“Check yourself,” an older woman who was seated on the subway car in Boston yelled quite loudly and clearly agitatedly at the young man who was standing next to her. “Your backpack keeps hitting me.”
The young man shifted a bit presumably so his backpack would be behind him and not knocking against the seated woman next to him. No luck.
“Just take the backpack off,” she yelled, repeating: “Check yourself.”
Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority can be an amazingly efficient way to get to work. I ride it every weekday morning. Most typically, it is anything but efficient. As more riders returned this year, the MBTA claimed it was short-staffed so trains ran less frequently, which resulted in longer waits and many passengers seeming to be a bit more on edge. Sometimes the boards announcing wait times work. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes an announcer asks people to remove their backpacks before boarding, but most often that announcement doesn’t run. The MBTA is consistently inconsistent.
More passengers carrying backpacks do not remove their backpacks when they are riding the train. Rarely does anyone call them on it, even when their backpacks occasionally knock into the person behind or next to them.
But the seated older woman on this morning called out the young man quite sternly and loudly.
Should the young man have been thoughtful enough to remove his backpack upon entering the train? At the very least should he have been aware enough of his surroundings to realize his backpack was knocking into the woman next to him? Should he have had the wherewithal to “check himself” without having to be yelled at to do so?
And was the seated older woman right to yell at the young man before asking him if he could remove his backpack? She did, after all, go right to a DEFCON-level engagement before simply asking him to remove his backpack because it was hitting her.
No one I know likes to be smacked around with a backpack. It seems a normal response to be agitated when it happens. But sometimes simply pointing out the issue to the backpack wearer and asking if they might remove it can resolve the issue. And yes, sometimes people being asked to correct their behavior – even if asked politely – respond badly.
In searching for the right thing to do in such circumstances, the young man should have been more aware of how his appendage might cause discomfort to other passengers and the older seated woman should have considered whether yelling was the most effective way to resolve the issue.
The young man did not remove his backpack, but he did get off at the next stop. I placed my backpack that had been on one of my shoulders between my feet as I stood for the rest of the ride. I should have thought to check myself and place it there when I got on the train in the first place.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin