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12 October 2017

“Social seating”? Encouraging conversation has its place, and that place is not a bus

Making the back of a bus look like the world’s shittest hot tub.

By Eleanor Margolis

Does anyone genuinely enjoy talking to strangers? Unless you’re a friendly ghost from 1950s suburban America, I bet you don’t. As kids, we’re strictly instructed never to do it. And maybe – in adulthood – that same rule should apply, as “stranger danger” morphs from the risk of being kidnapped into the risk of being severely irritated. Or, particularly if you’re a woman, being harassed.

Which is why the painfully well-meaning new “social seating” on buses in Wiltshire and Dorset, designed to encourage conversation, is possibly the dumbest thing since, erm, those painfully well meaning “tube chat?” badges were handed out in London last year. Granted though, the “horse-shoe” seats do a fantastic job of making the back of a bus look like the world’s shittest hot tub; providing all the awkwardness of basically being in a massive bath with other people, without all the nice heat and bubbles.

“Encouraging conversation” has its place, and that place is not a bus. When, ostensibly, the only thing you have in common with the people around you is that you’re inside the same vehicle, what is there to talk about? Oh sure, maybe I’ll get into a really deep conversation with the fundamentalist Christian sitting next to me, and I’ll convince her that being gay is fine, and she’ll convince me to open my heart to Jesus. No. In living memory, I’ve had one amicable conversation with a stranger on a bus, and it went something like this:

Bus Woman: This is a very steep hill.

Me: Yes it is.

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Bus Woman: What a very steep hill indeed.

Me: Yes, my how steep.

ENDS.

Scintillating stuff. Far more bus conversations (particularly those after sunset) have gone like this:

Bus Man: [sitting next to me even though there are many, many free pairs of seats] Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: I don’t speak English.

Bus Man: Cool. Can I add you on Facebook?

[I get up, squeeze past Bus Man, pray to every god that he doesn’t grab my arse, and move downstairs where I have to stand for the rest of my probably very long journey]

ENDS

Any seat formation which enables “conversations” that are anything from a little bit creepy to downright scary should probably be saved for whenever it is in the future that a woman can get on public transport at night without being expected to entertain drunk men. When that utopia is attained, and not a single day before, roll on the horseshoe seats.

Please understand, it’s incredibly rare for anything to remind me of something from 17th century French literature (I think this might actually be a first). But these bus seats do, and you’re just going to have to bear with me.

In Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules, one character – in an attempt to sound posh – says to a servant, “Vite, voiturez-nous ici les commodités de la conversation.” Which sort of translates as, “Quick, carriage us hither the commodities of conversation”. Which is the most Baroque way ever of saying, “Bring us some chairs”. My point is, and I do actually have one, which pretentious do-gooder (and he’s out there somewhere. Yes, it’s definitely a man) looked at the interior of a bus and said, “Vite, voiturez-nous ici les commodités de la conversation.”

Bus seats shouldn’t be commodities of conversations. They should be butt rests.

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