Every day I ride the train to and from work and for the most part I enjoy it. Some of my most powerful interactions have happened while riding the train; moments where the biggest city in the country has felt like the closest of communities. But lately I’ve found myself walking that fine and sometimes awkward line of quintessential Canadian politeness. The dilemma? When is it appropriate to offer someone my seat?
This predicament, which may seem silly to the non-train commuter, is one I encounter almost daily and sometimes leaves me racked with guilt. The two biggest contributors to this issue are pregnant women and the elderly.
I used to jump out of my seat at the mere sight of a pregnant woman. I’d gesture and say “sit, sit!” and then merge myself with the rest of the commuting crowd, content in knowing I’d given an expectant mother some respite. Until the day I got a lecture on how hard it is for a pregnant woman to move from the target of my goodwill. A woman late in her pregnancy had stepped on the train; I made eye contact with her and asked if she’d like to sit. She gruffly told me not to bother getting up. “Do you see how big I am?” She said. “If I sit down I need two people to help me get back up again, and even then I’m too slow to make it to the doors in time! So unless you’re willing to ride with me to my stop and help me get up, don’t bother!” I was apologetic, but mostly embarrassed for having felt I had offended her. After all, I was just trying to be polite. Then she began to lecture me on the fact that the times during pregnancy when women really need to sit no one bothers to offer a seat. Why? Because they are newly pregnant and not showing yet. I was unaware, having never been pregnant before, and since I didn’t know how to respond without making her more upset I just agreed.
My next interaction with an expectant mother was even more twisted, mostly because I wasn’t sure whether she was expecting or had just eaten a large lunch. During my internal deliberation of whether she might or might not be pregnant and whether she may or may not want a seat I caught myself starring intently at her belly. I looked up to find her glaring at me for glaring at her belly. Eyes locked, we both knew what the other was thinking, and my question was answered – she’d just eaten a large lunch. Again I found myself feeling embarrassed while attempting to be polite to (what I thought was) a pregnant woman.
Being polite to the elderly is like trying to jump rope on thin ice. No matter what you do your conscience is going to be dunked in freezing water, shocking you into a hypothermic state where you realize you’re an asshole. I have often offered my seat to people whom then bark at me “I’m not THAT old!” or “just because I have white hair doesn’t mean I can’t stand on my own!” (or some other variation on age not equaling frailty). I have also often not offered my seat (because of these past experiences of offending someone) only to have the person next to me offer theirs instead. Call it Murphy’s Law, but it seems when that happens the elderly person in question makes some sarcastic remark about how it’s nice to see that SOME people still respect their elders, as they glare at me. In my experience, when it comes to seats on the train, if you offer, you’re rude for implying their old, and if you don’t offer, you’re rude for not respecting their oldness. Either way, you’re young and an asshole.
Because of these experiences and my staunchly Canadian mentality I’ve found myself trying to be so polite that I come off as rude. Now I’m too afraid to offend a woman, so I don’t offer a seat. I’ve learned my lesson – never assume someone is pregnant. And I’m too nervous to offend the elderly. I’ve learned my lesson – there’s no winning in the battle of politeness!
I heartily admire those that can walk the line of politeness and not fall as well as those that just don’t care and say what we’re all thinking. The other day I was on the train when a young man started coughing without covering his mouth. I, and everyone around him, grimaced. He didn’t seem to realize because he continued to hack and rattle his phlegmy lungs with abandon. Again, I was too polite to say anything, and so was everyone sitting around him, except for one. A homeless man made eye contact with me in mid-grimace. He didn’t nod or make any other gesture to make it seem that he understood my discomfort, but the next time that guy coughed, the homeless man walked straight over, pointed at him, and said “cover your mouth when you cough!”