Angeline Boswell

Riding the Bus


    The idea for this assignment came to me while I was sitting in the front section of the bus, in that space generally reserved for people who need more accessible seating. Riding the bus on a daily basis, I became aware of how sitting in the front section affected my experience and produced specific anxieties (Should I be sitting here? Who is coming on the bus? Do they need a seat?). Having originally been interested in the interaction between humans, their environments and non-human things, I came to realize in the course of my observation that the different seating sections of the bus transformed passenger experience and produced distinct social codes. I subsequently started taking down notes during times when I rode the bus, which usually lasted for 10-15 minute intervals. 

    My approach in these two mini-ethnographies has been to develop a two-layered representation of the same scene: the first one as a description, more in line with the classical ethnographic voice, and the other, as a reflection, that takes a step back and documents how I observed the scene. They are intended to be both complimentary and oppositional. The description of my observation, titled “What Does it Mean to Observe?” is meant to be extremely reflexive and self-conscious. It centres on my anxieties around “accurate” representation, and the fictitious nature of observation and writing. In my second description, “Social Codes and the Non-human”, the voice I attempted to employ was assertive, authoritative, and the opposite of self-conscious reflexivity. 

What Does It Mean to Observe?

The first day that I decided to start observing, I stood there in the indoor part of the bus stop, notebook and pen in hand, leaning against the wall. The term “observing” hung over me like a big question mark. I watched a woman looking out at the road for buses, evidently angry and impatient. I jotted down in my notebook something about the impatience of people waiting for buses – but my writing felt tight and constrained because what if that’s not the truth? What if she has another reason for being impatient? I started thinking about how my point of view was, for example, green, and how everyone else had different-coloured points of view. Everyone had different ways they were seeing the bus stop that evening, different ways of feeling and thinking. And my “observations” of the world were all washed over in green because they came from my own mind, my own eyes, my own interpretations. So everything I was writing – about all of these people, with their own points of view – was all washed over in green, too.

I hadn’t understood the notion of “partial truths” fully until that moment. It seemed the truth of each situation was a full and complete picture, and everything I did narrowed it, shone the light on a smaller and smaller section while shadowing the rest. The mere fact that I was the one observing it, and running it through my own interpretations, narrowed it. And what about the fact that, once I got onto the bus that day, each person in every seat was doing something that could have been noteworthy (and the idea of what is “noteworthy” is another problem of narrowing the truth) but I had to narrow my focus because of the impossibility of writing everything about everyone? And then, does writing itself present another narrowing? Once an observation is translated into my own words, does it really become a reflection of me instead of the truth? It is, in the end, how I interpreted the bus ride. Then were all of my words in green, rather than washed over in green?
I had an image of myself as an observer: this invisible fly on the wall that hears all and sees all. The reality of the situation couldn’t have been any more different. “It’s hard to observe people invisibly,” I wrote one day in my notebook. First and foremost was the problem of my gaze. People on buses, I realized, didn’t look at each other. I found it comical every day, looking at the lengths people would go to in order to pretend they were the only ones on the bus. Nearly everyone wore earbuds, and curled in towards the window. I especially noticed this un-willingness to acknowledge each other one day when the bus was so busy that two people, in that one section where you sit sideways, were nearly pressed up against one another, and yet averted their eyes aimlessly around the bus – pretending the ceiling was suddenly incredibly interesting to look at. But then there was me, looking not out a window or at the ceiling, but straight at everyone else: everyone across from me, beside me, even five rows away from me. I was looking for something, anything. Just do something noteworthy.

The second thing that made invisibility impossible was the issue of the notebook. I didn’t think it would have much of an effect; people are always typing on their phones, and no one bats an eye. But I found myself so self-conscious of that little rectangle that it entirely changed my trip: my writing would grow small, my hand would cramp up, I would realize that the notebook was suddenly an inch away from my face the whole time. It also dictated where I chose to sit and who I chose to sit beside. This was because bringing a notebook onto the bus and writing – perhaps too obviously? – about people was a strong violation of a social code. The bus, as I would come to realize, was a just a long rectangular space entangled in social codes. Primarily of which, despite being stuck in a confined space for 20 minutes with a multitude of people, was to pretend as if there was no one else there. I came onto that bus every day specifically looking for people, specifically noticing them. The whole fly-on-the-wall idea was instantly impossible because the very idea of observing a space in which people try to go without noticing/being noticed was conflicting. 

Look at people’s faces as they get on the bus – see if they look anxious trying to find a seat, I told myself one morning. After all, I was desperately searching for some kind of information on how the non-human (the seats, maybe), would affect people’s movements, experiences, etc. I was disappointed. Annoyed, even. People got on, and knew exactly where to sit. If someone with a wheelchair showed up to the door, someone in the front would move back without hesitation. People pressed the stop button and made their way to the door one stop prior. Everything was moving so smoothly, so rhythmically; there was nothing noteworthy. It wasn’t until I reflected on it later that I realized the absence of anything “noteworthy” was noteworthy in itself. I began seeing all the rhythms people followed, all the seamless movements. I wondered whether, if I were that original fly-on-the-wall I wanted to be and wasn’t a regular bus-rider, all the social codes might seem bizarre – all the codes that have become invisible; so invisible that I, anxious to observe, couldn’t even notice them. 

Still, even after a string of modifications and realizations, I find myself feeling the same anxieties about observation. It still hangs over me like a big question mark. What does it mean to observe?  Am I only observing myself, while trying to observe others? As I sit here writing about my past self, about things that surely were somewhat true, I still find myself writing a fiction. Did I really think in those terms back then, when I was standing against that wall on the first day, overwhelmed, with my notebook in hand? Are those words hers, those feelings? Or is that just me now, sitting here observing my past, running it through – and colouring it over with – my present interpretations?

Social Codes and the Non-human

“Riding the bus” isn’t simply getting on at one stop, and getting off at another. Rather, it entails a multitude of processes that begin from the moment one plans their trip. There are also processes which have become hidden to us – social codes which have become internalized, and can remain invisible to us until they’re broken. Underlying these processes and social codes is the constant interaction with the non-human that takes place on the bus. In fact, the entire process of riding the bus is decisively a non-human phenomenon as people actively seek to avoid one another, and remain ‘in their own worlds’. The bus as a whole serves as a potent example of human interaction with the non-human: the very idea of it – of being confined in a vehicle for twenty minutes among strangers – transforms your experience. Suddenly, the moment you enter the door, or wait in line for the door, you are subject to a web of social codes that only exist within that long rectangular space. 

The common pattern people follow, once they enter the bus, is to sit in the nearest empty seat. If the nearest empty seat, however, has someone sitting at the window, one generally chooses to sit in whichever row is entirely free. It’s only when the window seats are filled that people begin filling in the aisle seats. You may find yourself on a mostly-empty bus at 9pm at night, for example, watching people turned towards the windows. It all seems quite uniform: heads lined up in vertical rows, everyone following the same social code which says it would be odd to sit next to someone when there’s an empty window seat. Below is a sketch of what you might expect on a late-night, empty bus ride.


The sections of the bus are prominent examples of the way physical aspects transform passenger experience. That entire box near the front door is an area of anxiety. A young woman sat in the front one morning, hesitantly and self-consciously. She kept looking towards the door – looking to see if anyone was coming onto the bus who she would need to give her seat to. She watched the door at every stop, until a woman with a cane and a mother with a baby carriage stepped on. The young woman instantly darted up and moved further back. In the back row of the bus one evening, however, everyone seemed significantly more relaxed. A group of girls had their feet propped up on the seat in front of them, leaning back and looking through their phones. They didn’t need to look at the doorway, worrying whether or not they should give up their seats.

           The space around the doorway (in the middle of the bus – the door people get out of) is certainly the most concentrated section, both in the number of people crowding around it and in the amount of social processes it is embedded in. It is an unwritten rule that one shouldn’t stand at the doorway unless they are getting off the bus at the next stop. People become rude and impatient in this section more than in any other – especially trying to push past a big congestion of people who aren’t following the code. The space around the doorway is also, generally, the first time on the bus where social interaction is required. One must negotiate who is getting off, and who will get off first. This is done through a series of awkward eye contact, mumbling, and hand signals.

           The bus creates a space in which people aim to avoid one another. People try to remain ‘in their own world’, while simultaneously surrounded by a multitude of strangers. It seems the only interaction occurs – sometimes not even verbally – when people signal to the person beside them that “this is my stop”. The bus is a space for silence, for listening to music with earbuds, for looking out the window. It isn’t a place for conversation or eye contact. And it often takes someone breaking the social code to realize how strongly everyone was entangled in it. 


What I have learned, above all, from this experiment is the effect writing has on portraying data. I’ve always imagined writing out field notes as a way to organize them, expand on them, and present them – only a transitional technique in between the ‘raw data’ and the reader. But when I think about all of the styles we have encountered in this course and the ones I produced in this experiment, I realize that the writing of ethnography has just as much importance and effect – perhaps even more – than the data trying to be presented. Even though both of my descriptions are of the same scene, the tone, style, and details I chose significantly changed how the observations were portrayed. If someone had only read the second ethnography, for example, they would walk away with a different interpretation of the ‘truth’ of the scene than if they’d read both, or if they’d experienced the scene themselves. Therefore, writing the observations out into an ethnographic description is not only a transparent mode of presenting them to the reader, but rather it changes the observations in the process.