Underground Ethics: Pregnant on the subway


Lynn Harris wants you to know that she, while eight months’ pregnant, offered to give up her seat to an old man, and the old man refused. It has become such a part of her New York City identity that she felt obliged to put it in her bio to her latest online entry in The Times’ Complaint Box series of rants about Big Apple life.

As with most entitled New Yorkers these days, Ms. Harris, a native of Lexington, Massachusetts, lives somewhere near me in Park Slope. Her piece was about her sheer inability to find a seat on the subway while she was pregnant. Of course, she blames everyone else but herself in a scathing passive aggressive indictment of the supposedly selfish behavior underground:

Thank you so much, everyone, for offering me a seat on the subway when I’ve got my daughter in her stroller or my son in his Bjorn. (Or both.) I would like to rest for a moment; it’s awfully kind of you, indeed. And yes, by all means, you can help me get the stroller up the stairs. Thanks again.

I have just one question: Where were you people when I was pregnant? Oh, right. You were sitting comfortably in your seats. While I stood. In August.

It happened every time, with both pregnancies. When the train arrived, I’d exaggerate my waddle, brush a sweaty wisp from my forehead, emit a weary sigh and enter, gazing around for a seat or a good Samaritan. What I’d see: blank stares, bald spots, newspaper headlines. Headlines held up to hide faces. (Headlines that might have read “Chivalry Dead.”) No one budged. Time and again. No one budged.

If anyone did give up a seat — which, O.K., did happen, on days when there was a partial eclipse, a unicorn sighting and alternate-side parking suspended, or when I finally started asking for one — the donors appeared in this order of likelihood: (1) older woman, (2) younger woman, (3) minority man.

That’s right, folks: No white man every offered to give up his seat to Ms. Harris even during the sweltering months of August when temperatures on the subway cars are routinely held at 70-72 degrees. As you can tell from the tone of the first four paragraphs, the rest of the piece is just as tedious, but it does raise one of our many interesting underground ethics questions: Should people give up a seat to a pregnant lady or should the pregnant lady ask for a seat?

In the comments to Ms. Harris’ piece — mostly devoted to the millions of New Yorkers who do actually give up their seats — the jury is out. Many seem to believe that straphangers should willing cede seat space to someone visibly pregnant. Others though warn about the pregnancy faux pas. What if the woman in question is rather rotund but not pregnant?

Instead, the solution rests in the hands of the pregnant woman who should ask for a seat. “Excuse me, but may I please sit down?” Who could refuse that from someone potentially pregnant? Not I, and not the vast majority of straphangers I know.

In the end, Ms. Harris never ventures into this territory of underground behavior. She is content to simmer passive aggressively while supposedly few subway riders gave up seats for her. She brings out her frustration in a snark-filled column online, proving that she is no better or worse with her underground manners than those who sit with their noses buried in books and ears deep in iPod while the pregnant ladies all must stand.

19 Responses to “Underground Ethics: Pregnant on the subway”

  1. Chris says:

    I am of the belief that the pregnant woman should ask – and expect a non-disabled, non-elderly person to get up. Since not all disabilities are visible to the casual person (severe back problems, heart problems, breathing problems, etc.), she may not always get a seat when people are being properly courteous.

    Yes, this leaves the onus on the pregnant woman to ask for the seat. But, some people may be so preoccupied in their own worlds, that a polite “may I” is all that’s needed to get them out of their worlds for the short time needed to give the lady a seat….

    • anonymouse says:

      “Since not all disabilities are visible to the casual person”

      That’s very true and very important to remember. A couple years ago, I had some bad knee problems, and standing for any length of time, especially on a crowded train, got kind of painful. I’d take a seat if I could get one, and not give it up for pretty much anyone (I’d make an exception for an elderly person incapable of standing or something, but I don’t think that came up). Normally, though, I tend to give up my seat to anyone who looks deserving, and sometimes even to people who don’t (for example, so that a couple can sit together). I really don’t mind standing enough to care one way or the other.

      By the way, a related piece of subway etiquette: if there are free seats, TAKE THEM! I don’t see this so much in NYC, but on Boston’s Red Line, half the seats will be empty, and I’d have trouble walking through the car because everyone is standing. That just makes things less convenient for everyone, and wastes precious subway car space.

  2. Niels says:

    This whole post reminded me of an experiment in the NY subway around 1972, where psychology students asked for the seats of people in the subway (even when there were other free seats). In some ways of asking 68% complied with the request.

    The most surprising psychological founding was, however, the anxiety the people asking for the seats felt when they did. For some reason they felt an (unreasonable?) amount of guilt. I can imagine that this is also the case in pregnant women, even though they might have a good reason to ask for a seat.

  3. Grrrumpy Miner says:

    The late great Allen Ludden said it best when it comes to similar situations like you illustrated “Nobody cares what happens,so long as it don’t happen to them.” Think about it.

  4. rhywun says:

    Where has she been? Chivalry has been dead for about 30 years. Just ask for the seat.

  5. Scott E says:

    One quote from that article you missed, which is somewhat telling (for us good-intentioned-straphangers): “Perhaps you think people don’t offer women seats because they don’t want to make the faux pas of mistaking pregnant for fat”.

    I’ve been in that situation often. I don’t know this particular woman’s physical stature, but if the woman is overweight and/or wearing a heavy coat, sometimes it’s legitimately hard to tell. Also, if I’m halfway across a narrow IRT car and I give up my seat, chances are some other greedy passenger will take the seat before she can make her way over to it.

    • Scott E says:

      Let me clarify that this doesn’t mean that I refuse to offer seats. I absolutely do, if I know that the woman (or disabled passenger, or whomever) needs it. But if I’m unsure and I’m far away, I generally don’t for the reasons stated.

  6. Mike Nitabach says:

    I disagree. If I see someone who looks weary or uncomfortable or unsteady while standing, and I have a seat, I always offer my seat. This has nothing to do with any judgment on my part whether they “deserve” my seat. If my judgment is that the person *wants* a seat, I offer mine.

    In all my years of doing that, I have never got the impression that anyone was ever insulted by my offer.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Mr. Kabak, “passive-aggressive” is exactly right. When I’m seated on the subway I’m not scanning my fellow passengers to see who needs a seat more; I’m reading or listening to music (or both). If Lynn Harris asked me for my seat, I’d give it up, but if she doesn’t ask, I’d probably never notice she was there.

  8. Max says:

    Why do we give seats up to the pregnant and not the overweight?

    • Duke87 says:

      Well for one thing, being pregnant is more physically taxing than being overweight.
      For another, offering a seat to an obese person is like saying “hey, you’re too fat to stand! Why don’t you sit down, fattie?”. It’s an insult, not a polite gesture.

    • Scott E says:

      When my wife was pregnant (and rode the 7 train daily), she preferred to stand. I think it was a combination of the narrow seats and the difficulty in sitting and standing.

  9. Mike H says:

    Absolutely, people should offer a visibly pregnant women a seat. It is a lame excuse to say that people are in their own world and cannot notice their surroundings. Wake up, join the real world.

    Also, I think that seats should be offered to small children. It is dangerous for them to have to stand.

    Yes we can be civilized!!

    • Mike HC says:

      I have seen small children treat the seats like a jungle gym. I am always waiting for the subway to stop short and the kid to go flying. They would probably be safer or at least just as safe standing

  10. Max says:

    Im have never been overweight or pregnant so I can’t speak to how taxing one is over the other.

  11. Mike HC says:

    So pregnant women deserve to get a seat, but fat women don’t? I think the proper etiquette would be to give your seat up to anyone, man or women, who seems to be in obvious discomfort while standing. You shouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to decide whether a person needs the seat more than you do.

    I have given up my seat a couple of times while on the subway, but I don’t make a habit of it, and don’t actively seek out people to give my seat up to. If the situation is in obvious need for someone to step up, I have done so in the past.

  12. zgori says:

    I think in most cases it’s not that people aren’t willing to offer seats, it’s that they simply aren’t looking at their fellow passengers.

  13. Zoe says:

    I very rarely offer my seat to anyone, but if someone asks for it, I always give it up. Everyone on the train is so preoccupied, a pregnant woman shouldn’t just expect people to offer, but ask nicely and put a hand on her stomach, and I’m sure she’d get one almost every time.

  14. Jen says:

    All I can say is that you have clearly never been pregnant or disabled in anyway while riding the subway. Even asking politely for a seat that had opened up while pointing to my belly, a woman and everyone around her chose to flat out ignore me. Experiencing that kind of attitude in the subway will cure any notion of the thought that New Yorkers, in general, are polite.

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