Seating

“It’s a full train. Move your things off the seats to make room for others.”

Amtrak announcement

Just as Manhattan was coming into view, a conductor’s voice said these words. Some passengers were getting off at Penn Station, but many more were boarding. As people stood in the aisle to get off, some riders moved into their newly vacated seats. The odd thing? In spite of the announcement, many who moved placed their belongings on the empty seat next to their own. Ten minutes later, new passengers boarded. Several of the seated passengers only moved their belongings off empty seats after being asked by someone who needed a seat.

I sat next to four people on my trip to and from New Jersey – a public school teacher/administrator, a vacationer, a man going home to New Rochelle, and a senior from Tufts returning from a job interview. Two were seated when I boarded, two sat down next to me; none of us had taken up a second seat with our things, and all of us offered a friendly greeting and direct eye contact right away.

What if we’d filled the empty seat with our things, only clearing it when absolutely necessary? I doubt that I’d have sat next to the same four people. When entering the train, I looked for an empty seat. Sitting next to someone who acts like I’m a major imposition isn’t nearly as appealing as the courtesy of a passenger who has already made room for me before being forced into it. Since the empty seat next to me was filled almost immediately when passengers got on at Penn Station, I think others felt the same way.

I understand the appeal of extra room and solitude. An empty seat means no violation of personal space. But I’m not entitled to that extra space; if I’m carrying so much stuff that one seat and the luggage rack isn’t enough, then maybe I should leave some of my baggage at home. Good companions on the journey may be more than a matter of luck: they may be the gift that comes only when I make a space and receive them courteously. A life lesson, courtesy of Amtrak.

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Johnna

I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.

2 thoughts on “Seating”

  1. As you might guess, I can relate! We actually train the crew to say a few more words to encourage participation in the “seat clearing” exercise using some of your thoughts, e.g.,” we realize that it is nice to have extra space but these passengers boarding have paid for a seat and we ask that you welcome them by complying. Thank you” (or words to that effect). Our studies show that a few extra words appealing to fair play make a big difference. Of course, Conductors can get just as annoyed as others when dealing with selfish behavior on a regular basis and prefer a more direct approach–nevertheless, the extra few words can produce dividends.

    1. True, the phrasing of the request is important. The conductors made more than one request, the earlier ones much like what you suggested. Even the shortened version was done well – not rude, even though the behavior that prompted it was less than considerate. I will remember this comment, especially when I interact with local officials on town matters – perhaps getting a better result by refusing to answer rude behavior with more rude behavior! Peace, Johnna

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