Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Management of Personal Space (Part II)

From time to time on this blog, the issue/definition of public and private spaces occasionally arises. Specifically, what is acceptable public behavior?
  • How much space can an individual reasonably occupy—comfortably—before becoming obnoxious?
  • Should people refrain from using their mobile phones in public spaces?
  • Do fellow commuters have a right to ask iPod users to turn down their devices?
I have argued previously that many portable devices allow us to create a personal space in public areas. Mobile phones, for example, allow us to carry a portion of our network with us wherever we  go. And this is even more true as “smart phones” become more popular, allowing users to browse the Internet, watch videos, and share information with members of their social network from almost anywhere. It's almost as though we are never truly alone. And perhaps because people feel as though they're never alone, their perceptions of public and private are blurred. As a result, they feel that they can take certain liberties in public. [Left: Unshod and relaxing on the LIRR.]

A rash of recent events on the LIRR have had me again wondering about the boundaries of public behavior. In the past two weeks, I have encountered the following:
  • a fellow commuter who removed his shoes and put his feet up (and treated the rest of the passengers in the car to the wonderful odors that emanated from his unshod feet);

  • a woman who cut and filed her nails (she was across the aisle from me);

  • a woman who draped her coat over her seat on the LIRR so that it swung back and forth and hit me in the face—repeatedly; and

  • a man who decided to clip his nose hairs during the morning rush hour.
Yes, Readers, it has been an eventful two weeks. Anthropology in Practice reader NotanEster shared link to an unofficial campaign by artist Jay Shells promoting subway etiquette. Shells has created subway signs discouraging the ten most offensive public transportation behaviors, as identified by riders. The list includes nail clipping, eating, garbage, preaching, seat hogging, and physical contact among others. And the signs are direct in their messages. For example, on religion: "Everyone has a different religion & beliefs. Please keep it to yourself, false prophets." [Right: Sample poster from Shell's "Subway Etiquette" project. Signs are for keeps, so if you spot one, grab it. And if you happen to spot another, grab it for me!]

While the issues discussed on the signs may seem like common courtesy to others, the fact that there needs to be public discussion around them suggests a social shift. Perhaps as we grow increasingly comfortable with sharing personal information online, that comfort is beginning to extend offline as well. People are more comfortable displaying private behaviors in public—even if we have not yet all gotten comfortable with witnessing these displays. As the lines between the public and the private become blurred, is a social shift occurring in terms of what is regarded as acceptable behavior? Or are these quirks of urban life?

FYI, I'm not the only New Yorker who feels this way—you can view the New York Time's Complaint Box on this issue here.

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