Get your hands off my bagel!
// Heather Welsh

“Save me a table, will you?” is a common cry that can be heard coming from the dining room during the designated breakfast hours at the hostel. “What do you mean ‘the breakfast ends at 9.30am’? How am I meant to sleep in?” is always quick to follow. The small time frame in which guests can enjoy the free buffet breakfast results in lots of people crammed into a small space during a short period of time, and this naturally leads to some interesting people watching.

I mean it’s basically free food we’re talking about here! When there’s only one bagel left, the kitchen becomes a war zone. With their eyes on the prize, the troops get into formation and prepare their knives and forks, shielding their eyes with a plate as to throw the other side offguard. Quick decisions lead to a successful outcome, and for the other side, it’s some dry raisin toast instead.

As with most social interaction in public spaces, people head towards the corners and single spaces first. Similar behaviour occurs on the bus: the empty spaces fill up first, followed by the seats next to the most friendly and least offensive-looking members of the public, then slowly everything is full and the stragglers at the back of the line-up are left hanging on for dear life. In the breakfast room, the spaces fill up, and eventually, people have to share a tiny table and start trying to make conversation with each other … sometimes with disastrous results. However, if you can read into the signs that suggest what your tablemate might be like, you can avoid the awkward silences and ultimately enjoy your breakfast.

The study of environmental psychology is widespread. Psychologists believe there are a great number of things that can affect a person’s behaviour, and included in this is the study of people in social settings. Environmental psychologist Roger Barker observed social behavior and theorized that social settings influence behavior. Data gathered in Oskaloosa from 1947 to 1972 helped him develop the concept of the “behavior setting”, which helps explain the relationship between the individual and the immediate environment.

Looking at the social setting in the breakfast room, people change their conversation patterns based on their environment. “So what are you doing today?” is the most popular opening line, which is a good start because the most obvious common ground travelers have is the fact that they are both exploring the city for the first time. “Did you have a good night?” is another good one, especially for those that made it up blearyeyed for breakfast after the pub crawl the night before. Although the conversation may begin as awkward, this situation is arguably better than are the guests who don’t bother trying to make conversation at all.

“Mr. Organized” is on too tight a schedule to bother with small talk. This is a guest I see arriving at least 15 minutes before food starts coming out, who saves a space at the table with a jacket, a book, or the like, and then lingers in the breakfast area, plate and knife ready to pounce on an unsuspecting cranberry muffin. This is a military operation! No time for manners! “

Do you have any bigger bowls?” one guest came to ask me one morning. “Because I can’t fit all the food in this one,” she shouted as bananas, rolls, and tea bags went flying across the lobby in her failed attempt to carry too much food in her arms at once. Nicknamed the “Group Provider”, they take it upon themselves to gather enough food in one morning to feed a family of four for three months, because there is nothing like planning ahead. They will be first up, collecting way too much food for their party (the rest of whom are still fighting hangovers from the comfort of their rooms). When their friends finally emerge, the Group Provider becomes the hero, supplying stale bread saved lovingly in a Ziploc. Sadly, their efforts are not always appreciated. “I think we’re just gonna go grab an eggs benny, I heard of this really good diner around the corner,” says one of their friends. Imagine the look on their face when their efforts go unnoticed. It’s a sad sight, but, thankfully, not always the case.

Some days the dining room is full of glowing laptops, and on one morning in particular it was like Christmas had come early with the amount of back-lit keyboards laid out in there. The antisocial diner takes it upon themselves to use headphones and a laptop at all times during breakfast (and whilst in any common area of the hostel for that matter), safely guarding their personal space. There is no way they are going to engage in conversation with Chatty Patty at this time in the morning. Understandably, as I’ve been there and had to grin and bear it when she chats my face off at 7 AM. As far as these guests are concerned, this is a purely functional time of the day that can be totally devoid of social interaction. They eat the free food, and then either go back to bed or get the hell out of the hostel for the day.

Personal space was a term coined by psychologist John B. Calhoun. He states that in creating a “defensible space” in a public setting (as guests do with a laptop or by wearing headphones), the negative effects of crowding in urban environments can be reduced. Creating barriers and customizing a space are ways of creating personal space, putting pictures of your family on the wall in an office setting is a way of doing this for example. Calhoun stated this increases cognitive control, you see yourself having control over the competitors to the personal space and thus control the level of density and crowding in the space. This is what guests do with a carefully placed book, magazine, or item of clothing at the breakfast table.

Breakfast etiquette might be something you have to learn, though sharing a butter knife, reaching for your toast, or passing the sugar to people you don’t know in an enclosed space is actually quite a weird situation to be in. Similar to being pushed up against people on the bus or Skytrain during rush hour, people learn to deal with the awkward situations in a number of ways. And when you’re not the one grappling for the free muffins, it makes for rather interesting morning entertainment.

// Heather Welsh, Columnist
// Illustration by Tiare Jung

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