Heads down, phones up
This morning I had a nosebleed on the train. I’ve been prone to nosebleeds since i was little; every cold I endure will either begin or end with one, a sudden change in temperature from cold to warm can cause the blood vessels in my nose to rupture without warning, and my nose even started bleeding once when I hit the high note singing Let it go in my second year uni house, I kid you not. For me it’s not much more than an irritant, and even on a busy commuter train I can navigate to my emergency packet of tissues and control the situation. But I was surprised that it took four stops for someone to offer me a seat.
I've never been pregnant and at the prime age of 25 I'm also not a candidate for seat offers because I look older and frail - I'm more used to fighting with fellow male and female commuters alike to slide into the vacated seat on the 7.47 to Charing Cross - and so this is perhaps the first time in my life I have felt that I was deserving of the offer for a seat. (I am ignoring self-inflicted hungover mornings where all the self-pity in the world convinces me that I am more worthy of a seat than anyone else). Picture any train into London at 8am on a Thursday, me standing halfway down the aisle, rummaging in my backpack for a pack of tissues without my eyes to aid me because I am tilting my head right back to stop blood from streaming down a freshly made up face and outfit on the way into work, causing a visible kerfuffle before spending the remainder of the journey clutching a tissue to my nose with one hand, and clinging to the back of a seat with the other. Four stops and fifteen minutes go by, until I felt a gentle tap on my arm and turn to face a considerably older woman asking me if I would like to sit in her seat - someone who, on another day, I might have offered my seat to. What was everyone else around me doing? They were all balls deep in their phones.
Can we genuinely be excused for not offering a seat to someone in need of one because we ‘didn't see’ them? The truth is, not seeing someone is now easier than ever. Why should our phones, iPads, airpods and kindles give us plausible deniability to ignore people around us who may be deserving of our attention and, in this case, your seat?
I'm not playing the martyr, I was quite comfortable standing there, tissue in hand, rather than drawing more attention to myself by awkwardly shuffling and squeezing around the carriage to take someone’s seat. But that in itself is telling - we are so concerned with awkwardness that it has stopped us from acting on our compassionate human impulses. Take pregnant women as an example. Unless they are wearing a Baby on board badge, there is the awkward "are they"/"aren't they" moment when a woman in a floaty dress or a visibly bloated tummy gets on the train (it happens to all of us). Risk being the carriage clown by offering a seat to someone who isn’t pregnant, or be rewarded with praise and thanks for guessing right and be the carriage hero? It's a thought process we've all gone through, and the fear of false judgement and embarrassment motivates us more than our instinctual impulse to help.
We are all very good at avoiding eye contact, handheld digital devices have made sure of that, but we’re even better at making excuses for ourselves. If it's not “I didn't notice”, it's “that person is sitting closer to them than me, they should offer first”, or “I'm facing backwards and away from them, so I can get away with not offering a seat”, or maybe the trickiest: “they haven't asked me for a seat so they don't need one”. The founder of the TfL-backed #LookUp campaign, Corry Shaw tells through her own words why we can’t expect all those who need a seat to ask for one in this FAQ post - I’ll be honest, my first assumption would have been that someone with an invisible disability may be embarrassed to ask, or may have been met with bad responses in the past which has put them off, an incredibly naive thing for me to think. But as Corry, who has an invisible disability herself, says, “I never ask someone in a priority seat to move in case they are as in need of it as I am.” The fact is we cannot know if everyone around is or isn’t in need of a seat moreso than anyone else, perhaps a difficult challenge to overcome without offering every single person on the carriage, and the reason we automatically default to ‘heads down, phones up’ so that we don’t have to go through the motions.
Believe me when I say I don't always practise what I preach here. I have doubted my own judgement and hesitated to offer seats only to be shown up by a fellow passenger who does. In these moments silent head shakes can be seen or felt from further around the carriage, from people who don't have a seat but definitely would have offered if they were sitting down (or at least they tell themselves that to appease their moral conscience). Those of us who do have a seat but didn't offer now making a song and dance of looking up from our Instagram feeds as if this is the first-time we have noticed, signalling that had we looked up sooner we would have offered a seat but we are not to blame because we did not notice. Plausible deniability?
I survived my nosebleed and stabilised myself with my one tissue-free hand, I even let go of the back of the chair at times to check my own phone, because I am equally guilty of passing journeys looking down at the damn thing. But I also felt like I had experienced something new that many others experience on a daily basis, whether they be elderly, pregnant, or disabled (visible or not), and felt compelled to reflect on our growing tendency to excuse ourselves of blatant rudeness because of the things in our hands. Look up, be brave, offer a seat and the worst they can do is say no thank you (and maybe go crying to their friends that someone mistakenly thought they were pregnant, but they'll get over it eventually). After all, even if you’re wrong, who wouldn’t love getting a seat on the way to work?