I'm someone who gets easily physically tired. This means that, on public transportation, I will almost always look for a seat.

Some days, there are no seats available but I'm so tired that I will sit on the floor (I'm fine with that). However, on those kinds of days, if a have a seat and someone old comes in, I won't offer my seat, hoping that they don't really need it.

I know some people that need a seat look young and healthy but, for various reason, they won't ask for one. On days that I don't really need my sit, I would be happy to give them one. The problem here is that I don't know that they need one and they won't ask.

So, what non-verbal clue can help me determine if someone needs my seat?

  • I don’t understand why you are tired yet still want to renounce your seat. You are not the only one who is sitting, so someone who is sitting yet not tired may instead give up the seat. – Blaszard 2 days ago
  • @Blaszard Do you need to understand my reason to answer the question? Or are you just suggesting that I shouldn't give up my seat? – Noon 2 days ago

Having traveled public transport a lot (In the Netherlands, but also took trains/buses in France during holidays a lot), your best bet may be facial expressions and eye contact/looks.

What I've noticed is that people that really want a seat usually try and make eye contact with someone that's already in a seat, and they do so by roving glances throughout the bus/train carriage. They're not likely to focus on just one person but look at each person in turn. This shouldn't be confused with the cursory glance people use when trying to find a seat when boarding, instead, they usually continue their attempt to make eye contact even after the train/bus starts moving again.

They might look tired, desperate, or even a bit jealous (though that last one goes for a lot more people that have to stand on a bus/train). Chances are if you make eye contact with such a person and give them a small smile/nod/acknowledgement, they might feel confident enough to ask you if they can have your seat.

I always try to keep an eye out of signs of discomfort, such as shifting weight a lot, or clutching a handle, trouble with standing upright, etcetera. Usually people that do have trouble with standing on public transport will exhibit some discomfort.

In the end, though, much of transport etiquette still relies on people offering seats, instead of people asking for seats, either out loud or by non-verbal communication. There have only been a few incidents among 5/6 years of daily buses/trains that I can remember where people asked me out of the blue if they could have my seat, and where we didn't first make eye contact. There have been a lot more where I offered a seat after making eye contact and realizing this person looked like they could need a seat more than me.

So, even if there's some signs to look out for, in the end it's more likely you'll end up being the one offering up your seat. The signs I described can hopefully at least help you decide better when to offer.

  • 1
    one more thing you can do to know if someone needs a seat in addition to this fairly complete list is make a motion towards your seat like you are offering it to them if you make eye contact with someone standing. For most people who don't need it they will shake their head and not want to bother making you move. People who do need your seat will nod and move towards you. – BKlassen Nov 30 at 16:43

As best as I can tell, it sounds to me as though your overall goal is to give up your seat if a person truly needs it but keep your seat if they do not.

As someone who catches Australian public transport every weekday I would argue that only looking for non-verbal indications is far too variable, and it is impractical to think you can truly understand exactly how much each person around you needs a seat. Instead I think the most effective (but still far from perfect) method of achieving your goal is yes, to first look for non-verbal indications as to how badly they need the seat but then to offer your seat in a way that encourages only someone who needs the seat to accept.

In terms of non-verbal indications I do not have too much more to add to Tinkerinbell's insightful answer other than that most of those indicators are very subtle and that its important not to forget about the more obvious symptoms (age, weight, if they look too pale, too hot... etc). Also, eye contact with a quick smile/nod is a good start but I think most of the time it may not be enough to communicate to them exactly what you mean.

Once you have a suspicion that maybe this person needs a seat, to offer your seat in a way that encourages them if they need it and discourages if they don't; what I have found works is:

Remain firmly seated, make eye contact, smile and say

"Excuse me, do you need to sit down?"

This approach is very clearly prompting for one of two responses. 1. "Yes I do need to sit down, thankyou!" 2. "No that's alright". Sure, there is a small chance some slimeball will pretend they need the seat when they don't but I don't really see a way to avoid that. With this you have politely communicated your intentions, that you are willing to offer them the seat if they need it. Most reasonable people who want a seat but don't need it should politely refuse and in my experience that is exactly what they do.

In the end, I think while being clued into the signs that someone might need a seat can help, medical needs are tricky and the most effective way to get it right is to put the ball in their own court. They should know best if they need the seat or not, you just need to prompt them to tell you without unconditionally offering your seat at the same time.

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