Giving up your seat on public transportation for someone who needs it should be a simple, easy gesture. And yet, almost all of us have seen an exhausted, heavily pregnant woman standing, ignored, in a train full of comfortably seated passengers; a not-at-all-pregnant woman humiliated by an unsolicited offer to sit; an elderly person forced to stay standing while struggling with heavy grocery bags… the list of cruel indignities goes on.
Part of this mess is that rules that should be straightforward in theory aren’t always in practice. Someone in their third trimester of pregnancy or ninth decade of life will probably be more than happy to accept a seat, sure, but what about the less clear-cut cases? Is it worth ruining the day of someone who might be bloated but not pregnant, or who has grey hair but is neither frail nor elderly? (“I think I get offered seats now because people see grey hair and think, ‘My god, she’s ancient, someone help her,'” says (not-ancient) Lifehacker Deputy Editor Alice Bradley.)
With this in mind, the Lifehacker staff has settled on a new rule: If you see someone who you think needs your seat more than you do, wait until they see you, and then simply get up. No need to make meaningful eye contact while doing that pointing gesture back and forth between the person and the seat. Just move. If they need the seat, they will swoop in and take it, and if not, you still attempted to do your good deed for the day, and is it really so bad to stand, anyway?
Of course, you run the risk that a clueless, able-bodied person will jump the gun and take the seat before your intended seat take-ee has the chance. (White men, we’re looking at you.) This sucks, but frankly, it’s worth the risk. What’s worse: Trying to do something nice and having a blundering idiot mess it up, or hurting the feelings of the person you were trying to help in the first place?
Now, if you’re able to make meaningful eye contact with that person – that is, the clueless seat-grabber – before they jump in and swipe a seat from someone who really needs it, all the better. But this is strictly case-by-case. The bottom line here is: Be considerate without being presumptuous, and get comfortable with the idea that you might be doing a favour for someone who will never realise it.