The XX Factor

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

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.

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

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.