Sunday, February 28, 2016

Reconsidering rudeness on a subway car

In early January, I wrote about Marie, a subway rider in the Northeast, who witnessed a seated young woman talking on her cellphone refuse to move her bags from a seat after a young man asked her to so he could sit. The young woman pointed to several empty seats on the train.

Marie found the young woman's behavior rude and wondered if she should have said something. Since the situation got resolved without much fuss, I told Marie that she had no obligation to intercede, but that the right thing when riding a subway is to only take up one seat.

Readers from California, Canada, North Carolina, Ohio, and loads of locales in between immediately took issue and asked me to reconsider my response.

"It's a shame you didn't encourage her to say something to the rude subway rider," wrote G.K. "You essentially were advising her to condone the behavior. If Marie and five other subway riders would have spoken up and criticized the hogger's behavior, perhaps she would have been forced to acknowledge her behavior as rude and behaved differently next time."

But most readers took issue with the suggestion that the young woman was being rude by placing her bag on an empty seat and telling the young man to sit elsewhere.

"Are you out of your mind?" asks N.C. "Plenty of empty seats and a man wants to sit right next to his woman? Maybe she didn't want to be harassed."

"His behavior sounds totally creepy to me," wrote H.D.

E.S. asked that I reconsider in light of "the reality of gender inequalities, personal safety, personal space, and the lack of any pragmatic harm in placing personal possessions adjacent to oneself, space permitting."

While I still believe that Marie did the right thing by not interceding, and that she had no obligation to call out the young woman if she believed she was being rude, those readers who suggested that perhaps there was something "creepy" about a young man avoiding empty seats on and aiming right for the one with the young woman's bag raised good points.

No one riding on public transportation should be asked to put herself in an unsafe situation. If the young man was sidling up to the young woman on the cellphone to flirt with her or to harass her, she had every reason to hold her ground. Marie doesn't believe that this was the case, but neither Marie nor I nor anyone else can know how vulnerable the young woman felt at that moment.

The right thing, of course, is always to avoid potential harmful situations. If the young woman on the train believed she was doing this, then she had every right to ask the young man to sit elsewhere.

As soon as the train filled up with passengers and seats became scarcer, the right thing would be for her to remove her bag from the seat to allow other passengers to sit, even if that meant they might be sitting right next to her. Sometimes having to sit next to a stranger on a crowded train is an inherent risk of public transportation. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I understand the concerns here but in this day of remembering to "stay out of controversy in public situations", while philosophically we can advocate doing the right thing, it is only social suicide to get ourselves involved in something that can develop into potentially violent or even legally questionable situations.

Charlie Seng

Azalea Annie said...

Many women place their bag beside them when there are ample empty seats available. Why? To avoid flirting/coming on/escalating to harassment by a man. Who looks at a dozen available seats and chooses to sit by a woman who clearly doesn't want anyone in the seat next to her? Someone who wants to talk/flirt/come on to her, most likely.

So I agree with the woman's decision to indicate other available seats.

Of course, as the subway car or bus fills, she is likely to have to move her bag. If she's lucky, a woman will be walking towards her and she can move the bag and indicate the now-available seat. She has a buffer and two women sitting side by side are less likely to be harassed than a woman sitting alone.

Are women paranoid about this and similar situations? Yes - but remember: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to hit on you.

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