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I Spent a Week Peeking at Phone Screens on Public Transport

I Spent a Week Peeking at Phone Screens on Public Transport

  • Culture
  • Life
The more something is frowned upon socially, the more I find joy in doing it. More dramatic individuals might call this criminal, but I prefer to think I’m merely indulging in a guilty pleasure.

In a sea of guilty pleasures, my favourite has got to be shamelessly knowing the lyrics to every single Avril Lavigne song. Coming in a close second is peeking at other people’s phone screens on public transport.

While I know I should feel guilty for intruding into someone else’s private bubble, the pleasure of peeking at a stranger’s phone lies in catching them with their guard down. People are their truest selves when they believe others aren’t watching, as is often the case when they’re mindlessly scrolling through their phones in public.

Simply knowing I’m privy to a fraction of a person’s most intimate self gives me a rush, the same kind I get when I interview someone and get them to spill their sordid secrets. For just that moment, I see a side of them I’m sure few others have access to.

And so for no other reason than to live vicariously through someone else, I decided to spend an entire week actively peeking at people’s screens on public transport.

The week starts out lacklustre.

First, I catch a woman texting “Boon” to postpone tuition for someone I assume is her daughter. Her text is in Chinese and I don’t read it fast enough before she switches to Youtube to watch a drama.

On the same bus ride, there is a middle aged woman whose friend sends the text, “Have a nice day friends” to their group chat. Her other friends in the chat reply but she doesn’t.

I can relate.

I also notice that all her recent Whatsapp messages are from group chats.

To this, I can’t relate.

On the way home after work, I board a bus that’s quiet except for the sounds of a chess game coming from an elderly man’s phone. He contemplates every move with the focus of someone who is not actually on a moving bus, never once adjusting his sitting posture throughout his journey.

I experience mild admiration for his lack of self-consciousness. Also, his sense of balance.

Closer to mid-week, I decide to head to the gym early one morning. On the MRT, I sit next to a woman who speaks into her Whatsapp audio recording, sending up to five short audio clips at one go. Her boyfriend/husband/partner, however, replies via text.

I note that her boyfriend/husband/partner is asking her which luxury bag she wants to buy, and I also glimpse the photos of the bags in question. The photos show them in shades of orange and/or brown that resemble pieces from the discount pile of This Fashion circa 2003.  

She replies, “No money. Don’t buy. We go Singapore.”

I’m not sure what luxury bag costs less in this country, but I endeavour to find out. Alas, she gets off the MRT soon after.

I turn my attention to the other side of me, where an Indian man, who appears to be in his late 20s, is watching a Korean high school drama with no subtitles. In my mind, he must surely be fluent in Korean.  

I am impressed, until I realise how convenient it is to project any personality onto a stranger after a mere glimpse of who they are. For all I know, someone else might look at him and draw an entirely different conclusion.

I recall a quote: “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.”

The ‘excitement’ picks up towards the end of the week when I chance upon more interesting content on strangers’ phone screens.

It is 6 AM and I am on my way to the gym again. Having barely gotten out of bed 15 minutes ago, I’m still half-asleep when I spy a guy in his early 20s looking at pornography. It’s hosted on a Facebook profile, and it appears to be an amateur video of a girl sucking on some unintelligible body part. (It’s not the penis.)

After the video ends, he casually switches to Whatsapp to continue a conversation with a friend, as though looking at porn on the bus is something he does regularly. Eyes transfixed to his screen, his body language betrays no hint of embarrassment.

By this point, I am very much awake.

On the way to work after the gym, I observe a young guy texting his girlfriend on Telegram.

“I really like our relationship,” she says.

“Me too,” he replies. “We can talk about anything. Must remember that. Next time got problem must talk about it.”

He switches to Instagram, before switching back to Telegram to add, “I only love you. No one else.”

Throughout the week, this is the conversation that sticks with me. It reveals one of the most relatable and vulnerable aspects of being in a relationship. Most of us have been both this girl and this guy—both the one who needs reassurance and the one who gives it.

On the same bus ride, I spot another man on Instagram. He scrolls through the list of Instagram stories on his feed, selectively picking which to watch. For a second too long, he hovers over someone’s profile picture before deciding not to tap it.

His fleeting hesitation reminds me of my own, when I can’t decide whether to watch the Instagram story of a guy I have a thing for. Unfortunately, it’s one of those twisted mind games that many play: the more you care about someone, the more you don’t want them to know.

After work that day, I watch a man send someone a text that reads, “Passing German school. Hope your bus comes soon. Thanks for all concern.”

A few seconds after the text is sent, he deletes the message. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were trying to hide traces of a conversation that he isn’t supposed to be having.

The final screen that I peek at this week belongs to a junior college student creating a personality quiz for her friends to test how well they know her.

She types a question: “If I meet a genie, what would I wish for? A) To stop schooling, B) to be the smartest and get good grades, C) to always be happy, D) to have one billion dollars.”

Then she selects her answer: “C) To always be happy.”

I want to tell her that if only she realised that happiness won’t always be the end goal. Sometimes, fulfilment and meaning matter more in life, but these don’t always equate to happiness.

Also, having a billion dollars would actually be pretty amazing.

After a week of not minding my own business, I have no less satiated my curiosity about other people’s lives.

I also discover that when literally left to our own devices, none of us are as unique as we might think we are. A 12-year-old primary school kid uses the same instant messaging apps as a 60-year-old makcik, who plays the same games as a 48-year-old banker.

This may seem like a predictable conclusion after a week’s worth of indulging in this guilty pleasure, but guilty pleasures were never meant to reveal deeper truths about the human experience. They are, quite simply, just cheap thrills.

Ultimately, they are forbidden fruit, sporadic pockets of unadulterated gratification that we allow ourselves. In that moment, we don’t have to play by society’s ‘rules’. There is only the sweet, fleeting ecstasy of breaking them and succumbing to temptation.

As for me, I’m just glad I get to turn being a busybody into a career.

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Grace Yeoh Senior Staff Writer