Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dealing With the Second Reader

So tell me, Readers, has this has ever happened to you? You’re on mass transit, or sitting in public—maybe at the airport or at the doctor’s office—and you’re reading a book or a magazine, or perhaps if you’re a gadget person, you have an e-reader of sorts. Or maybe you’re working on a laptop. You’re totally into whatever you’re reviewing, and you begin to get the sensation of someone leaning over your shoulder. And someone is! The person next to you has angled just a bit to read or view what you’re reading or working on. (Aside: Yes, guy in the blue shirt sitting next to me on the LIRR as I type this, I mean you!)

Over-the-shoulder reading is not really all that uncommon in a city where we spend a great deal of our time packed into close quarters with each other for transit. In this setting, you can’t help but notice your neighbors and perhaps a story or a graphic catches your eye. However, there is a difference between a peek at a headline and trying to read the entire feature between subway stops. It places the shoulder-reader in very close proximity, encroaching on the meager personal space boundaries that have been etched out. Is it a conscious transgression or a by-product of newly established sharing norms?

On my morning subway ride, there is a man who meets the stereotypical standards for a college professor—he has an assortment of tweed jackets with elbow patches that he wears regardless of the weather. His rimless glasses mask bright, inquisitive eyes. His briefcase is stuffed to the seams with papers that have been endlessly marked. And he always carries the thickest, heaviest reading material. This morning, his book of choice was on the Hundred Years War, but it didn’t seem to hold his attention for long. He kept peering over the shoulder of the woman sitting next to him and reviewing the headlines of her morning paper. It was fairly constant; she would turn the page, he would glance over for a few minutes then return to the battlefield in his book. He has done this on other mornings as well.

Commuting lends itself to patterns and routines. You more or less tend to travel with the same people because you’re operating on similar schedules. (I’m always fairly surprised at the number of my neighbors who work in the downtown area with me.) As a result, you may start to experience a sense of familiarity with these folks, as I described in my posts about the commuter who always looks for particular seats on the ride home on the LIRR. (See here and here.) But while a sense of familiarity may provide an excuse to see what page someone is on if you’ve read the same book, or allow you to make a comment about a headline, between strangers these behaviors become invasive. On the subway during rush hour in particular, one’s sense of personal space is already challenged—there’s no getting away from the hot, sticky arm of the woman standing next to you and the ability to distract yourself with some reading material is a chance to mentally reassert your personal space boundaries. Over-the-shoulder readers remove this barrier.

But our culture is growing more and more share friendly, so perhaps we can explain this behavior as an outgrowth of the Facebook Like button and the Share buttons that many websites feature. CNN, for example, will tell you how many people have recommended a story—and invite you to be the first of your friends to share it (or, once you’ve signed in, join the ranks of your friends who have shared the story). It’s a culture where we’re constantly being invited to see what others are doing and thinking. So while over-the-shoulder readers have always been around, their behavior seems more normalized in this context: they’re just trying to determine if you’re viewing something that worthy of sharing.

How do you deal with over-the-shoulder readers? I have only seen one instance where an individual seemed to react to a shoulder-reader, and her response was a long and pointed look, which did nothing to deter the reader, by the way.


  1. I think over-the-shoulder reading is a pretty natural response to symbolic stimuli. Think about seeing a billboard or an ad on a bus stop; unless you're really tired or zoned out, you read it before you really have time to know you're going to read it or make the decision to not read. That's why movie spoilers on websites are hidden until you click on the link.

    At least I hope it's natural. I catch myself reading other people's material on the bus or train pretty often. That's not to say it doesn't result in awkwardness sometimes. I was a little surprised a couple of months ago to realize that the guy in front of me was browsing nudey pictures to replace the one he was using as a background on his phone.

  2. Hmm. I would argue though that the billboards are designed to attract your attention. The symbolic stimuli in that case are managed and arranged to have the biggest impact. That's not the case with the woman reading a page in a book over that person's shoulder. She has the opportunity to make the choice not to read the material, but chooses to do so anyway.

    Though, you suggest that you don't have a choice. (Not meant at judgment—I'm mulling this over in my head.) And it's true, I sometimes do check out headlines on newspapers, or try to see book titles on well-creased spines. But I think there's a limit to how far I'll engage in this behavior.

    And, LOL at the nudie pics.

  3. Yeah, there's a limit for sure. Unless there's something odd about a person's behavior (like a woman leafing forward and backward through a book for about 30 minutes the other day) I don't read past the headlines.