Welcome to Salon's Social Bootcamp. Fancy is the pen name of Kirsten Schofield, a writer who spends her spare time considering modern etiquette, manners and social mores. If you have a question that's technical (Which fork do I use?) or theoretical (How shall I assess the unspoken rules of conduct at my new Pilates studio?), direct it to email@example.com and she’ll do her best to shepherd you in the direction of correct behavior.
I take the subway to work in Los Angeles. Every day, I watch able-bodied men and women sit in the seats designated for seniors and disabled people. People with small children, the elderly, and sometimes even people walking with canes either have to stand or wind their way through the middle of the car to find a seat.
I have spoken up a couple of times when I haven't had a seat to offer, and offered my seat when I had one. I just can't believe how rude and inconsiderate people are. I don't want to turn into the crusader of the Metro, but I don't enjoy seeing people who clearly need a seat standing. What do I do?
Mad on the Metro
When you’re the only one in the car, when you’re carrying thirty pounds of Trader Joe’s Kung Pao cauliflower tempura, or when your bladder is so full it feels like a liability, those reserved seats become so tempting, don’t they? Sure, even the most sainted among us has thought, “I want to sit down and I’ll get up if the occasion arises.”
The question for consideration isn’t really “is it okay to use this accommodation if I am not the person for whom it was designed?” The answer to that is clear: it’s absolutely an ungentlepersonly move to take the seat for people in need of special considerations. A lot of people have disabilities that aren’t immediately obvious but still require accommodations, and many people hate to ask you to get up, even though they really, really need you to. So that’s not up for debate: If you’re one of those people MOTM is seeing on her morning commute, change your behavior immediately.
Your question, MOTM, seems to be more like what can I do and what should I do in these situations? To answer the “can” part, I turned to Norma Krautmeyer, an attorney specializing in veteran’s disability. “There's not much to be done. I've never heard of fines or tickets for this, and the question of who is disabled enough for these seats is fairly open. Unlike handicapped parking spots, there is no doctor's endorsement required.” So there you have it: you’ve got no legal ground or formal complaint process at your disposal.
Now to address what you should do: Nothing. You don’t know this person you’re engaging, so there’s two risks you run. One is that that person may have a concern that entitles them to this seat that is invisible to you, like I mentioned before. Perhaps the person who seems well to a stranger is battling the early days of Parkinson’s and the Levdopa he’s taking is giving him unbearable nausea. You don’t know, and he is not beholden to you to wear a sign explaining his health status to strangers.
The second reason is more practical: you don’t know what this seemingly healthy person’s reaction to being confronted might be. Perhaps she will become violent, or berate the person for whom you are trying to advocate. Then you’ve created a (possibly dangerous) scene and still the eight-months-pregnant woman doesn’t have a chair. The risks outweigh the potential rewards.
Keep doing what you’re doing, MOTM. Stay out of the designated seats, and offer your standard-issue chair to anyone needing accommodation once those fill up.
Yours on the right track,
I work in an office park and there is only one bus back from there back into the city. All my coworkers leave the office at about the same time, so we end up on the same bus to the nearest public transportation hub. How do I get out of talking to them every day about their days/the weather/our crappy boss? Is it okay to say polite goodbyes and put in headphones even though I will likely be a few seats back from them for a half hour? Or should I keep pretending I have to pick up a prescription and get off at the first stop?
Not Much to Discuss on the Bus
All jobs come with unspoken requirements you have to intuit as you go. At your office, it would seem that shared transit is one of those expectations that wasn’t in your employment contract. You are obligated to leave the work on the same bus as your colleagues. Note that I didn’t say you have to ride the bus with them; in no way does this need to be a shared experience. You’re free to do as much or as little chatting as you want, but you need to plan a little since you see these people daily and their good opinions matter.
To regain some modicum of quietude on your ride, you have two options. The first is simple: stagger your leave time a little bit, which it sounds like you’re already doing to some extent with your CVS fake-out. Take the bus after the bus everyone else takes if you really don’t want to deal with anyone. Bonus: you look like you’re working harder to your aforementioned crappy boss.
The second option is to prepare to board the bus a little differently. If your office is like most, there’s a moment of mass exodus around quitting time. Hang back from the herd for a sec, queue up your podcast, put in your earbuds, then go out to the bus stop. Only a truly clueless person is going to try to engage you in conversation about the Q3 earnings report once you’ve put on your headphones and given the international “do not bother me” sign.
If after you’ve gotten on the bus, your colleague sits down next to you and wants to engage in water cooler-esque chatter, take out you earbud and say in a very gentle voice, “I don’t want to be rude, but I had a stressful day and need a little time to decompress before I get home. I hope you don’t mind.” Done. Put that sucker right back in. You don’t owe them entertainment on the way back to town, just the dignity that comes with a response.
Yours in shared fares,