Why does no one give up their seat on public transport any more?

A culture of diminishing habits of kindness to strangers teaches children there is no obligation to make even small sacrifices for others

Some time ago, there was a bitterly divisive social media debate about a man refusing to change seats on a plane so that a mother could sit beside a toddler. The person who was asked to move refused because the mother could have made the same request of some of her tour group rather than a stranger. Some people were outraged that anyone would dream of making such a request while others were astonished that such a simple request could be so controversial.

Giving up seats on public transport is generally a lot less of a commitment than exchanging a seat on a long-haul flight, yet there seems to be a similar reluctance.

As a non-driver, I spend a lot of time on buses and the Luas. I first noticed a reluctance to offer seats a long time ago when I was 38 weeks pregnant on a bus full of UCD students. No one offered me a seat. I mentioned it to my second-level students. One helpfully explained that the university students were probably afraid of giving offence. Offering a seat might be perceived as patronising as a feminist-influenced culture would find it disrespectful to assume that I automatically needed a seat. I think I muttered something about these students needing to read more of Carol Gilligan and her feminist ethics of care. Although the culture of giving up seats has not disappeared completely, it is far more rare. When I was a child, if I had a seat of my own and an older person got on the bus, my mother would make me give up my seat.

Rightly or wrongly, I did not do that with my children. I would either sweep the child on to my lap to make space or give up my seat myself if the child were older. (My mother would have been shocked that I did not ask my children to stand. It’s okay, Mam. As adults, they hop out of their seats whenever there is a need. I did not ruin them.)


My mother’s generation assumed that there was an automatic duty of respect to older people. My generation did not assume that it should always be a child who gives up a seat. They may be less able to stand than someone older. But what does this generation believe?

As I hang from a strap, I have often seen children occupying seats beside their parents. The adults are stolidly gazing ahead, ignoring frail older people desperately trying to keep their balance on crowded trams. Maybe I have a vested interest in this as I get older. (The byline picture above this column has been fake news for more than a decade. In reality, unlike that fresh-faced person, I am at that stage where most of my lower face seems to be trying to slither down and form pleated folds around my neck. That happening to anyone else? No? Oh, okay, just me, then.)

When I do see seats being offered, it is often by some gallant octogenarian lad who never got the memo about offering seats being patronising. Most people refuse the spry 80-somethings as graciously as possible, often genuinely touched but feeling that it would be unfair to accept. And no, I don’t think seats should be offered just by men. I think it should be a response to human need.

Human beings evolved living in tribes, so our inbuilt tendency is that obligations are felt most strongly to kin, then friends, begin to diminish when it comes to strangers in our vicinity and to less than nothing if they are across the world.

As Michael E McCullough posits in his book, The Kindness of Strangers, we cannot look to evolution to help us with explanations for why humans choose altruism. Perhaps controversially, he locates altruism in reason – the ability to learn to care from sometimes catastrophic global events. On the grand scale, he may be right. But is altruism also reinforced by socially sanctioned simple habits?

It is not that kindness has disappeared. Once, when I fell crossing a Luas line, people came from everywhere to help, including thrusting barley sweets at me for shock. But is there a creeping culture of resenting unchosen obligations, and feeling that it is unfair to have to respond to a situation that we did not create?

Not offering a seat to an older person in need, a heavily pregnant woman, or a parent wrangling a buggy and three children under five, may seem like a relatively small thing. But does it reflect a hunkering down, a mute rejection of the idea that we are all connected simply by our common humanity?

We have perhaps grown cynical about injunctions to be kind, when seeing that instruction on someone’s social media account is often accompanied by a form of modern-day tribalism, including vicious, personalised attacks on those outside their in-group. Nonetheless, a culture of diminishing habits of kindness to strangers teaches children by example that there is no obligation to make even small sacrifices for others. It makes for a chillier and less connected world. Is that really what we want?