Wow Lori. So much in this post. Can I break it down into a bunch of different components? First of all, crowded mass transit offers the opportunities for people who would probably not normally interact, to be much closer than they might ever come in other circumstances. And you articulated so much about perceptions and personal space and assumptions that we make, and assumptions that are made about us.
First of all, there are costumes. You know something? We all wear costumes. The costumes project to society our cultural identity, and the messages that we want to send about ourselves. A good business suit is a costume that says “I’m a white collar worker, on my way up, and I deserve respect.” Jeans and a tee-shirt say “I’m a casual non-conformist, just like all of the other casual non-conformists.” High heels say “I know I’m sexy and I’m just going to pretend that I’m not uncomfortable.” Sweat pants say “I don’t care what you think because I have other things to think about.” Good practical shoes, polished to a shine, on a low income immigrant, say “I might not have a lot of money, but I take care of myself and make good choices.” Teenagers and young people are infamous for wearing clothes that challenge the status quo, and piss off people who are not part of their age group and social group.
The kids on the train were wearing their costumes. And on a certain level, you let their teenage costumes piss you off, just the way the any set of developmentally appropriate teenagers, consciously or unconsciously, hoped that they would. But all of us make judgments about other people’s costumes. Costumes tend to enhance the us/them divide. And when people of another race or culture or economic status wear a costume that rubs us the wrong way, the divide is widened, and the assumptions are enhanced.
But as much as the costumes send a message, it might be a temporary message. And often it is a message that says “I want to be accepted by xyz group” more than anything else. And even rebellious costumes are really just sending a message that says “I want to be part of the social group that wears these rebellious clothes.” Rebel conformity. Most costumes don’t tell us much about the real person. Just the social identity. They don’t tell us who is kind, who is in pain, who is facing a huge personal crisis or loss, who is creative, who is generous, who is brilliant, who is industrious, who is brave, who is gentle.
Behavior, obviously, gives us more hints and insights into that stuff.
And personal space is a completely different issue. Different cultures have different boundaries. Different invisible circles that we draw around ourselves, that it is rude to cross. And then, we get on a crowded train, and all the rules change. Some people manage to just completely ignore the boundaries that they might maintain in other circumstances, while other people struggle to maintain their boundaries. Every day on the trains of NYC, and probably the world, sitting women (of every race and culture) find themselves much closer to the dicks of standing strangers (of every race and culture) than they would like to be. And it often pisses us off. Sometimes, the owner of the dick is intentionally being provocative. Much of the time, the owner of the dick is being self-absorbed, and not really paying attention. I could write volumes about the sitting woman/standing man dick in the face dynamic, and observations that I have made over the years of riding trains, and strategies that have been successful (ranging from holding your phone and tapping on it in such a way as to increase your personal space, to confronting the owner of the offending dick, to just closing your eyes and making it all go away) and I must say that in most cases, the woman carries the burden. In this case, you carried the burden uncomfortably, and then it escalated.
Then there is the dynamic of loud voices and specialized vocabulary. This can really only happen in a group, and it is rarely two. It is usually three or more. It could be business men, talking about their wheeling and dealing. It is often teenagers. Could even be groups of strangers who bond with other groups of strangers en route to a ballgame or a concert or a protest. Sometimes it is tourists, trying to claim some space for themselves in an unfamiliar environment. In general, I view it as sort of pissing on a tree to mark the territory and claim it for their own. This is OUR train. The rest of you are irrelevant because WE are HERE.
So what an experience you had on your train ride. You are sick, and in pain and emotionally vulnerable. You are also worried about very serious personal and financial issues, which makes you easier to piss off. And then you get loud, costume wearing teenagers, symbolically pissing and marking their turf, invading your personal space, with one literally sticking his dick in your face, and you felt a HUGE divide. Except for the fact that you found the Sesame Street underwear endearing, there was nothing that could have bridged that divide.
edit - added final sentence at Quesi's request.