Sunday, January 10, 2016

Should #bagspreading be called out on trains?

During the holidays, a reader (let's call her "Marie") from a city in the Northeast hopped on her closest subway stop to take the train into the city to do some shopping. It was a Saturday afternoon, so the trains were not as crowded as they might have been during the weekday commute.

There were several seats open on the car Marie boarded, so she found one and sat down. Seated across from her was a young woman on her cellphone. The young woman had a large pocketbook placed on the seat next to her.

At the next stop, a young man boarded, looked around the train, which still had many empty seats and then asked the young woman on the cellphone to move her bag so he could sit on the seat next to her.

At first, the young woman didn't acknowledge him, but then she took a moment away from her cellphone call and said, "There are plenty of empty seats. Take one of them." She went back to her call.

The young man responded, "You're kidding me, right?" and stood staring at the young woman for a few seconds. He looked around the train at the other passengers, grumbling, "Can you believe this?" Finally, he moved down the train car and took one of the empty seats. The young woman remained on her call.

While there were plenty of seats available that the young man could have taken, Marie believes the young woman was wrong to take up more than one seat with her bag. Though it certainly wasn't the first time Marie had seen such discourteous behavior on the subway, it was the first time she had witnessed such a confrontation where the bag spreader refused to move a bag when asked. (Twitter is chock full of photos of such culprits tagged #bagspreader or #bagspreading.)

She wonders if she or another passenger should have weighed in to let the young woman know she should move her bag so the seat was available for other passengers.

The young woman on the cellphone is wrong to take up more than one seat on the subway car. She and other passengers should do the right thing and take up only one seat and hold on their laps any bags they might have with them. If they have too many bags, they should choose to stand rather than to take up multiple seats.

Rarely do subway conductors or employees make their way through the trains. If they did, they should ask riders to take up only one seat.

But Marie should have felt no obligation to weigh in. Doing so could escalate the situation more than needed. Since other seats were available, the right thing was for the young man to chalk the young woman's behavior up to rudeness and then to find another seat for the ride.

Other riders should avoid following the young woman's example and instead show some common courtesy while riding public transportation. It's not the fear of finding a photo of them behaving badly tweeted widely that should motivate them to take up only one seat. It's the right thing to do. 

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 KennedySchool. 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 



Phil Clutts said...

I’m with the “bag-woman.” Why - when there were many (or even just a few) other seats available – would a man ask a woman to accommodate his desire to sit next to her, forcing her to put her large bag on her lap? Not only that, he interrupted her cellphone conversation to do so. I think he was more presumptuous than she was rude (not that I am suggesting any virtue on her part). If and when cars fill up closer to capacity, of course, bag-carrying passengers in general should put them on their laps and not “hog” the adjoining seat.

I agree that this was a matter between the two principals and not one inviting the involvement of others.

Lisa in Columbus said...

I agree with Phil. If I were a single young woman on a train with many empty seats, I would feel very uncomfortable if a man asked me to move my bag so that he could sit right next to me. It's that request that seems inappropriate to me. I think it is ridiculous to expect someone to hold everything on his or her lap when there are plenty of other seats for passengers. If every other seat were taken, that would be a different situation.

William Jacobson said...

I agree with the previous posters. The lady with the bag was not out of line in placing the bag on the empty seat. She was not inconveniencing anyone by doing so. The man was wrong in interrupting the woman's call to insist on the already taken spot rather than any one of the many available seats already open. She was there first. Is this really the level of ethical quandary that we are troubling ourselves with?!? It is more a question of etiquette than ethics.

William Jacobson, esq.
Anaheim, CA

Robin4Ascii said...

I think the man asking to sit next her is creepy and possibly a danger to her. The bag next to her is signaling her need for a larger personal space. As the train (or elevator, for that matter) becomes more crowded our need for personal space shrinks accordingly unless your claustrophobic. The male passenger was inappropriate.