public transport immersive art has made it to the Southern Highlands Line…

I live in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I often travel to Sydney for meetings, and when I can, I try to catch the train as it gives me two glorious hours each way to work on my laptop, research, read, or just even stare out the window and think.

One morning I was on the train heading to the city. About half-way there a girl in her early twenties sat next to me. I had my laptop and my mobile phone on my lap. As she sat down she leant across in front of me and looked directly at my screen (which had my client’s LinkedIn account open at the time) and said ‘Who’s that?’.

I was in shock. In my head, I’m a master of the poker face. In reality I daresay my mouth was agape and my eyes saucer wide. Before I could bring myself to utter anything at all, she touched and pointed at the screen of my phone, sitting very much in my lap and said: (pointing to a photo of my children), ‘Who are they? What are their names?’. I looked around desperately to see if there was some type of camera or joke happening, but alas, reality in its wily way was proving far stranger than fiction. Not a camera in site, just me, the other commuters, and the very interested, very tactile girl.

In my ever-so streetwise style, my returning patois was to answer all of her questions honestly – even giving her the real names of my children, where they went to school, ages, and who they were friends with. After about five minutes of this bizarre banter and close physical contact I deduced that: a) no, I wasn’t part of a performance art piece, and b) perhaps the dear girl was ‘a few sandwiches short of a picnic’. Apart from this, I also realised that she had crossed the line of PT etiquette. Sadly, she was not the last to do so.

My second delightful encounter with the broken code of personal space on public transport was on the same train line to Sydney. (Please dear reader, do not think ill of us highlanders – we’re all normal, I swear!).

This time I hopped on the train and sat down next to a guy in his early thirties sitting quietly with his headphones on. I spent about half an hour merrily doing some work on my laptop. I had a new client in financial services and I needed to write some blog posts for them, so I was researching the insurance industry and various financial websites.

Suddenly the he proclaimed: ‘Don’t you get bored looking at that stuff?’. Again, that moment spent scanning the train for cameras, for the person (other than me) that he was really speaking to … for something, anything other than reality.

‘Sorry?’ I replied. ‘Don’t you get bored looking at all that insurance and financial stuff? I bet you work in insurance right?’

What? What did he just say?? Surely this guy had just crossed the line here? So not only had he been looking at what I’d been doing, he had really been looking at what I’d been doing. So much so that he felt the burning need to ask me about it.

Again, in my tough, urban ways I managed to no, not be rude or tell him where to go, but to respond honestly with ‘No, I work in marketing. I’m doing research for a client.’ Sadly, this didn’t put him off. Somehow I managed to then divulge the fact that I worked for myself, the type of things I did and that no, I didn’t work in insurance, but my clients did.

Eventually he bored of the topic and went back to his headphones. I had no idea whether to laugh or be angry. He’d crossed the line I’m sure, but then perhaps he was just bored and lonely?

In this world of constant connection, do we all need a little rule breaking in order to connect, or is life in itself just one big ongoing piece of performance art?


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