On Planes and Trains, Everyone Prefers to Sit Next to Women

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Sept. 16 2013 11:12 AM

On Planes and Trains, Everyone Prefers to Sit Next to Women. Lucky Us.

armrest
Elbow ready

Photo by Alexander Chaiken/Shutterstock

It has happened more times than I can count. The doors slide open on a train car full of half-occupied pairs of seats. As the newcomer enters, we all set our features to maximum stoniness, flick the dimmer switch behind our eyes. New Guy picks his way awkwardly down the aisle. He is praying for an empty row to suddenly materialize, a resentment-free zone rich in the traveler’s most treasured resource: space. No luck. He comes closer, closer. Here he is. Here is his stupid bag being stowed against my feet. Here is his stupid arm on the armrest. Here is his stupid aftershave in my nostrils and his stupid music leaking out of his barely-muffling headphones two centimeters from my ear.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

New Guy, why do you always sit next to me? 

Advertisement

When I raised the possibility, with a few lady friends, that I exude some mystical nonsexual “sit next to me” pheromone, they didn’t shoot me down. Several insisted that they had it too. All of them agreed that, in their experience, the newcomer to the train car customarily parks him or herself next to a woman, not a man. A smaller woman, especially. A smaller, younger woman most of all. In other words, the person New Guys deem least likely to intrude into others’ personal space. 

Personal space is a big deal on public transportation. The Tumblr Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train administers a dose of public shaming to real-life dudes who somehow cannot make it from 23rd street to 34nd street without splaying their legs like colossi or cavalrymen. The archive offers “an interesting visual representation of the way that men feel totally empowered” to assert their physical presence, writes Huffington Post’s Nina Bahadur. Meanwhile, according to the sociology professor Lisa Wade:

A feminine person keeps her body small and contained…. She walks and sits in tightly packaged ways. She doesn’t cover the breadth of the sidewalk or expand herself beyond the chair she occupies.

A quick survey of Slate coworkers both male and female supports the hypothesis that, given a choice between sitting next to a man and sitting next to a woman, most people opt to sit next to the woman. All but two of the 16 staffers who answered my email query confirmed this. Of the outliers, one colleague declared himself indifferent to gender but sensitive to age:  He avoids older passengers, on the theory that they can be chatty. A second colleague, male, would sooner abut an XY seat than an XX one, for fear of “being perceived as rude, aggressive, or creepy.”

Of those who vote women with their butts, a few cite the comparatively slighter physiques. Other reasons were more insinuating: a belief that women won’t retaliate if disturbed, for instance, or that they are more inclined to share. Ladies don’t “throw their weight around,” someone ventured. They are “socialized not to take up too much room,” and are less likely to be “a horrible jerk” or “a talkative chatterbox” or “disrespectful” or “dicks.” “Women on average are more considerate,” wrote one colleague. For female coworkers, that consideration sometimes took on a very specific meaning. “I believe I’m less likely to be bothered if I sit next to a woman,” someone wrote. “I probably would pick a woman in my age range with the hope she’d be less of a creeper, won’t try to talk to me or hit on me,” explained a second. A gay colleague added: “Basically, I assume that women are much less likely to be homophobic and be offended (perhaps to the point of aggression) by my presence than men are. A crowded train with a free seat only between two straight-looking dudes is anxiety-provoking in the extreme. I will stand.”

My colleagues also observe that men tend to be more “aggressive” with armrests. On the whole, the women who wrote to me expressed reluctance to use even their allotted portion of the armrest—they didn’t want to be perceived as testing boundaries or needlessly provoking conflict. Men, on the other elbow, apparently looked forward to the struggle. But they preferred to nudge other men.

“On balance I’m more likely to intrude into the armrest area if the neighbor is male,” confessed one male coworker. “The man is more likely than the woman to try to claim the armrest from me, which in turn makes me more likely to make that choice uncomfortable for him, via physical contact.” 

“With a dude I will jostle but with a woman I am worried that she will view any jostling as some kind of harassment,” said another.

 “I’m less aggressive about space when next to a female. I’d rather be disliked by a guy than a girl,” reported a third.

So it seems that men and women alike prefer to travel with women, generally perceived as less likely to be loudmouthed, legroom-encroaching jerks. Do you disagree? You can tell me all about it when you sit next to me on the train.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 6:24 PM The GOP Can’t Quit “Willie Horton” Even though they promise to do so, again and again.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 5:39 PM Whole Foods Desperately Wants Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.