Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

When Does Bad Etiquette Become Immorality? On the Subway, of Course.

Subway Rules Small.jpgI’m pleased to announce that Part II of our Underground Ethics “Subway Series” comes to you from our very first guest blogger: Beliefnet’s own Entertainment Editor, Dena Ross. I asked Dena to write a post for us because, well, Dena has a rough commute. (Or so her Facebook status updates would indicate.) The MTA’s D Line is, apparently, a source of constant behavioral astonishment, prompting her to compose for us a list of “Worst Subway Offenders.” 

When I put the topic to a fellow blogger at, he was happy to point me to several comments from readers who also feel riders have really got to start shaping up. One, in particular, addressed my rant about people using the Emergency Exit:


“Usually, when the masses exit a station, any
poor unfortunate soul trying to catch the train in the station has lost all
chance of getting through the turnstile. Perhaps that is the new moral question
– should the masses wait and let riders make the train they just vacated,
before blocking all the turnstiles? Or does the desire to get the hell out of
the damp, hot, gross station take precedence to anything else?”

For me, what makes these seemingly petty commuter annoyances address the greater issue of ethics is simple. What goes around comes around, and when you don’t spend any time at least attempting to adhere to a simple code of decent human behavior when you’re packed in tightly among your fellow man, you’re really little better than a savage.
So please, read Dena’s thoughts on proper subway etiquette, and for all our sakes, heed them well.
*     *     *


Like many New Yorkers, I commute to my job by subway. And
while the commuting time is not too
bad by NYC standards–about an hour door to door from my neighborhood in
Brooklyn to my office in  Manhattan–I
do find that my time spent underground is the worst part of the day.  What makes it such a crappy experience?
(More about crappy experiences later.) Is it the urine-scented subway
platforms? Not really. Train delays?  Not so much. Rats the size of dogs at my feet? I can deal. What
really pushes my buttons are people who don’t follow proper subway etiquette.

Now, I’d say a good percentage of the people who ride the
train are probably just like me–nose stuck in the paper or a book, iPod on, minding
their own business.  But then you
have these people. The ones who raise
my blood pressure and test my patience and ability to use newly made up curse
words on a daily basis. Here are a few of the biggest subway etiquette
offenders and some helpful advice to prevent them from getting kicked off the
train at the next stop.


The Big-Backpack-Wearer: This offender, often a tourist, a young student, or an oblivious yuppie, sports a gigantic knapsack, usually positioning himself or herself in the middle of a subway car (or worse, the door–see The Door-Blocker), getting in the way of all who traverse the crowded train.

Proper Subway Etiquette: Remove the knapsack from your back and hold it at your side.  I don’t care if your arm hurts. Put it on the floor next to you if you must (gag!) but don’t be inconsiderate by blocking people from moving around.  I’m not an expert on fire hazards, but I’m thinking big back packs are one of them.


The Disease-Spreader:  Usually coughing, sneezing, sniffling, and making all kinds of mucus-y sounds that are enough to make you want to move (but you won’t, because you got a seat and it’s rush hour) and/or vomit. May look feverish and tired. Forgets to cover nose and mouth about half the time.

Proper Subway Etiquette: OK, here’s the deal: Even if you don’t really have the Swine Flu, I’m going to treat you as if you do. That means I’m going to give you glares and other dirty looks for daring to potentially infect me with your nasty germs. I might even mumble “disgusting” quietly under my breath in your direction. Not that all people who have the Swine Flu are gross–the ones who stay home are cool. But if you put hundreds of people in a position where you might infect them, you’re just plain selfish. To echo Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Department of Health–you have a responsibility to stay home. Your employer, co-workers, and fellow subway riders, will thank you for it.


The Door-Blocker: Despite signs all over the subway cars advising against it for safety reasons, these riders prefer standing against the door and refuse to move out of the way for people entering and leaving the subway.  These inconsiderate losers are the bane of my existence.

Proper Subway Etiquette:  Move out of the way! If for whatever reason you find myself stuck at the door with a number of people looking to get off (and onto) the train at a given stop, get off the train along with those exiting, making sure to stay close to the door. This ensures that everyone exits the train in a semi-orderly fashion, without having to step around you. Plus, you’ll be one of the first ones to enter the train. You deserve it for being so courteous!


The Music-Sharer: I’ve really got to thank you Mr. DJ, for playing your crap music (is it your band?) so loud on your iPod that I, and the entire subway car, are forced to listen to your tunes (if we’re luckily, we get to hear it on repeat! Yay!) Here’s a little secret, even if I like the music you’re playing–maybe I’m even mouthing along the words–I’m still cursing you under my breath for being a jerk.


Proper Subway Etiquette: If you’re unsure whether your iPod is likely audible to your neighbors, take off your headphones (with the volume on your desired setting) and hold them in front of you. If you can still clearly hear the music, it’s surely disrupting your neighbors when it’s on your ears. If so, turn it down!

The Can’t-Wait-Until-You-Get-Off-the-Train-to-Have-a-Private-Cellphone-Conversation-Exhibitionist: While most subway lines run completely underground where cell phone service is not available, a handful of lines run partially above ground. I am luckily enough to be on one of them (oh joy!) which means I often wind up seated (and by “seated” I really mean “standing”) next to this offender. Usually female, she’s often gossiping about some guy (“He’s such &*%#$ but I still loves him, yo.”) or one of her friends (“I can’t believe that stupid &*^&%$.  I’m sooo not texting her back.”) or yelling at a relative (“I’m on the ^&%$#&* train, mom! I’ll be home in 10 minutes! GAWD!”).


Proper Subway Etiquette: Guess what girly? I don’t care about your life, so please have some respect for yourself (and while you’re at it, your mama), and stop filling me in on your drama. I have enough of my own! Keep your cell phone conversations on the train short and quiet, if you have to make them at all. You’ll be doing yourself, and everyone else, a service.


 The Seat-Stealer (sometimes, but not always, related to the Won’t-Give-Up-Seat-for-Pregnant-Women-and-the-Elderly- Schmuck): So much can be said about this, the most vile of offenders, most of which I cannot print on a family website.  He or she will do anything to grab that seat you’re inches from, including, but not limited to, pushing you out of the way, tripping you, using defensive football moves that I don’t know the names of, etc.


Proper Subway Etiquette: In my book, the riders who are closest to the empty seat (and who also notice, and make their way to said seat) gets dibs. Of course, if there are children, pregnant women, the disabled, or the elderly standing nearby, they do. It’s unfortunate that these individuals are standing in the first place and that someone seated did not already offer their spot to them. So be the better person, and give away your newly landed seat to someone else around you who may need it more. Karma will reward you later.


The Lets-Kids-Poop-on-the-Platform Mom:  A very rare breed indeed, I had my first encounter with this has-no-shame parent just this morning! In this case, the woman was with a toddler, who had to go Number 2.  She proceeds to spread newspaper on the floor and allows her child to defecate on it, puppy-style, for all to see. She then has her child stand around with pants to the floor, dirty butt hanging out, while she searches for a napkin to clean her off. Sadly, my train left the station before I got a screening of that process.  


Proper Subway Etiquette:  Although the subway bathrooms are gross, if the alternative is crapping, or urinating, in one’s pants or on the subway platform, I suggest taking your chances with them. Or better yet, take yourself (or your child, drunk friend, etc.) to a nearby business outside of the station.

Dishonorable mentions:


The Look-At-Me-Dude:  Male offender spreads legs so far apart that he takes up most of your leg room. Does it really need that much room? I’m thinking no.

The Subway-Stinker: Passes gas on the train since he/she can blame it on others.


The Fire-Starter: Leaves litter all over the train platform, which then gets onto the tracks, which then causes mini-blazes, which then makes me late for work, which then ruins my whole day.

So please, before you get on another train, be sure you take some of these etiquette tips to heart. You’ll make your–and more importantly, my–subway experience a whole lot nicer.


Dena Ross is the Entertainment Editor at Beliefnet and manages and contributes to the blog Idol Chatter. You can follow her on twitter at

Photo by Annie Mole

Comments read comments(12)
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posted June 5, 2009 at 11:49 am

OMG! Dena, this is hilarious! I totally relate. Yesterday there was a guy on the F train (the D’s cousin) who was singing to himself. Now I try very, very hard not to racially profile, but I was convinced he was singing pre-terrorist jingles. I kept staring him the eye with a “come on, you don’t want to do this” look. At the next stop an annoyed looking model-esque woman came onto the train and sat next to him. As soon as she heard his singing she looked up and angrily demanded “can you stop, thanks” and put her head back in her hand. He smiled and stopped. Weird. Then a guy entered the train who was talking to himself, cursing and laughing, always a sure sign of crazy. He kept saying “blame john, why don’t you go after john? not me.” Ah, subway tales..

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posted June 5, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Love it. I don’t normally get grossed out by the thought of germs on the subway (just try not to think of them to be honest), but once a real live version of the cartoon Dilbert stood next to me on the F. We were both standing by the doors, when all of a sudden he spun around and plastered his face and arms to the doors and started drooling. It was 1) the WEIRDEST thing I’ve ever seen and 2)disgusting!

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posted June 5, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I’m always too afraid to say anything when people do something annoying or awful (or unlawful–though I hope I’d have the guts to try to stop a crime) on the subway. Yesterday I was smushed up next to a guy playing music SO loudly on his headphones that everyone was glaring at him, even other people with headphones on. I wanted to ask him to turn it down or make some sort of volume-reducing gesture, but I chickened out. What if he yelled at me, or even did me some kind of violence? You never know who’s going to freak out on the train. Tempers are always simmering. Guess that’s why I prefer to do my ranting on the internet, rather than face to face.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I watched a guy light himself on fire once on the A train. Where does that fall on the etiquette list?

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posted June 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Hillary, the same thing happened to me on the train yesterday. Some Hispanic woman was BLASTING some Spanish dance music on her ipod and I was getting super annoyed, as others must have been. Then I see her get into an argument with another woman who must have said, “Please turn it down.” Then the Music-Sharer said, “Shut up. You the only one you complained. You just jealous ‘cuz you don’t understand the language. If it bothers you, get off at the next stop.” If she wasn’t so crazy, I would have tried to defend the other woman.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Dena, hmm…for my next installment in the series I might write a post on “When Do You Intervene?” (like, for crimes, just to stand up for yourself, stand up for someone else, just to shame someone else, etc.)

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Bree Hill

posted June 7, 2009 at 12:35 am

I tried this great program with my kids called Germy Wormy Germ Smart, since the outbreak of H1N1. It helped even my 3 year old understand how germs spread and how to NOT spread germs. It was so much fun, and it was amazing how quickly they learned healthier hygiene habits!

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Shawn Lynch

posted June 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm

I was just thinking about this earlier today as I got on the subway at 74th St-Jackson Heights. Now the 7 is a very crowded line and I think it is the WORST for the door blocker type. At 74th St today, there were dozens of people waiting to exit and enter at each door. However the first two people on always block the entire doorway. BUT, there is a reason. At 82nd and 90th Sts, there are so many people exiting that if you do not reach the narrow single sets of stairs first, you spend the next two minutes in a human herd worse that the actual subway. I know it’s only two minutes but no one wants to be stuck being jostled down the stairs. Part of the problem (and the emergency exit problem) would be solved by having facilities adequate enough to handle the exiting masses.
You may also check out my website for a map of all weekend service changes and every weekend.

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posted June 23, 2009 at 11:13 am

Add to the “look-at-me” dude… when there are 5 people spread across a bench that can normally hold 7 people… all of them (women included) sitting with their legs splayed… There’s not any one spot big enough for me to squeez into, but I know that I (and probably even one other person) could fit if they would all just close their legs and slide over a little… Let’s work together, people!!! Or how about when two overweight friends leave that middle sit empty between them and you wonder whether it’s worth squeezing in their in the middle of their bodies and/or conversation?

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posted July 7, 2009 at 9:44 pm

I was on crutches for a while but still had to get to work, unfortunately, via subway. I had a knee brace on so I couldn’t even put that leg/foot down. I cannot even begin to describe how many times I had to ASK for a seat on the subway! I would particularly glare at the people sitting in the handicapped seats, and one time, as the train was about to jolt forward and I would lose my balance (no hands due to crutches), I had to loudly say, “Can someone please let me sit?!” It was unbelievable! Even today on the subway, a girl with leg braces came on and I saw two people see her, and then look down at their laps!!

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Barb Wallace

posted October 21, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I recently stumbled upon a website that takes this sort of thing very seriously. Funny photos, haha.

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