The 8 Types Of People You Find On The Subway

Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
New Yorkers love to kvetch, and the MTA certainly provides them with plenty of opportunities. The subway may be a marvel of engineering, whisking 5.5 million riders between 468 stations, but being confined to a metal tube with strangers inevitably leads to tension and conflicts. Ask any commuter what irritates them about the subway, and you’re likely to hear that what they loathe most — apart from the inevitable delays — are the quirks of their fellow riders.
Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and body language expert — his book, What Every Body is Saying, is a primer on non-verbal communication — says this annoyance is expected. "Any time we're in a smaller environment with strangers, we behave differently," he explains. "There’s an ancient part of the brain already aroused and on the defensive because of the close proximity of the subway.”
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Do all our bodies, then, speak essentially the same language? Do even the most offensive gestures have a universality we can learn to interpret? Here, we break down the eight most classic subway poses, what they mean, and how you can respond.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Splaying
Subway riders' tendency to spread their legs ridiculously far apart in an attempt to claim space is a move so common, it even has its own blog — Abraham Adams' Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train. Adams says he didn't notice the issue until female friends pointed it out. Once clued in on the behavior, "it appeared increasingly preposterous."

Part of the blame, Navarro says, may fall on testosterone levels, which at certain ages can be "off the charts." This hormonal increase can lead to the "very primate behavior" of splaying to claim territory. "It's a way of saying no social imposition will make me give up the space I’m claiming," he says.

Adams questions, though, whether it's in fact our evolutionary destiny to adopt these aggressive postures on the train. "I think the main problem is that we were all raised wrong," he says.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Pole Leaning
Is the person who rests their entire body against a pole on a jam-packed train merely oblivious, or are they deliberately preventing you from having something to hang on to? Tread lightly around the pole leaner, because you're probably dealing with a true narcissist: 1 to 2% of the population falls under this category of individuals, who come equipped with a grandiose sense of self-worth. With narcissists, there is a "high evaluation of self, and devaluation of others," Navarro says. "They have an attitude of, 'I got here first, and I don't care about you. If you don't like it, go to another car.'"
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Overeager Embarking and Debarking
Few subway behaviors grate more than the rider who shoves their way aboard before letting people out or fights their way off the train at a stop where most other riders are also exiting. It may be best to give these overzealous folks a pass — perhaps they’re tourists who are jumpy about making their train or blissfully unaware that, say, Atlantic Avenue is a major hub.

Another explanation, Navarro explains, is what we used to call bad manners. "Today we say these people lack social intelligence, and they lack the ability to empathize with other people," he says. Unfortunately, these pushy people are unlikely to be enlightened by a good scolding: "There is no introspection or learning to be a better citizen," he continues, when it comes to this brand of straphanger.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Napping
If we're on such high alert on the subway, how is it that so often you'll find a stranger slumbering peacefully on your shoulder? It turns out that nodding off has its roots in infancy. The swaying motion of the train mimics how our parents rocked us to sleep as babies, signaling our brains to relax. In these moments, Navarro says, "The head isn't on guard" — so take it easy on the guy who conks out right on top of you.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Gaming/Texting
Smartphones seem to have transformed many of us into zombies, making us so plugged into the mini-worlds of our devices that we don't notice (perhaps conveniently) when a pregnant woman or elderly person needs our seats. But phone-absorption might be a symptom of something deeper. "Eye blocking," as Navarro describes this posture, is quite common on the subway — in fact, in enclosed environments, looking at someone for longer than 1.5 seconds is interpreted as a challenge or threat, so our devices give us a handy excuse to avoid meeting the gaze of a stranger. Out on the streets, we're permitted a lengthier leer time, but "enclosures multiply everything by multiple factors," he says.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Staring
New Yorkers know to stay within the 1.5 second gaze limit on the train, but if you feel someone's eyes upon you for longer than usual, give them the benefit of the doubt — you may just be subject to the curiosity of a tourist. There's always the risk, however, in any given subway car, of encountering a predatory or unstable personality.

If you are compelled to address a person who's giving you the creeps, try to do so in a soft voice, and adopt a neutral facial expression to keep the interaction from escalating. Navarro advises that you should avoid standing directly in front of the person, as such posture reads as confrontational. Instead, angle your body away from the aggressor — but "don't expect that they will be compliant," Navarro says.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Bagging
A passenger who seems to feel entitled to two seats — one for themselves and one for their purse or backpack — could fall under the categories of the socially inept or narcissistic.

Before you lash out at them, keep in mind that your own response to annoyances is heightened when you're underground. "In the subway, we hyper-react because of the closeness," Navarro says, constantly scanning to assess whether the people around us pose a challenge.
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Illustrated by Edward Tuckwell.
Papering
The same goes for the person spreading their copy of the Times across multiple seats — when crowded among strangers, many resort to what's called "ventral covering," using books or newspapers to guard their vulnerable midsections. On the other hand, some people, particularly those with mental illnesses, experience heightened paranoia on the train. "They'll act out to keep people away because they can't deal with the proximity," Navarro says.

In other words, when you're on the subway, it's perfectly natural to be more reactive to the physical impositions of others. But, take a moment to consider whether it's worth the hassle of confronting the offenders, because their behavior may be beyond their control — and yours.
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