The Humanist Dilemma: When Should You Offer Someone Your Seat on Public Transportation?

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Stand-Up Guy or Sit-Down Strike: I’m never sure when to offer a seat to someone standing on a bus or train. I’ve tried offering my seat to pregnant women or people with small children, and my gesture is refused as often as it’s accepted. I worry about insulting older people who may be able-bodied enough to stand. And now I’m at the point where others are offering their seats to me—and I don’t like it. Do I really appear old and feeble? On the other hand, when I have a long trip, I feel I have the right to stay comfortably seated, but there’s no way I can announce, “Could someone else give this person a seat? I need mine myself.”

—Uneasy Rider


Dear Uneasy,

It is a tricky bit of chivalry to make the right call on this, as David Sedaris noted recently.

My years getting around a city on public transportation have been very educational on this topic. When I had foot surgery, my doctor gave me a cane—not because I needed it to walk, he explained, but to make others aware of the giant cast on my foot. It helped, but not very much. Few people felt compelled to offer me a seat (or hold open a door, or refrain from shoving). When I was enormously pregnant and riding crowded subway trains, I would intentionally lean my belly into the Wall Street Journals seated men were reading—or pretending to read—to no avail. It happened that women standing next to me would rap the guys on the shoulders and command, “Give this lady your seat!” and up they’d pop, suitably embarrassed. One time on a bus, a lovely, frail gentleman who must have been pushing ninety, insisted I take his seat. Even at nine months pregnant, I considered myself way more fit to stand on a lurching vehicle, and graciously declined. He persisted, and, realizing I was distressing him, I gave in and took his place.

In recent years, I’ve been taken aback by people offering me seats. I must have passed some point where I seem elderly. When some nice young person offers me their seat, I feel like saying, “I’ll have you know I skied a double black diamond a few weeks ago,” but mostly I simply thank them and explain I’m getting off soon, or thank them and take the seat. I guess when you’re young, older people look old, and our moms taught us to give up our seats to the elderly. I’ve compared notes with others my age and the consensus is to accept the offers and enjoy them as a reward for surviving this long.

Since deciding whether to offer a seat is done in the spur of the moment—without time to analyze things such as whether a person is sufficiently unsteady, far enough along in her pregnancy, or likely to welcome the offer—when in doubt, discreetly offer your seat. If the target of your kindness declines it, it will only be a momentary blip. And if you really want (or need) your seat, keep it. Hopefully someone else will rise to the occasion.