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Response to "Subway rudeness"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 16, 2012 02:30 PM

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Monday's question about subway etiquette got a lot of comments, many of which were very insightful. I was pleased to see that slingblade has adopted the ninja way of making sure that people who need priority seats can get them: 

I always sit in these seats intentionally. Because I know that I will offer the seat to someone in need. I don't trust that just leaving it open will make it available to people that need it because it will surely get taken by one of the selfish SOBs that rides the T. 

I thought I was the only one who did that! (Sat in the priority seats deliberately to guard them, that is, not hold a scurrilous opinion of the character of the human race.) When riding the subway/bus, I try to take the attitude that I am only a temporary guardian of my seat, and I'll give it up to someone who needs it more, as far as I can tell. 

That "as far as I can tell" covers a lot of grey area, and many commenters rightly called out the LW for making assumptions about the "young, healthy girl" who declined to give up her seat for an older man. (Incidentally, it wasn't the LW who asked the girl to give up the seat, as many people assumed, it was "someone." Who may or may not have been the LW.) 

You can't tell by looking at someone what their physical condition is. I have a good friend who looks the picture of glowing health, and is, and bicycles for miles every day. But she has a damaged foot, and needs that subway seat. I myself have had debilitating back pain in the past (now much improved thanks to the most awesome personal trainer in Cambridge!) and have stared at my feet abashedly, pretending not to see the older people standing in front of me. 

That wasn't a great way of handling it, and I don't do that anymore. I've found if I make eye contact with the elder, and smile and say in a clear voice, "I could give you my seat, but I do have some back trouble," someone else will always come forward. 

mama2002 has the mama of ALL invisible disability stories: 

My husband was on the T and an older man got on & asked the young man in the priority seat to get up so he could sit there. The young man apologized but said he needed the seat, to which the older man sputtered loudly & complained and eventually other passengers started in on the young man too. Finally the young man said, "Fine, I'll get up." and he did, but left his prosthetic leg on the seat. You know that older man just sat down & handed the prosthetic to the young man... I was dumbfounded when I heard this. 

What I find interesting here is the old man's sense of entitlement, as bad as any helicopter-parent-raised Millennial I've ever heard of. The LW came down on the bad behavior of teens on the subway, but anyone can be oblivious and discourteous. As redsoxbono wrote: 

Don't assume that someone is rude simply because he or she is a teenager. Many people, not just teenagers, are oblivious or in their own world on the subway. People are reading, listening to music, checking their e-mail, or thinking about their busy lives. They are probably not being discourteous intentionally. 

I teach middle school and I'm around teenagers all day. Teenagers can be defensive because they spend their lives being told what to do by adults and many times strangers assume the worst about them. I find that even with my toughest kids, not assuming the worst, and speaking to them with kindness and respect goes a long, long, way. 

This is fantastic advice. And reindeergirl shared her experiences: 

Please, it's not only teenagers, and it's not today only. Fourteen years ago, I was eight months pregnant, returning home from the library with a stack of reference books for a paper I was writing for my summer course. This was on the Harvard Square to Cleveland bus, in the heat of the summer. Not only did very few people offer a me a seat - it was a **teenager** who was the first to give her seat to me.

It was like that all through my pregnancy - teenagers; young women; the elderly; older businessmen who looked flat-out exhausted and seem like needed about a week of sleep. Who didn't offer this very pregnant woman a seat? People in their 30s - 50s, who kept their eyes averted; people who at least *seemed* healthy. 

And finally, I want to give the last word to occhiblues, because this line: "I am amazed at the number of aggressive people who seem to read etiquette columns in order to fuel their rage rather than tame it" soothed my soul as a cold draught of water soothes the throat.
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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