Service of We Get What We Deserve

December 17th, 2009

Categories: Attitude, Audacity, Courtesy, Manners

Joanne Kaufman wrote a column, “Too Polite?” in Town & Country‘s January issue in which she ponders the surprising dynamic of being snapped at when she offers her seat to older people who are standing in a subway or bus.

I mentioned this to Pierre, a charming, young, very helpful doorman who guards our office building. He nodded his head and said, “I will never again offer my seat to anyone. I have been yelled at for the last time.” (Could this be why so few give up their seats to women who are 9 months pregnant?)

For goodness sakes, can’t people recognize and encourage others for doing something generous? Are people so self-centered as to misunderstand a gracious gesture? The person who gives up a seat isn’t trying to insult, only to be respectful and compassionate AND polite. What’s wrong with a big smile, and “Thank you, no, I’m getting out at the next stop” in return?

Obviously when they were little, Joanne and Pierre’s mothers–as did mine–nudged them in the ribs when someone older entered the bus to remind them to give up their seat. Joanne wrote that she is instructing her children to do this. In the article she marveled that friends and family reprimand her for training her children to write thank you notes as well as for what she considers other standard customs of civilized behavior.

This kind of attitude has repercussions, albeit small ones. When someone crashes into me, or my package, on a city sidewalk, I can’t remember the last time I heard an apology. Has “excuse me” dropped from our vocabulary? Yesterday someone slammed into my niece and said nothing to her as she gathered her footing.

If you apologize, be sure to check out the crasher’s expression: He/she will look angry at you!

I’m sidewalk savvy, having grown up in New York, which means I have invisible antennae that gauge when there are others around me. City nubies, take heart–this doesn’t matter. Bumping and slamming happens anyway and not only in NY, but also in Paris, where, like here, the silent treatment trumps an apology.

So many people grouse about “young people today.”  I’m ashamed of older ones who should know better.

How do people think we will live together cordially in an increasingly jam-packed world when they merrily shrug off and diminish the importance of the most fundamental and simple ways we can lubricate human interaction? What happened to “peace on earth, goodwill to men-and women?”

10 Responses to “Service of We Get What We Deserve”

  1. Nancy Farrell Said:

    One of my earliest memories is of being on the subway with my father. Three nuns got on and my dad whispered to me to offer my seat to one of them. I did and they all smiled at me and it felt nice to be smiled at. Once they got off I asked my father why I had to give up my seat to a nun when our religion doesn’t even have nuns. He told me it was a sign of respect. So that’s what I would tell Pierre to say to anyone who snaps at him for giving up a seat. That he meant to show respect. He probably won’t get an apology but he will make the other person squirm and re-think their attitude.

    As for Joanne, I’d tell her to keep teaching her children to do what’s right. It will serve them well in life–people without manners have limited options.

  2. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    I find young people pretty regularly rude, and it disturbs me, because I wonder how they’ve been raised and what kind of parents they will become.

    Working at home, I find—when doing errands in the neighborhood—that if I pause to hold a door open so that a mother can collect and propel her oversize baby stroller through the doorway, chances are she will say nothing, and not even extend a nod of recognition. Yes, I know no good deed goes unpunished, but still. . . .

    Riding a bus, I see it’s the mature women, not the men—and certainly not the teens who ride the buses and subways free!—who offer the elderly or disabled a seat. This is New York; the rest of the country may be different. But I do wonder if young people everywhere have discarded good manners in the crush of trying to get ahead or stay afloat today?


  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancy, great suggestion for Pierre. I will share it with him. But why the grouches who snap at seat givers don’t get that is beyond me. It’s not the seat-giver’s fault that someone has been lucky enough to live to have gray hair!

    Merv, I always hold doors for people–sometimes a UPS or deliveryman with a dolly filled with boxes. Working folks tend to thank. I cringe when reaching the door to my office building with hands full and the person ahead of me sails in or out letting the door slam shut in my face if I can’t slip my foot in the door fast enough. People are more distracted now than before with music ringing in their ears or chatting on cell phones, but still.

    The mothers you describe sound as though they feel entitled to service. I’ve met folks like that. Not my favorites! Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins, just you wait until their children treat them the way they’ve observed their parents treat others. Heh heh.

  4. Thomas Yip Said:

    I usually offer my seat to the elderly or anyone who seems to need it more than I do. With that said, should I get in other people’s way to offer someone else my seat in a moving crowded subway during rush hour?

    I know it sounds like an episode of Seinfeld, but in some cases when the subway’s too crowded I don’t bother offering my seat (unless I see someone who seems to have trouble holding on), but in the end I always feel guilty about it afterward. Should there be some kind of commonly-accepted guideline for offering your seats? What if I can’t tell if someone is pregnant or just wearing a puffy jacket? What if you are quite sure that your intended seat-offeree won’t fit in your seat?

    I think I’m selling this idea to Larry David!

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I am still laughing, Thomas! Envisioning the segment you describe, I add what I’ve seen: A lovely person offering his/her seat and a greedy, young person with no disability scooting in to grab it first!

    I like Nancy’s suggestion to have words top of mind should someone be rude when you offer your seat. I can’t imagine any sane person not being grateful for a lovely gesture. As for rules…follow your gut. Thomas, I get the feeling that yours is right-on every time.

  6. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I’m laughing, too, Thomas! I agree with Jeanne that I’m sure your instincts are correct. My husband has struggled with these scenarios, too, but chooses to take the path of least resistance. He hardly ever offers his seat because he refuses to sit at all unless every woman, child, disabled & elderly person has a seat. What this means is that he stands a lot! I’ve spent 22 years trying to convince him that he shouldn’t have to stand so that a younger, able-bodied woman can sit but there’s no convincing him. I’m curious to see what he’ll do once he becomes elderly–will he stand and risk losing his balance? He’ll probably plan every excursion by riding only during off-peak times when seats will be plenty.

  7. Simon Carr Said:

    I’m a little old, and I do find that occasionally I am offered a seat by someone on a bus. I always refuse it probably out of false pride. But what’s interesting is that the offerer, young or mature, male or female, is almost always Asian. By the way, I do get up for ladies, espectally if they are old and feeble or pregnant, and even more especially if they are pretty. (Don’t tell my wife!)


  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancy, some of the bus lines in NYC are so slow in coming that they are crowded even off peak, so your husband may remain in good shape for many moons because as they rattle along and use air brakes to stop, remaining upright, especially as you negotiate the aisle to reach the door, can be a bit like skiing on rocks.

    Simon, when you refuse a seat, how do you respond? Are you grouchy and rude, as those described in the post, or charming and grateful?

  9. Paula Said:

    Oh, this is a good topic! I’ve been in NYC just over two years now and being able-bodied (36 year old woman), I try to help when I can – offer my seat, assist a Mom/caretaker with their stroller up those darn subway stairs, etc.

    About a year ago I was on the bus sitting next to a girl about my age and an older woman got on. My neighbor gave up her seat and the woman gladly, and thankfully, took it. At the next stop, another older woman got on and I gave her my seat. She thanked me and turned to the other woman to comment how “the girls are the only ones who give us their seats.”

    I often hold doors for people, and I’d say half respond with a “thank you.” While it’s, at times, maddening to deal with rude people, there are those – like the two women on the bus – who appreciate it and make you feel good. I’m not perfect and not always aware of an opportunity to help someone, but I like to think it’s never wrong to do the right thing.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Thanks, Paula. It does make you feel good to do something caring and to be rewarded with gratitude. I guess those of us who tend to do this kind of thing should continue to do so because if we don’t, the world will be a horrendous place.

    I saw something yesterday that I considered the ultimate in selfishness, and may have been done by one of the self-centered women for whom Merv holds doors during work breaks in his neighborhood. I was dashing through the main lobby of Grand Central terminal and in the middle, on the marble floor, sat a well-dressed woman with a baby on her lap and a baby carriage next to her. She was eating a slice of pizza, chatting happily with someone who was standing over her, causing a traffic glitch. In the basement of this railroad station is a huge dining area with free seats and tables galore.

    You often see young people sitting against the walls reading or waiting for friends. They are mostly out of the way. But this woman’s arrogance and caring-less about her choice of roosting spot and how it might affect others bothered me. Was she trying to be chosen for a reality show?

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