data analysis and interpretation

Interations and Cultural Maps and Researcher Bias

Encounters within this moving urban space, the city bus, resist any type of label-bearing explanations initially. Taken at face value, the random stories sometimes intrigued or amused, at other times irritated and bored. Uncovering common truths at first appeared as chance as the individual stories themselves. However, framed as dialectical individual-collective tensions and studied in the light of physical, cultural and personal maps, common themes began to emerge. Open coding of nearly 80 observations and 10 interviews yielded even clearer understanding of these brief encounters that accentuate the long silent pauses on the typical bus ride.


Very early in the project, one type of interaction on the bus became evident: Conversations based on logistics. The first category emerged as that of necessity – asking questions concerning the route, stops or timetables. Hardly a day passed without someone asking the driver or another passenger the logistics of reaching a destination. While easily identifiable and common in occurrence, this type of interaction proved to be the least useful for my purpose. Because individuals were compelled to ask these questions out of necessity and the answers were factual in nature, interaction was shallow. On all but one occasion, the conversation ended after a simple exchange. In that case, another woman and myself acted as a relay between a rider in the back of the bus and the bus driver. Because the question on logistics ended up being played out like a children’s game of telephone, the recipient seemed compelled to clue me in to the original question which in turn provided an opening for further conversation.

The other type of interaction that evidenced itself at the beginning of the study was that of conversations between familiars. By definition, this involved interactions between pre-existing acquaintances or friends (either riding together or meeting on the bus unexpectedly). Conversations between couples often were observed to be closed and private; however, it was surprising how many familiar interactions were also coded as inappropriate or socially-questionable interaction. For example, two men on the night bus spoke so loudly the whole bus learned much about their absent, mutual friend Tim. In another instance, one rider recognized a woman from a “club” and their ensuing interaction -- complete with not-so-subtle body language on her part and machismo attention on his -- fairly screamed “strip club” to the rest of us.

CarlAlso interesting were the number of familiar relationships developed solely on the bus. Sometimes it was obvious which familiars were the “bus relationships,” the associations developed over time as a byproduct of riding the bus. It was obvious that Carl, my favorite driver, and Woody, a regular, had become friends over the course of time spent together on the same route. Even then, however, their conversations remained safely in what could be deemed contextually common topics, or topics safe for general consumption: I never heard them stray past talking of the weather or gardening. Of course, designating dyads as bus relationships over familiar relationships formed outside the bus was somewhat problematic not being privy to the entire history of the association.

I myself developed three distinct bus relationships over the course of the project: one with Chris, the Hebrew-course-taking, Telecommunication-premajoring freshman whom also picked up the bus at the mall and lives with his parents in Versailles; another with Ed, the generous, retired chef I saw almost every Tuesday; and finally with Justin, my every Tuesday/Thursday afternoon bus-mate whom was “in” on this project almost from the beginning. Not surprisingly, self-disclosure increased in quantity and level of personal details in relation to the amount of time and discussion together in these bus relationships. Justin, whom I probably know the most about, however, does not know I’m a vegetarian whereas I told Ed, the chef that works often at the Good Foods Coop, almost right away. On the other hand, I know a lot about Justin’s family (divorced parents; one younger brother still at home; and a live-in girlfriend named Lauren, who is getting a ring for Christmas and is really into rearranging their furniture right now) and none about Ed’s (I get the impression he lives alone but was he ever married? Does he have kids?).

Self-disclosure also became one of the codes dependant on context to deem an interaction as either appropriate or inappropriate. Telling Ed about my gelatin-avoiding vegetarian daughter was contextually appropriate to our interactions; telling Chris or Justin or any other rider would be out of context and thus inappropriate.

Familiarity was not the prerequisite for self-disclosure, however. Mary and I both talked fondly of our daughters although we had just met. On the other hand, I felt knocked off unbalance when the grey-sweat-shirted man grilled me (as if we were playing 20 questions) until he found I was a student. Sure, it was amusing, but how do you proceed to interact after that. In some cases, such out-of-the-blue interactions took on sinister overtones, however. I cringed inwardly and outwardly when the skeletal homeless man with the missing teeth and scarred face turned in his seat to offer me candy before beginning a tirade about not being “crazy” and not knowing how to console a friend that just lost a parent. Don’t take candy from strangers, little girl. Don’t talk to such men, just turn and run the other way, I think. In both cases, the interactions couldn’t end quickly enough, even to the point where I chose to get off the bus early in the second encounter.

Conversely, conversations agreeable to all involved parties were often coded as lasting the length of the ride and then ending with a word of farewell. Eighteen codings of “good-byes” provided one of the best indicators that people connected on the bus. This appears too simple a sign of an encounter, but to say nothing at all is the norm. To disembark only requires pulling the cord to signal the driver and then exiting the bus when he stops, all without saying a word.

Additionally, deliberately choosing a seat physically close to the other individual also indicated the desire to talk. A friendly conversation at the mall bus stop carried over to the bus when Lucy chose the seat immediately behind mine and continued talking about an interior design show she had just seen on TV. More obvious, however, was how seating arrangements demonstrated an avoidance of interaction. In an almost identical situation the next day, I took the seat behind another woman that I had been chatting with at the bus stop. This time, however, she kept her back solidly to me and shifted uncomfortably, making it clear she did not wish to continue the conversation and sitting so closely was awkward.

In fact, nearly every day the bus filled like a choreographed ballet. If one rider sat on the front left side, the next rider would choose a seat several rows back on the right. Spread out, is the unwritten rule. For those avoiding interaction, choosing the most isolated seat (if possible) was coded more than any other incidence of avoidance including avoiding eye contact and “zombie-ing”-out combined. No where was this more evident than one afternoon when the full bus had half emptied at one stop:

Now we are roughly one to a row, the usual passenger load. I say “most” because one 35 year-old white guy wearing all black with long hair in a ponytail keeps his seat next to a heavy 40ish Hispanic female. She seems uncomfortable, and shifts her bulk toward the window and twists her neck oddly to look out. He seems oblivious. Since nothing else is happening, I watch them. She keeps shifting around. He just stares ahead. I can almost feel her annoyance. The seat across the aisle is open but he doesn’t move. Finally, after what seems an eternity and ends up being only two more stops, he gets off the bus without a word. Again, I watch her, she visibly exhales, throws her bag on the seat next to her (to ensure that no one else sits down next to her) and then yawns.

Up until this point, I’ve said little concerning the actual topics of conversations witnessed or experienced personally. Mostly this is primarily because most conversations on the bus are concerned with mundane, general topics. Interviewees indicated that common objects spurred conversations – Jeannie and Eric both said the book they were reading prompted others to start a conversation. In observations, 15 incidences of small talk and 31 codings of talk about general topics such as the weather, sports, TV programs, food, the war in Iraq or recent news events strengthened the suggestion that the more universally relatable a topic, the greater possibility of a sustained interaction.

Consider again the positive interaction with Lucy mentioned briefly above:

I move to the middle of the bus and Lucy sits in the row behind me. She begins talking about a show she saw on HGTV that morning. “It was Design, um…” “Design on a Dime?” I suggest. “Yes,” her eyes light up. So begins a conversation on decorating and food that lasts until I get off. “This is my stop,” I say a block before disembarking. “Well, you just have a lovely day,” she says. “You, too, enjoy the weather. And don’t eat any snails,” I say. We both laugh. She has made a comment a few minutes ago about the French eating worms and snails with a disdainful look on her face. I do not tell her that my brother-in-law is French. Nor do I tell her my name. She has, likewise, never mentioned hers. “Good-bye!”, “Good-bye!”

Here we see proximal seating, common topic, appropriate self-disclosure and fond farewells. It appears all the ingredients are here for a typical, healthy bus encounter. These “good” interactions far outweighed the inappropriate interactions (e.g., the 20-questions guy and candy man) encounters nearly six to one.

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Cultural Maps

But this study involved more than just detailing interactions and the conditions surrounding those interactions. I also had set out to see if evidence of personal and cultural maps also impacted conversations. This proved to be a much more difficult concept to pin down. One glimpse of how place could be tied to personal events came unexpectedly one morning as I listened to two friends talk:

At Central Baptist, a black male, 40s, tired looking, boards the bus and is greeted by the same rider that greeted me. However, this greeting is more familiar and right away I see that they know each other. The one says to the newest passenger, “I’se thinkin’ about you as we got close to the hospital. How’s your daddy doin’? He still in?” Yes, responds the second man, he was just visiting him. "It's touch and go."

As the bus rolls past the hospital, I conjure the one memory I hold of the place, the joyous but painful birth of my only child. The contrast in personal maps between these men and myself is stark.

One or two more examples surfaced, but evidence of personal memories tied to place proved elusive, probably too personal to mention in mere minutes of a casual interview. More common were public maps that were visible to all namely the destruction and rebuilding of Taco Bell on Nicholasville Road and, more gravely, the makeshift memorial at the storm drain where two young Lexington women tragically were swept away and drowned in September 2006.

Cultural maps, likewise, defied boundaries. Not once did I see skin color affect relations at a stop or at the bus. In fact, almost every day on the bus proved that the small space could be a melting pot – or paella (Simpson 709). However, incidents such as being discouraged from boarding the Northside bus raise unclear questions about ethnicity standing in the way of interaction. More than any other part of the study, the intriguing question of personal and cultural maps is piqued. Enough data emerged to confirm the question, but not enough to conjecture about the phenomena.

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Researcher Bias

Only after completing the project did it occur to me the shortcomings and naiveté of my views on race and ethnicity, however. I was mindlessly following the status quo: If it isn’t discussed, it isn’t a problem.

The problem starts at the top. LexTran parrots back citywide census data. I read the report, I note the minority statistics and other socioeconomic data that appears inclusive but it’s not even specific to the bus or the routes. Maybe it’s not even applicable.

I, in turn, have pleasant conversations with several African-American riders and so I project my positive experience onto them and persist in maintaining this pretext. But I’m Caucasian and female and I’m privileged. I own a car. I ride the bus out of convenience because it beats parking on campus financially and logistically.

And, of course, my ignorance is reflected in my methodology. Fleeting observations and brief interviews with strangers do not provide enough of a peek into a buried issue. Future studies would do well to pair with a smaller number of riders on a consistent basis and do in-depth interviews after weeks or even months of familiarity. Only then are cultural maps more likely to emerge, particularly maps based on race and ethnicity.

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