Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tales of Public Transportation, Part Infinity: What Is Niceness?

Say you were taking public transportation.  If you were in the middle of an activity, such as putting on cologne, makeup, or nail polish, and someone in the seat behind you said: "Excuse me, I'm sorry: your [insert activity] is causing me to have an allergic reaction," what would you do?

In my case, my immediate response would be: "Oh, I'm so sorry!"  And I would promptly stop the activity.  Maybe afterward, I would wonder if my activity were really that bad, or if I should have really had to stop.  But my FIRST reaction would be: "Oh, I'm so SORRY."  Because I would understand that I was not in my own bathroom and that I was sharing this space with other people, and that other people could be affected by what I do.  Even when I'm in a shitty mood, I am mindful of this.

Not an actual representation of my train. 
This one is much, much nicer.
So this morning, I was sitting behind a man and a woman on the BART train into San Francisco.  About halfway through my trip, the woman pulled out a big case of makeup, with multiple powders, blushes, et cetera.  I don't know whether she was applying it or demonstrating it to her seat mate.  However, I would not have cared either way, if not for the fact that it emitted a large burst of perfume scent.  For several minutes, I did not say or do anything, but the scent was starting to affect my sinuses and my throat.  I can get pretty bad allergies, and public perfumes and other scents are no joke.  A lot of public or business environments have imposed bans on scents because of their effect on so many allergy sufferers.  And while I would not have been in mortal danger had I continued to inhale the perfume, it was definitely making me uncomfortable.

I looked around for another seat, but by now, the train car was full.  The only open seat (for a few minutes) was a seat across the aisle from the woman with the perfume scent.  I did not think that would be a sufficient distance.  So I said to the woman in a soft voice: "I'm sorry, but your makeup is causing me to have an allergic reaction."

The woman responded immediately: "Then go sit over there [in the seat across the aisle]."  Note that this woman didn't know me from Adam and had no idea how severe my allergies were.  I could have been one of those people whose throat swelled up when exposed to certain scents.  That I wasn't was fortunate for her.  At first, I thought that she was implying that the scent was coming from across the aisle, which confused me.  I was like: "Wait, what?"  I then tried to tell her that I didn't think it would make a difference, and the guy snapped: "Just shut up."

Wait, what?!  Okay, I get that I am providing you with information that inconveniences you, but this is your immediate reaction?  The woman's unwillingness maybe wasn't so hard to fathom, but this is how the guy greets people he doesn't know who say things he doesn't like?  "Just shut up."  I haven't concealed anything -- there was no point where I just went off, or called the woman a bitch, or started yelling.  That was literally what I said and what they said.

So I sat there stunned for a couple of minutes, thinking: "Did I say anything bad enough to deserve that reaction?  I don't think so..."  While I can't pretend that I'm never belligerent, I know that I wasn't in this case.  It really bothered me that my request drew the response that it did, and I said: "I'm sorry, I'm just telling you what I felt" or something of the like.  The woman responded: "Well you were trying to make me stop my activity" and oh I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were in your bathroom.  I told her that I had been trying to ignore her scent for several minutes, and asked her if she was angry about something else.  The guy said "You're really irritating me."  He may have also told me to just shut up again, but I can't quite recall.  But it struck me that his reaction was excessive for someone who was not the subject of the request.  Confused, I asked: "Are you two together?"  Apparently they weren't, at least not in the couple sense, though they might have been friends or colleagues.

Shortly after, the guy got up and announced they were moving, and said to me: "You are a bitch."  Wait, what?!  I didn't leave out or play down anything I said.  While I'm sure my tone grew progressively irritated, it definitely didn't start that way.  So from my perspective, what I said did not merit that response, especially from him.  In the woman's case, her immediate response suggested that I was not the first to object to her scent, or at least to object to something about her.  Maybe she felt judged and was just pissed off.  Still, it's not like I was complaining that her talking was too loud.  In the man's case, I would guess that he was having a bad morning prior to getting on the train.  Otherwise, I can't imagine how many women he calls "bitch" before nine o'clock every day.  Maybe I would have been able to predict their reaction if I had been paying attention to them all along, but I wasn't until the scent started to affect me.

So that is MY perspective of the incident.  However, it struck me that maybe I have enormous blinders on and someone else who read this would think that I crossed a line in making the request.  We are all the heroes and "reasonable" people in our own head.  Truth be told, I am less reluctant than most to tell someone when his/her activity is bothering me.  I figure that if it were the reverse, I would want to know if I were bothering someone else.  However, other people are often reluctant to be a squeaky wheel and say what they really think.  Some of that is necessary just to live in society, but where do you draw the line?  When is it "okay" to speak up for yourself?  I suspect that the threshold is different for each person.

Even if the general consensus were that I crossed a line, would the consensus be that the man and woman's reactions were merited?  Should people be able to do whatever they want on public transportation, even knowing that it bothers someone else?  Was the guy's response merited?  Was I that big a "bitch" for making my request?  Should I have been "nice" and just stayed quiet for the rest of the trip (about 20 minutes), even as the perfume scent continued to bother me?  Does being a nice person mean always quietly enduring other people's behavior, only speaking up when the situation becomes life threatening?  If that is the standard, I am not a nice person.  Or is it nicer to inform someone (nicely) when their behavior is a problem, so that they have a chance to correct the problem and so others can get relief?  Who knows?

All I can say is that I do not think my behavior was out of line.  If that guy called me a "bitch" for making a request, I would hate to see his response if I were really angry.  If I have any major regret, it is that I let him get away with using the word "bitch" as a slur.  When he called me that, what I should have said in reply is: "Why thank you.  What a nice compliment!"

Image taken from the royalty-free media source stock.xchng.   

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