Why Do People Need to Be Shamed Into Having Good Subway Manners?

Plus: How to subtly (but effectively) shame someone into giving up their seat.

Earlier this week, I was taking my usual morning SEPTA ride on the Market-Frankord line — arguably the least enjoyable part of my day for myriad reasons — when, as I shuffled onto the packed rush-hour train, I saw a man sitting in one seat and using the second seat as a sort of ottoman, with his leg sprawled across it. Like the El train was his freakin’ living room. Meanwhile, I was standing with my face directly in someone else’s armpit. Needless to say, this enraged me.

But there’s subway rudeness that affects a woman in her 20s who appears perfectly capable of standing (offensive, but not wildly so), and then there’s subway rudeness that affects a woman growing a tiny human inside of them, or an elderly person lugging their groceries home on the subway.

The sad truth: I have witnessed plenty of this kind of subway rudeness, too.

Friends not from Philadelphia have even used bad subway manners as a way to categorize the type of people Philadelphians are to me. A few years ago, someone said something to me along the lines of, “I was eight months pregnant in August and no one offered me a seat. Philadelphia, amirite?” Ugh.

To our credit though, subway riders’ reluctance to give up their seats to someone who looks like they could use it more is not just a Philly problem. Last year, South Korea installed blinking lights in the cars of their public transportation system to encourage riders to give up their seats to pregnant women (because it wasn’t happening otherwise). And NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently announced that they’ll start handing out “Baby on Board” buttons to pregnant women, along with “Please Offer Me a Seat” buttons for the elderly and disabled, that, essentially, shame people into giving up their seats. Because only a real jerk could read a button that says “Please Offer Me a Seat” and then, well, not. According to the New York Times, the M.T.A. stole this idea from London, where they’ve been shaming public transportation riders into having manners since 2005. Brilliant. I say we steal it, too.

As M.T.A. interim executive director Veronique Hakim said in a statement, “We hope this campaign will help their fellow riders to be more willing to offer them a seat without having to ask a personal question first.” Great. But here’s the REAL question, my fellow subway-riding friends: Why are people such jerks that they need to be prodded into giving up their seat in the first place?

Sure, assuming someone is pregnant or has a physical disability that makes standing uncomfortable can be … awkward. (Especially if you’re wrong.) But I’ve witnessed people glance up at a person who is no doubt verrrrry pregnant, their eyes darting back down to their phones so they can pretend they never saw them standing there in the first place, and can continue playing Angry Birds in seated harmony. I’ve also witnessed this happen with elderly people.

On the flip side, I’ve seen elderly people turn down a seat when someone’s offered it to them on the subway. People have their pride, you know? So maybe you’ve extended the offer, been burned, and now make it a rule not to offer your seat to anyone for fear of being embarrassed? When I hypothesized about this in a work meeting, one of my coworkers mentioned he’d extended his seat before and been turned down, but said he’s not so emotionally “fragile” that he stopped being a polite human — he still offers up his seat when he thinks someone could use it.

One thing I have noticed in my years riding SEPTA is that when parents come on carrying young kids, people are pretty willing to offer their seats up. So maybe it really does all come down to people not wanting to make assumptions about someone else’s body (and good on you for that!), rather than people simply being the worst. After all, if I see a baby in your hands, I know you have a baby in your hands — but if I think you might have a baby growing in your belly, it could, well, not be the case.

Maybe the answer, instead of blatantly assuming anything, is to just stand up when you suspect someone might need a seat, and if that person needs to sit down, they can. If not, you’ll be awkwardly standing, but you’ll also get to give yourself a pat on the back for being a decent person. So there’s that. And if you’re pregnant or disabled, we say you make you DIY your own “Baby on Board” or “GIVE ME YOUR SEAT, PLEASE” button and start shaming people your own damn self. (After all, SEPTA isn’t known for moving quickly when it comes to new ideas.)

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