42

This is a problem which I face when I travel using public transportation.

I have a habit of checking my messages, call data or Stack Exchange stuff that I missed and other social media stuff while I'm travelling using public transportation. Sometimes, while I'm doing this, I'll notice that one of the passengers who are sitting beside me or standing behind me are secretly watching what I'm doing on my phone. I find this situation so uncomfortable that I may have to stop chatting with friends or close the website I'm using.

I just don't say anything to them about this issue because it may feel rude to others and may change the enviroment for the worse in the bus.

How do I face situations like these? How can I tell people that it is not okay for people to be watching what other people are doing on their mobile phones or devices without their permission?

The question is not about privacy. I'm fully aware that there's nothing private in a public transport. It is becoming uncomfortable when continuously stares at your phone secretly.

  • 3
    Please remember that answers here must address the Interpersonal Skills needed to solve this problem. Two answers recommending a technical solution have already been deleted. I've protected this question to prevent additional ones. – Catija Dec 7 '17 at 14:40
49

Okay, since there have been loads of answers saying 'don't do private things in public': you stated in the question the things you're doing aren't really that privacy-sensitive. You're not doing online banking, you're not reading sensitive company e-mails. You're doing social media stuff. If you were doing the very private stuff, I would definitely advise you to just turn your screen off.

But to me, this looks and feels like a situation where people start reading your book over your shoulder. That is annoying behavior and I can certainly understand your wish to address it, instead of just stopping to read your book. You're not asking 'how to enforce privacy in a public place', you're asking how to make clear that you're uncomfortable with the behaviour.


I travel by public transport in the Netherlands a lot. I usually try using non-verbal communication first, since people using public transport sometimes explode really easily. And, on a full bus/train, sometimes people don't really have a choice, they can look at my phone, their feet or another person's ass.

Generally, my first move upon noticing is:

  • turn my body a little away from them, if possible.*
  • turn my screen a little
  • start shielding the phone screen with my hand or if you have one of those book-like covers, the flap of that.

* As pointed out in the comments, this wasn't meant to mean you turn your back on them. If there are 2 seats, and your neighbor is looking over your shoulder, you turn your upper body further away from them, and your legs/knees a bit more towards them. Basically, sit diagonally in your seat.

Don't do these things too subtle. Make it obvious you are shielding your screen, make it obvious that you noted their interest in your screen and are reacting to it. Usually, this works fine. Most people know it's impolite to look at someone else's screen and once they know you noticed they'll look away hurriedly.


Of course, there's always the incidental nosey person that will only become more curious about your activities when you try to keep them secret. For these situations, I always go very carefully.

Try to get a good feeling for your surroundings. Are there any people there that can help you if this person reacts badly to you asking to respect your privacy? Does the curious person gives you a creepy or dangerous vibe, or look like they are in a bad mood? Then you might want to just turn off your screen like you are doing now.


You might want to explain that you'd like to keep your privacy, but that is most likely to be rebuffed by 'then don't do privacy sensitive things in such a public place', especially if it's really busy. So, I generally avoid the word privacy when it comes to asking people to look away.

If you really want to verbally say something, I'd go with something that explains that you think they are looking at your screen, and that you feel uncomfortable about it. Make it about you, and make sure to the mention the 'think' part to avoid sounding too accusatory:

Excuse me, Sir/Madam, I get the impression that you're very interested in what's on my screen, but it's making me rather uncomfortable. Would you mind looking the other way?


If they refuse, promptly turn off your device and start staring out the window. Don't try to have a last word about them being rude, just use your body language. That will prevent things from escalating further.

  • 1
    Turning away from them makes it easier to look at the screen, though. You'd be better of turning towards them. – Stephan Bijzitter Dec 8 '17 at 22:08
  • @StephanBijzitter That's not really what I meant. I always thought of the move I make as 'turning away from someone'. I tried to explain the move in the answer. – Tinkeringbell Dec 11 '17 at 12:26
  • The edit indeed makes it clear! – Stephan Bijzitter Dec 11 '17 at 12:42
24

Why not being polite but direct?

I beg your pardon... I'm going through private stuff.

Note how this is

  • not rude but kind ("beg your pardon")

  • making that person aware that they should stop ("private stuff")

And rotate yourself/your phone a bit.

Or, joking a bit, as I remember reading on a random post on G+:

open Google search page and slowly type "How to kill a stranger that is looking at my smartphone."

;)

  • 1
    Thanks for your time but I was not going through private stuff. I asked about people staring at my phone secretly behind my back which makes me uncomfortable. The question is not about my privacy in public transport. It is becoming uncomfortable when they continously stare at your mobile where stuff with confidential mails/privacy is not involved. :) – Nog Shine Dec 7 '17 at 18:18
  • 1
    @NogShine You don't have to be going through private stuff. But by saying that it is private stuff, you heavily imply "Stop looking at my phone." Even if it isn't private, even if they know it isn't private, saying that delivers the message in both a polite and strong way. – kirkpatt Dec 7 '17 at 18:27
  • 3
    Props to the bottom, jokey suggestion in this answer: of all the ways to confront someone about this (and I think confronting them at all is not recommended), that's probably the least likely to create real tension, because it's kind of funny. If you get a laugh out of it, then hey, two people made slightly happier. If not, maybe they're not paying as much attention as you assumed. – trr Dec 8 '17 at 0:23
12

First, don't leap to judgment that they are intentionally surveilling you. It may be hard for you to realize this, since you have a smart device to stick your nose into. But many people either don't... or have good reasons not to, such as they are standing and need to hold onto stanchions, or are retaining their situational awareness against pickpockets, gropers and the like. This can be even moreso if they are standing and you are seated.

Second, there's often nowhere else to put your eyes, which wouldn't have the same effect on somebody else. You don't want to make direct eye contact, so faces are right out. Staring at the Sikh's robes is no good either, as it makes them feel judged and unwelcome in society.

Third, just because their face is aimed your way does not mean they are looking, or processing what they see. Most people are not aiming to snoop, but they have to aim their face somewhere.

And then you have this shiny flashy thing that catches the eye, begs to be looked at, and is not direct eye contact, a minority person, a child, a crotch or breasts.

All that to say... any IPX approach you take which presumes intentional snooping is wrong out of the gate.

So the first step is to ask yourself if you're being oversensitive. Second, ask whether it's really good etiquette to use your smart device in this way in such close quarters - good question. Maybe they are staring to judge you and make you feel uncomfortable so you'll stop. It is definitely rude to let it play sounds, or to use "overloud, leaky headphones", you know the ones. Or do very flashy things, or have it much too bright for conditions, and I don't need to tell you not to view porn or radically offensive content. I realize that's intra-personal advice, so off-topic here... but it could obviate the following.

First, move, tilt or shield your screen... And do be subtle, so they do not feel like you're accusing them of snooping, which as I said is a nonstarter. If they are inadvertently staring, this will jar them out of it and they will stop.

Then dim your screen down so it's not so bright. If it's slightly hard for you to see, it'll be harder for them to see.

Then change your content - either look at things you just don't care if they snoop, like the New York Times, or something impossibly tedious to a spectator like Farmville or any of the "Quest: bring me 10 rat ears (and most rats don't have ears)” type RPG games. Or something so impossibly technical or boring-to-outsider that the snooper can't follow it, like TeX or Code Golf or whatever you're into.

Or load up serialized episodic content like Orphan Black or HPMOR that you can't possibly understand without the full backstory. If you speak a foreign language, switch to content in that.

It can be annoying to have to shake off snoopers, but first, they probably aren't, and second, it's the ultimate "first world problem" - in 1949 you would be another hat and newspaper in a trainload of hats and newspapers. Instead you have this smart device to play with, to be a victim of that makes no sense.

  • I like this answer. I don't ride public transit much, but I was recently on airplanes, and passengers in my adjacent seats used their phones and laptops. I found it hard not to glance at them occasionally, just due to mild curiosity, even though I had my own tablet to play with. – Barmar Dec 7 '17 at 21:37
6

I hate it when people seem to be reading over my shoulder, either my tablet/phone or my monitor at my desk. I know they usually aren't actively snooping, but that doesn't make the uncomfortable feelings go away.

Of course, they aren't always actually reading over my shoulder; sometimes they're staring into space in my general direction, sometimes they're looking at something past me, and sometimes they're just attracted by the bright display and it's unconscious. But we're talking about how it feels to the recipient of the attention, not why they do it, and to you (and me) it feels wrong.

The first thing I always try when I'm in this situation is to change my posture somehow. If I can turn my body just a bit so that the "natural" position of the other's gaze isn't right into my phone, that's often sufficient. But if the person follows my change, or is leaning in close enough to invade personal space, then I go to my second option:

Can I help you with something?

This signals to the other person that he might be pushing too far, without making any accusations. For me this usually gets the person to sit back a little more or look elsewhere. One time the person did ask for help -- he was lost and noticed I was looking at a map on my phone.

3

Most people looking at your screen really don't care what you are doing, aren't really paying attention and are only looking because they have to look somewhere, and your screen has colours and movement. It is a mere fact of life that if you pull out your phone on public transport, people who are facing your phone will look at it, usually with casual glances but occasionally with an ongoing, bored, tuned-out stare that may look like they are paying more attention than they really are.

Simplest options likely to cause least awkwardness:

  • Try not to care. As long as you're not looking at anything likely to cause offence, someone seeing what's on your phone is of no real consequence.

  • Move somewhere else: take a different seat, or stand, in a position where fewer people can see. Stand against a wall.

  • Stop using the phone.

How can I tell people that it is not okay for people to be watching what other people are doing on their mobile phones or devices without their permission?

The problem with this is that what they are doing is not something that is out of the ordinary in that setting, and not something which requires permission. They aren't peering through your front curtains of your home or sneaking a look under your bathroom stall, you are essentially displaying your phone screen to them while they sit where they would have sat anyway. I fear that any attempt to tell someone off for looking and what you are openly displaying to them is going to create more tension, rather than dispel it.

There's also another obvious downside to saying anything out loud: it will instantly raise the curiosity of everybody within earshot. Suddenly everybody around you will be curious about what you're doing on your phone, and will want to sneak a glance. You're creating interest in what is on your phone.

It is generally considered impolite for someone to stare at you for a length of time, and this can often be averted if they noticed you "catch" their gaze and look back at them, but that is less likely to work when it's your phone, and not your face, that they're staring at. They may not notice you catching their gaze because they don't really see your eyes.

Bottom line is, a situation where you are forced to sit relatively close to people such as on public transport is pretty much the last place you should expect any kind of privacy whatsoever; if you are at all uncomfortable with anybody seeing what you are doing on your phone, you'll just have to wait until you are basically anywhere else but there.

0

There might not be a good interpersonal solution, since even if there was a good way you could convince some people to not look at your phone the next time you're on the train you'll get a fresh new set of strangers who you didn't have a conversation with.

That said, if you want you can try to look them right in the eye when you see them do it, hoping that they realize that you see what they are doing and would be a bit embarrassed, but that could be a double edged sword as well.

Personally the most effective way for me is stand (not sit) with my back to the wall, but that's what I tend to do on the train anyway.

  • 2
    I don't think it's a good idea to act impolitely in response to impoliteness. – Dmitry Grigoryev Dec 8 '17 at 0:56

protected by Catija Dec 7 '17 at 14:38

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.