Thursday, March 08, 2007

Subway Manners

This morning on the subway, I witnessed this interaction and haven't quite been able to stop mulling it over. What do we consider to be polite?

The Scene:
Subway rush hour. Subway interior, not too crowded but almost all the seats are taken and people are standing.

The Players:
A girl, approximately 15 years old and a student
A rough-around-the-edges man in about his 40s
A tall young guy in his 20s, a bit of a toughie
A woman passsenger

The young girl is sitting in a seat with her bag and papers beside her. She looks like she's doing homework or prep for school.

The bit-rough guy says to the girl, "You should pick up your papers and let this lady sit down."

The young girl looks very uncomfortable, slightly afraid of this older man, and moves her things.

The bit-rough guy says to the woman passenger, "Go ahead. Sit down." And then reminds the young girl that she should always keep her things off the seats so that people can sit down. He explains that some people are too shy to ask for themselves.

The young girl doesn't say anything, still looking uncomfortable. The woman passenger does not say anything and does not sit down.

The tall young man says to the bit-rough guy, "What are you talking to her for? You don't need to worry about her. She can do whatever she wants. Just worry about yourself."

The bit-rough guy explains again that some people are shy about asking for the seat.

The young man more aggressively says to the guy, "She can do whatever she wants. Don't worry about her. Just worry about yourself." And gets off the subway.

At this point, so did I.

Who was the arbiter of politeness here? Was it inappropriate for the man to suggest the young girl move her things simply because he was dishevelled? If it's reasonable to do whatever you want, then why wasn't it okay for him to express his opinion? And clearly there's hypocrisy in stepping into a situation that has nothing to do with you to suggest someone worry about only themselves. And at the root what concerned me most deeply was the belief that what is appropriate is worrying about yourself.

What do you think?


Suzie Ridler said...

I am one of those people who usually will not even sit down (let alone ask for a seat) in the handicap area of the bus, even when I am in severe pain. When I tore my stomach wall, I still stood. Was that the right decision? Probably not but admitting I need help is just about the last thing I want even though I am technically handicapped. I would have appreciated that guy pointing that out to the woman, that some people are shy. In the end, I think it's my responsibility, I just probably won't do it.

Shannon said...

Wow, tough one. I always find it hard when people tell someone else what to do in such a public way. I saw someone say recently that we've lost the ability to politely tell someone when they are doing something that bothers us. I think this might be true.

I do often wonder how people can keep stuff on a seat when it starts to get crowded on the subway. I also find it wierd when people assume 1 person over another would want/need a seat (barring when mobility can been seen visably).

I saw a man once yell (and I mean yell) and a teenager for putting their feel up on a seat when it was less than 10% full. He kept saying "You should be ashamed of yourself". I wanted to say "No, you should, talking to people that way".

Claudia said...

What an uncomfortable situation...I think it´s not polite to take up so much space when the subway is full but if the lady wanted a seat she could have asked the girl to move her things. The 2 guys should both have kept quiet.

Deb R said...

I don't think the 40s guy was out of line to point out that the woman might need a seat, but I'm not sure he went about it the best way. Instead of telling the girl she should move her things when he didn't even know if the woman wanted a seat or not, maybe he could've said something to the girl like "That woman doesn't have a seat and she could sit next to you if you move your papers. Maybe you should ask her if she wants to sit down." And then he could stay out of it.

Even with the way he said it, I think his heart was in the right place but that he carried it too far by keeping on talking about it after his initial direction to the girl to move her things. I doubt he understood this (because men often don't!) but I suspect the girl had her things spread around her as a way of keeping strangers out of her personal space more than because of rudeness. I bet a girl that age gets bothered by aggressive people on the subway and that probably never even occurred to the man.

The younger guy should've stayed out of it altogether, IMO.

I find the woman's behavior oddest of all - that she said absolutely nothing to either man or to the girl! A simple "thank you for thinking of me, but I don't want to sit down" early on could've defused the situation well before the men were sniping at each other!

Alex S said...

I agree with Deb. I think too a lot of younger people really aren't being taught to think about other people enough and if the older guy said it politely, I think it was the right thing to do; hopefully, it plants a seed. But that younger guy, eek! If we only worry about ourselves and no one else, this is going to be one hard world.