culture · humor · new york · people problems · social anxiety · social norms

Weird Things People Do in Public

I feel a bit judgmental writing this post. The kind of habits I find to be “weird”, other people may think, What is she even talking about? That’s totally fine! I bet some of the things I do can be perceived as weird too. It depends on an individual’s perspective and what strikes them as odd or out of the ordinary.

#1: Talking into earpieces

Living through the ’90s, I viewed earpieces with wide-eyed fascination as really high-tech gear that only FBI agents could use. And I still don’t know if real FBI agents actually use them for their jobs, but the notion was planted in my mind as a youngster from watching Men in Black a few times too many as a youngster. Today in this generation, it seems to be normal for people to use wireless earpieces (with built-in microphones) to take an incoming call while their hands are free to multitask. Sometimes I forget what I’m actually seeing. I could be in a public place where a person suddenly starts talking and appears to be speaking to their self until I spot the earpiece that is visibly curved around the person’s ear. Now technology is so advanced there are earpieces so small that they can’t be seen unless someone is looking very closely.

Image by Jonas Jacobsson.

I once observed a man after he came into the same bustling cafe I was in. He seemed to be talking to the air and effortlessly paused for mid-sentence to ask a woman if the seat next to hers was vacant. The thing is, he didn’t stop talking even after the woman responded to him a second later so it appeared as if he was still speaking to her. His chatter continued even as he set his things down on the chair and went to order food from the counter. I was only half paying attention but this went on nonstop for more than several minutes. His manner of speech was very animated as if whoever he was chatting with was right beside him. I was more in awe that he had no social anxiety whatsoever about being comfortable talking in public like that and didn’t seem to care that people were throwing him a variety of looks ranging from confusion, amusement, and irritation. There is just no way I could attempt this and I wouldn’t want to either! I am not even comfortable answering a call if I’m around people, so forget the idea of me using an earpiece to converse with someone in a busy place.

#2: Picking a seat next to a stranger (or not)

I’m guilty of this even though I supposedly find the behavior to be “weird”, in the sense that humans are very strange creatures indeed. To sit or not sit beside a stranger? Several factors determine it for me. I think about comfort level first. If I’m somewhere that allows me to pick at my own convenience where I want to sit, I will. If it’s a semi-crowded place, the desire for comfort is overridden by the wish to simply find a seat, any seat. The situation can be the determinant of the outcome too. I’m used to traveling on subways jammed with people but unless I’m dog tired, I would rather stand than sandwich myself in a middle seat while two other people are occupying the outer two seats. The pattern I’ve seen on NYC subways is most people do not take the cursed middle seat if the subway car is not too crowded but once it gets packed, there really is no room to be choosy unless you want to stand for the duration of the ride home.

Image by Jodie Walton.

I feel similarly about the window seats on subways and/or buses. I don’t mind if someone plops down on the outer seat when I am already at the window seat, but I dislike having to ask the person to move so I can get up once I’ve reached my stop. The supposed common NYC behavior I have seen is that some people (including myself) don’t usually say, “Excuse me” or “Sorry, do you mind?” when getting up to move past someone, but to be fair, it’s pretty typical that whoever is at the outer window seat knows what is up and moves aside to make room. Me, I stick to being aware of nonverbal cues like body language to know if I need to get out of the way for another person to make their exit. New Yorkers are stereotyped as being loud and surly folk who hate tourists. I don’t think (most) people are intentionally mean to come across as rude if they don’t say anything when trying to get past someone on a jammed subway car. Maybe they’re just too used to the sphere of how things usually work in New York from stranger to stranger where there is no verbal exchange.  I must sound like a lunatic trying to explain this. Do any other New Yorkers or city people who travel frequently by subway/tram get what I mean? It’s not like purposely avoiding contact with strangers but it’s almost like the culture is to not talk to people you don’t know because that’s just how it is on the subway.

#3: Standing on the sidewalk

This is me being paranoid for no good reason, but I cringe internally every time I walk on a street and I have to pass someone who is casually standing outside. There could be a number of reasons for the person’s presence there. Perhaps it’s his/her lunch break? Maybe he/she is waiting for someone else? I guess it’s not so much that I find people standing on sidewalks to be “weird”, but that my paranoia influences me into thinking it is because of what I associate it with. Many of those times I breathe out in relief if the person is standing there but looks busy, like with a cigarette or with a phone call so I feel better about walking past without really being noticed by the person too much. Otherwise, I silently gulp once I spot the person up ahead and then I fake a calm demeanor as I saunter past. Often it feels like time stands still if I can sense the person studying me as I walk by him/her. I am not sure what I expect to happen. Usually, bad scenarios play out in my mind, like getting mugged or being catcalled at. My fear increases especially if the street I am walking down is quiet and has a sparse amount of activity. I have even harder time not envisioning worse fates for myself if there’s more than one person standing around. I have a healthy amount of paranoia which I should have in order to be aware of the possible dangers in my surroundings, but at the same time, I feel guilty for suspecting people mean to harm me.

Image by zoe lin.

Very mild things have happened with those I pass on the sidewalk; none of which came close to the terrible things I thought up. The most I’ve gotten is people actually say hi to me. Not to be an unfriendly New Yorker (as is another one of the stereotypes, lol), but I usually don’t respond back. Partially, yes, I would attribute it to how I was brought up and being taught to not talk to strangers, but as an adult, I’m also cautious (perhaps overtly) in that I assume someone wants something from me if he/she approaches me like that. It’s a can of worms I don’t want to open. I have never had the experience of suddenly meeting someone for the first time on the street and somehow becoming friends with him/her. That’s the kind of ideal plot you’d find in a movie or television show.

#4: RBF

RBF stands for “Resting B*tch Face”. According to its Wikipedia page, it is ” is a facial expression which unintentionally appears as if a person is angry, annoyed, irritated, or contemptuous, particularly when the individual is relaxed, resting or not expressing any emotion.” I have both demonstrated a RBF and also been on the receiving end of a RBF many, many times. My hypothesis for why RBF exists is because I think on a cultural level, the default facial expression most people adhere to is one where they look neither happy or unhappy, however, their expression can be perceived by others as, Uh oh, look out, he/she is pissed off about something. 

Using myself as an example, I would say I’m not a natural smiler who maintains a slight, open expression on my face towards strangers. That’s just not my style. The way I’ve tried to alleviate my RBF when I’m actively interacting with someone is the obvious way: to smile and show I’m completely harmless! I just hope I didn’t make the problem worse by making myself look manically frightening with my forced grin instead of appearing to be supposedly b*tchy. I also realize my smile can come off as disingenuous when I’m nervous and trying to hide that emotion. Sometimes the RBF is unavoidable or I forget I even have it on when I don’t mean to. Sorry to any people in real life I’ve scared away!

#5: Reading over someone’s shoulder

This could come across as invasive, particularly when it’s your stuff that someone else is trying to casually read, but it’s a safe bet that in certain situations, the behavior is more forgivable because people are just curious and bored. I mean, I wouldn’t advocate for someone to go up to another person at a public bench and start reading over their shoulder. That is creepy and unnecessary! But situations like standing on a really long line and having nothing to do? It seems natural that a person’s interest would be drawn to what the person in front of them is reading. I confess I’ve snuck a few peeks before but I never look for too long, out of fear I’ll face the awkwardness of the person noticing and pointedly staring at me. I like attempting to read the same page that someone is on if he/she is reading a book. This doesn’t work out, though, since the printed text is too far away for me to see so I settle for squinting and getting the book title instead.

Image by Prasanna Kumar.

When someone reads over my shoulder, the opportunity for this to happen is usually on the subway because of the closed space and standing areas during busier commute hours. My past method of avoiding the discomfort of letting someone see what I am reading on my phone has been to switch to a game app. This no longer works since I went cold turkey from mobile games. I do sometimes start or continue blog post drafts on my phone. Now I just dim my phone screen so even if the person can see I am reading and/or typing up something, he/she probably can’t read what is on the screen. I mainly use a Kindle for reading books because it’s very lightweight without the bulkiness of a thick hardcover. Maybe I focus my energy on caring about things that actually has no real merit, but I feel a Kindle gives me an anonymity where people don’t get to glance at the spine of the book to figure out the book title. Should I be happy about that? It’s an instinctual (and irrational) fear that I’ll be judged for what I’m reading.

10 thoughts on “Weird Things People Do in Public

  1. I have an amazing RBF. I get told all the time by strangers to smile more or asked what’s wrong or “come on, life’s not that bad.” And honestly nothing’s that horrible I just don’t like to smile. So RBF. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. People talking having a conversation into an earpiece freak me out too! I often think they’re talking to me, so I would turn around, and embarrass myself by talking to them. Or I just think people are crazy until I spot the earpiece. I also don’t understand how people are able to have their phone conversations out in public… I always cover my mouth when I’m talking to someone on the phone, or I step out if I’m at a busy cafe or something. But, I guess, if one is a businessman/woman, you’d prob have to take your calls anywhere/anytime?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You think so much like me! I too assume they are either talking to themselves or me. I can’t get over how easy people make it seem, like speaking into an earphone in a busy place is a piece of cake. It could be they are used to people staring or giving them funny looks so it probably doesn’t bother them.
      I’d be too concerned about how I sound or attracting attention. Even talking on a regular smartphone, I worry about being too loud in a crowded place (if I can’t hear the person on the call).


  3. I really like the behaviour you pointed out on the train. Like you, unless I am really tired or desperate for a seat, I will not seat in between two people on the train XD For me, it’s because of personal space – I like my personal space and also don’t like being squished in the middle in general.

    I have resting b*tch face! Not much of a smiler and I feel like if I smile, I’ll get more attention which I don’t want lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Personal space is important but on the train, sometimes it’s a hard to acquire luxury. 😐 I hate it when the occupant of the middle seat gets off but I’m the one standing closest to the now vacant seat so it appears as if I’m going to sit down. Usually I try to move away to show as a nonverbal cue that I really don’t want the seat.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Haha! I so agree with you.
    I used to commute a lot by public transport.
    When a nice looking guy would get it, I hoped he would sit next to me (that’s only on good hair days!). If he then picked another seat, I caught myself thinking:
    “He rather sits next to him than next to me, whuut?” 😉

    The whole earphone things seems pretty FBI to me too.
    I hardly ever call, let alone through earphones!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, nice looking guys are easy to notice on public transport. Those guys always end up sitting across from me instead of beside me so at least I get an excuse to look at them. 😀

      Yeah, it’s still hard for me to be used to seeing someone talking on an earphone and not think, Is that the FBI? I dislike making calls too.


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