Opinion: Minding Manners on the MTA - Taboo Week


By Jordan Reisman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The MTA can be examined as a microcosm of humanity where society is represented in full form whether it be touching, depressing, outrageous, annoying, or anything in between. If you’re a believer in Murphy’s Law, then the subway fits the mold of anything that can happen, will happen.

Just like the world at large, someone will always try to set rules in place, a code of conduct to follow. The NYC-centric blog Gothamist does just this with a series that they call “Subway Etiquette”. What the series entails is a crudely taken photo by a passenger, or as Gothamist likes to call them, a “tipster”, of a fellow passenger breaching a rule of “subway etiquette”. These offenses range from a man bringing a full meal equipped with a dinner table on the D train, to one commuter bringing an unwrapped mattress, to even a guy who records himself subtly touching other passengers.

Each post is accompanied by a scathing bit of criticism just laden with hyperboles that would make you cry if someone actually said it to your face. In one such post, they make the claim that someone blasting their music on the subway is worse than “shitting all over the place.” And not just worse, it makes you “The Fucking Worst.” Gothamist is following the formula of hyperbolic language + picking something obvious to hate and writing about it = traffic.

So what’s the problem here? It’s not so much that I disagree with the mentality that people shouldn’t behave in certain ways in public, but it’s the way the blog goes about shaming these people.

If you think about it, an incredible amount of determination and work goes into making these posts. The “tipster” must discreetly snap a picture of a known offender, someone at Gothamist has to write about it and then it probably all gets edited later. This is all done in an effort to reform the ways people use mass transit. But couldn’t they just go up to the person in that moment and ask them to stop being inconsiderate? Or what’s more, why it is rude and to not do it again?

This kind of writing is pretty much built on being passive aggressive, and it doesn’t really seem like anyone gets what they want in the end. Or do they? Is Gothamist just waiting for another New Yorker to violate such universal and salient rules? My guess is yes. More than the “tipsters” own personal comfort in a train, they want traffic and if publicly shaming people on the internet is how they get it, they will continue to do so.

The posts contain a large degree of ambivalence whether or not the writer actually cares if a person violates their etiquette. This post, about a passenger who got off before the train stopped in between cars and under the metal coils, seemed more amused than angered. The same goes for this post containing a Vine of a man gently brushing his hands against another’s on the pole for laughs.

After perusing the myriad offenses that a person could make against Subway Etiquette, Gothamist still does not shed any light on what, exactly, is Subway Etiquette. The blog seems to go on the assumption that there are rules that every New Yorker has ingrained in their mind, but there are no stone tablets that contain the etiquette to follow.

The blog considers itself as New York diehards, using the term “straphangers” to evoke a sense of old New York and community among its inhabitants, but in a city that changes so rapidly, it’s hard to pin down who the real authority is.

If passive aggressive blogging isn’t the best way to enforce a unanimous subway etiquette, what is? Recently, an artist named Jay Shells made guerilla posters around various trains pertaining to subway etiquette. One of the most universally loathed subway practices, loud music/singing, was covered in a poster. It was fashioned as a Service Change poster but instead read:

“Your music might be amazingly enjoyable to you, but remember to keep the volume at a level that only you can hear. Other passengers do not want to hear your favorite songs. (The same goes for phones & portable gaming devices). Also, please don’t sing/rap along with it. Please.”

This seems like a better way to deal with subway etiquette abuses: Everyone loves guerilla art! Furthermore, the poster takes a solidified stance against the subway infraction that mostly everyone has a problem with. There’s nothing in it that says that the artist was just making it out of his own amusement.

Universally, subway etiquette (and public decency) goes back to the golden rule. If you consider yourself to be a part of civilized society, then you should act in a way that you would want fellow passengers to act. If bringing a dinner table set is how you choose to conduct yourself in public, then go for it. Just don’t be surprised if you find your picture going viral.