Give It Up For The Little Guy (Or Don't???)

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People are always saying things on the Internet. But they are such teases! So we have to ask.

Saw a guy on the subway offering to give up his seat to a, uh, little person (?). (He declined.) What’s the etiquette there?

— Dan Amira (@DanAmira) October 23, 2013

Dan! So what happened here?
I was standing on the N train, and I just happened to look over as a middle-aged man of average height was offering his seat to a middle-aged little person. (I am going to use “little person” throughout this piece even though I’m not 100 percent sure that’s the most appropriate terminology. But it’s the name of a TLC show, so I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground. Please direct all angry tweets and emails to TLC.) The entire exchange took place entirely through gestures: Seat Man did that thing where you half-stand and point to the seat and look at the other person expectantly, as if to say, “Hey, you want this?” The little person, who was holding on to the pole about a foot away, gave him a “No thanks, I’m fine” wave. And that was it.

How would you answer the question you posed in your tweet? Put another way: What would you suspect is the appropriate manner of proceeding in that situation?

It’s a difficult question! The etiquette surrounding seat priority is complex and ambiguous. Obviously you should get up for a pregnant woman, an elderly or frail person, a young child, or an injured or handicapped person. But it’s not always so clear who fits into these categories. How young is young enough? Am I getting up for a 7-year-old? And how old is old enough? It’s not as if people walk around with name tags reading “I’m 68 and have a bad hip and have trouble standing for extended periods of time.” Dan, why not just err on the side of being a nice person? Okay Mother Teresa, settle down over there.

The little person scenario is not one I had thought about before, and it’s more fraught than most. On the one hand, Seat Man was trying to be selfless and courteous, and hey, all other things being equal, maybe a little person would get more benefit from the seat than an average-sized person. However, I personally wouldn’t have offered my seat to the little person because I would be worried about embarrassing or insulting him by *assuming* that he required my act of charity. As with the seemingly pregnant woman who isn’t actually pregnant, this is one of those situations in which trying to be nice can backfire.

Lesson learned (if any)?

I learned nothing from this. I have more questions than ever before.

Just one more thing:

My hope is that a little person advocacy group sees this post and announces some kind of ruling before I get on the subway again.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.