The T for two, and other questions of underground etiquette

I have not been out today, and have no plans to go out tonight. I may have tonsilitis. I feel like hell.

I was reading Brian McGrory's column in the Globe, about how so few T commuters, particularly the young, but also able-bodied middle-aged people and even T police, will give up their seat for a pregnant woman. This is a topic that is also hotly debated on the pages of the Boston Metro at least two or three times a year, although sometimes the issue is clouded by unrealistic expectations of chivalry on the part of able-bodied women who are not pregnant, but suffer from the Queen of Sheba Syndrome.

Of course it's a shame that in this most urbane and civilized of American cities, this most progressive of urban environments, people are so poorly educated in basic etiquette. But it is certainly not surprising. Boston is a me-first city, full of entitled individuals who can think of all sorts of justifications for being cunts, not least because everyone else seems to be. That young people pay no attention to anyone else is also not surprising in a society that insists there is no one else. It's me-me-me 24-7! It's Me, inc. It's The Me Show, staaaarrrrringgg ME!

You can also see the political modus operandi of the moment at work here: surely someone else will give up his seat to that poor pregnant lady. Boston is a great city for mouthing off about abstract political ideals and doing nothing to put them into action in our daily lives. That's somebody else's department.

But there are also more prosaic explanations. It's embarrassing if you don't jump up right away and offer your seat, and you start to think, well, if I get up now, everyone will know I expected someone else to give it up before I had to. Better not to call attention to my own pettiness by making a big scene. Then, too, there are those who look up sort of gingerly, as if to give the pregnant woman an opportunity to speak up for herself if she really wants their seat, and when she doesn't say anything, feel justified in keeping it for themselves. After all, if she needed to sit down, she woulda said something, right? I mean, she's pregnant, not a deaf-mute, right?

Of course, etiquette simply enshrines behavior that is already intuitively obvious. Etiquette exists to simplify things in society a bit. It's a way to standardize behavior in oft-repeated social situations. Things just function more smoothly when people behave, and etiquette reminds us how to behave, but we really already know. I mean, the core of it is the Golden Rule, idn't it?

Another good example of how unenlightened self-interest interferes with society running smoothly: folks without the sense to stand to the side of the doors when they're on the platform, allowing people off the train before they get on. This just makes good sense, people. Why is it that so few of us do it? An abject, animal fear of missing the train, should the conductor shut the doors before you can get in? Or that selfish, survival instinct that kicks in when you spy a free seat? Ask yourself, would you behave this way around people who knew you? Is it the anonymity of public spaces that gives us license to behave badly?

It can seem like a war of all aginst all in the underground--fierce competition for scarce resources, very Darwinian. But remember, as the New Darwinists point out: reciprocal altruism is also very Darwinian.

And then, too, there's karma.


At 11/12/2005 9:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mikey, as you may have guessed, I am one of the, appairently, rare people who will offer his seat to obviously pregnant woman. But I do feel compelled to relate a story about the degree of advancement. I was riding the #1 bus a couple of years ago. An extremely pregnant young woman got on the bus and to my disgust, no one offered her a seat. As she got shoved down the bus by the indifferent public she got close to my seat. I started to get up and began offering her my seat. (one of those nice single jobbies you don't have to share with the fat arsed people you commented on) The young woman declined my gallantry, explaining,"that if she sat down, she'd never be able to get back up."

I should also point out that on more than one occasion, young woman spotting my grey hair, have offered me their seats on trains and buses.

Sure, you tend to notice butt heads more. They are pretty obnoxious and so make themselves obvious, but there are some kind souls out there. Let's give a shout for the folks that are polite. Maybe it could become a new trend.

By the way, I ain't that old yet and have turned down the kind offers of the young folk in question, except for one particularly insistant young lady, who I think would have put me in a hammer lock and forced me into the seat if I didn't take it on my own.

the garden gnome


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