The tunnel between Townhall and Wynyard stations provided me with a unique insight into commuter behavior on Sydney trains. As is my habit, I stared blankly into the darkness, but sadly only my reflection looked back at me. For a moment I felt self-conscious. What I was looking for?

After a quick glance around the carriage I realized that I wasn’t the only one gazing into the abyss. It was peak hour and the carriage was full, but strangely silent. No one spoke and apart from the muffled sound of the train itself in transit, a few smart phones chirping under prodding fingers and the tinny beats of a dozen or so spent iTunes gift vouchers, it was quiet.

It seemed a little surreal that so many people, in such close quarters, could so effectively avoid any interaction. Were we being anti-social? Or were we being polite? As it turns out it’s neither.

Lead researcher Esther Kim, from Yale University has termed this behavior ‘nonsocial transient behaviour’ (NTB). In plain English NTB covers a range of strategies employed by people to keep strangers away, or tactics to avoid sitting next to the ‘weirdo’. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • Avoiding eye contact with other people.
  • Stretching your legs across the seat.
  • Placing a large bag on the seat next to you.
  • Sitting on the aisle seat, listening to music and pretending you can’t hear people asking for the window seat.
  • Looking out of the window with a blank crazy stare (I’ve nailed that one)
  • Pretending to be asleep.
  • Burying your face into your smartphone (just checking the real-time bus connection on my TripGo app – honestly).

According to Esther Kim this disengagement is primarily driven by the uncertainty about strangers, lack of privacy or the absence of personal space. It all sounds a lot like the elevator ride in my office block at 8:55am every weekday morning.