Why don't people give up their seats on public transport?

A mother who was forced to stand while breastfeeding on a crowded train, has urged people to show "common courtesy". But often it's not selfishness that stops us from making a kind gesture, it's a fear of the consequences - writes bbc.com

We've all been on a crowded bus, a rush-hour train or Tube carriage with people packed like sardines - when someone gets on and looks around for a seat.

Maybe you haven't noticed them - headphones clamped to your ears, attention gripped by a podcast. Or perhaps your eyes are fixed to your phone, your head absorbed in a mind-numbing game.

Maybe you haven't noticed. Or just maybe, you've pretended not to notice. That, says mother Kate Hitchens, was the reason she was forced to stand on a busy train while breastfeeding her baby .

There are plenty of other examples of people needing seats and passengers refusing to move.

Selfishness and inattention play a part, says Dr Oliver Scott Curry, an expert in human behaviour, based at the University of Oxford. But, in some cases so does buck-passing.

"Everyone can be waiting for someone else to do it, thinking 'why should it be me? I'm exhausted'.

"They're just passing the buck."

Almost everyone has heard of someone graciously offering a seat to a "pregnant" woman, only to be rebuked for their insensitivity. The woman in question had actually just enjoyed a big lunch and would be perfectly fine standing, thanks very much.

"There's a fear of getting it wrong, of seeming patronising or thinking someone is a charity case. It doesn't hurt for the person needing help to ask for it."

And yet, just when it seems like humanity is doomed by self-interest, Dr Curry has observed a encouraging flipside - "competitive helping". This, he says, is where passengers almost fall over themselves to give up their seat to prove they're the most chivalrous.

Gogglebox star and social etiquette expert Mary Killen can remember a time when it was "the custom that men always made their seat available to women and older people".

"But now I think they've been frightened by feminists biting their heads off."

Ms Killen, who writes an advice column for The Spectator magazine, says denial among seated passengers is not a reasonable excuse.

"It's usually clear when someone needs a seat as they are either looking for [one] or trying to make eye contact. People should offer."

What about the risk of social stigma at offering your hard-earned pew to someone who isn't in need.

"It's worth getting your head snapped off, because these little acts of recognition of other humans are of such value."

Of Kate Hitchens' experience, Ms Killen says simply that "someone should have given this lady a seat. It's extraordinary no one did, unless they were all zombified by their mobiles".

"I also think we're becoming increasingly selfish as a society."

Rebecca Willcox, who has secondary breast cancer, has written about her experience of interacting with strangers who cannot see she's unwell.

"From your perspective, riding a few stops without a seat isn't a great inconvenience, but for me it can mean a period of constant bangs and painful jolts to my back," she wrote in an article for Breast Cancer Care .

Speaking to BBC News, Mrs Willcox says she always asks for a seat as she doesn't expect people to look around and notice her badge announcing she needs to sit down.

"Only once has someone leapt up without me asking."

But when she has asked, "every single time, someone has offered me a seat" although she has detected "grumbles."

'Awkward situation'

Mrs Willcox says one woman didn't think there was anything wrong with her while a man seated on a busy platform gawped at her stomach, to see if she was pregnant, before giving up his privileged place.

"I've also had an entire carriage stand up, and it's almost embarrassing to have to choose who to turf out.

"Another time, someone at the opposite end stood up - other people had clearly looked at me and thought 'no'. I then had the awkward situation of having to shuffle past them.

"Looking at me, you wouldn't know there was anything wrong. But I'm on aggressive chemotherapy and need to sit down as I'm nauseous most of the time.

"It makes me a bit sad that people have looked at me and decided for themselves I don't need a seat. I almost want to tell them: 'You have no idea how difficult it is, living with cancer and chemotherapy side effects'."

Adam Partridge from etiquette experts Debrett's offers the following advice: "If you see someone that looks as if they are uncomfortable and would appreciate a seat, then it is good manners to offer yours."

It is better to ask and be rejected than not ask at all, he advises, and that "there's a responsibility on both sides to refrain from taking offence".

So what can transport companies do?

Dr Curry says he wants others to follow the example of Transport for London, which initiated the "baby on board" badge scheme. It's also now launched a badge for those with other, less obvious, reasons they need to take the weight off their feet.

The "Please offer me a seat" badge has been issued 81,000 times, with the scheme adopted by Greater Anglia Trains and the New York Transit Authority.

And over the summer it also backed the Look Up campaign started by Corry Shaw , who uses the Please Offer Me a Seat badge, but found often people just avoided eye contact, or didn't notice her at all.

Ms Shaw, who has a spine disorder, said it "makes her sad" that some people are embarrassed or scared of causing offence.

"If you are unsure about offering in case you cause offence you don't need to verbally offer," she wrote, "just stand and if the person needs the seat believe me they will jump right in it (or sort of wobble into it if it's me)."

Disability Pregnancy Transport
If you notice an error, highlight the text you want and press Ctrl + Enter to report it to the editor
4 views in december
I recommend
No recommendations yet


Post your comment to communicate and discuss this article.

Thames Water said the Beast from the East and summer heatwave had an impact on its ability to meet leakage targets as it reported interim pre-tax profits crashing to £67.7 million from £218.5 million a year ago. The water company also revealed the extreme weather sent complaints soaring as it battled supply interruptions, with written customer complaints jumping to 11,083 in the half-year to September 30 from 8,242 a year earlier. Thames Water was ordered...
A British tourist has gone missing in New Zealand, sparking an international appeal for help from her family. Grace Millane was last seen in Auckland on Saturday night (Dec 1), and has not been in contact with her family since - despite her 22nd birthday being on Sunday. Her family, from Basildon in Essex, have alerted the British Embassy in New Zealand and reported her missing to police in Auckland, as well as sharing 'missing' posters on social media. De...
The main reason for sickness absence in the London Fire Brigade is now stress, anxiety and depression, Commissioner Dany Cotton has said. LFB has seen a "small increase" in the number of days taken off as sick leave over the last three years, Ms Cotton, the brigade's most senior firefighter, said. It is the first time mental health has been the leading cause of the absences, she told the London Assembly on Thursday. LFB employed four extra counsellors foll...
A 77-year-old woman who collapsed while calling police to report a burglary at her home is critically ill in hospital. She dialled 999 on Monday to report intruders had forced their way into her home in Bells Hill, High Barnet, north-east London, and stolen property. During the call, the police operator heard her collapse. Paramedics arrived and she was taken to hospital, where her family remains at her bedside. Scotland Yard said its Homicide and Major Cr...
A medieval skeleton wearing a pair of thigh-high leather boots has been found during excavations for London's new sewer. The skeleton was discovered face down in mud at the Chambers Wharf site in Bermondsey during work to create the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Archaeologists believe the man may have died during the late 15th Century while carrying out work near the river. MOLA Headland Infrastructure said it was a "rare" and "fascinating" find. The consortium i...
Christmas lights in an upmarket shopping street were taken down after just three days by council inspectors who branded them a “death trap”. The decorations were put up in Primrose Hill by Jonny Bucknell, the son of the UK’s first DIY television star Barry Bucknell, with a switch-on ceremony on Sunday by model Jo Wood, ex-wife of Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie, and singer-songwriter Collette Cooper. But on Wednesday, Camden council bosses removed and impo...
More than 130,000 children across Great Britain will spend Christmas in temporary accommodation, official figures suggest. One in every 103 under-18s is officially homeless, a 59% rise in five years, housing charity Shelter said. One mother-of-three said her children were preparing for Christmas in a one-room bed and breakfast for the second year running. Councils said a lack of housing had left them "struggling to cope". Using government statistics, Shelt...
News Company
Thanks to the groundbreaking partnership between MoneyTO and the Polish company South Link Commerce, it's now faster and easier to make online money transfers from the UK to Polish bank accounts. The deal between the two companies was finalized at Fintech 360 conference, the annual gathering of financial innovators, in Vienna, Austria. As Polish is the most common non-British nationality in the UK, with an estimated total of 1 million Poles making Britain...
A treetop adventure course popular with Cara Delevingne and Mo Farah has extended its after-dark sessions after a surge in demand.  Go Ape in Battersea has opened up one of its high-rope challenges from 5pm until 6.30pm so daredevils can test their climbing skills in darkness. Olympic legend Farah scaled the 50ft-high course with his family this month. Other celebrity adventurers have included grime star Stormzy and actors Will Ferrell, David Schwimmer and...