50

I live in a big city (in Paris, France) and take public transportation every day. I'm perceived as a woman and I will sometimes have to sit near people who spread out and take up more space than just their seat's worth.

I find this behavior very rude and unpleasant (I'm especially more uncomfortable around stranger men, who seem to do this often) and I would like the other person to stop taking so much space (and invading my personal space). However, I'm kind of shy and very dislike conflict, and since I've only had to deal with men doing this so far, this also makes it worse. Stranger men make me more nervous and afraid of conflict than women.

So far, I've only tried non-verbal tactics to try and make people stop spreading out this way. None of these tactics succeeded. Here is what I tried:

  • Sitting and sticking my thigh against the other person's thigh.

    I was hoping that the other person would be uncomfortable by this "thigh-to-thigh touch" but it did not work. And I was probably more bothered by this "touch" than the other person.

  • Moving and "involuntarily" hitting the other person leg with my leg.

    It did work a little as the other person took a little less space for a while (but were still spreading out). However, they soon began to sit as wide as before. So I tried to hit their leg a second time, but it didn't do anything.

I would have been ready to ask those people verbally to stop taking so much place, but all the phrasings I could think of had a high risk of creating a conflict.

Like:

Excuse me, you are taking all the room.

So, while avoiding conflict, how can I ask men to stop sitting with their legs spread so wide they're taking up space on my seat too?

Notes and clarifications:

  • I never had this problem with any woman. However, I frequently have it with men. This is why I believe that gender is important here. Also, I believe that things would be different if I were perceived as a man (and not a woman) since I never noticed a man doing this to another man (and I do notice a man spreading into a woman's space rather frequently).

  • About the spreading out: I'm not talking just about knee-to-knee touching. If the legs are in parallel I'm fine with that (because there isn't much one can do). I'm more talking of a case where someone is spreading their legs in a "V" shape forcing the other passenger to take less place on their seat (not a bench).

enter image description here (from https://secretnews.fr/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/manspreading.jpg)

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a phrasing request. – Kat Sep 17 at 19:28
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    @DaveG I readded the gender tag: As OP is perceived as a woman, and they're specifically asking about interacting with men because that makes them most uncomfortable/unsafe, the tag is valid. – Tinkeringbell Sep 17 at 19:58
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    Hello network visitors! Please note that IPS is fairly strict about using comments as intended. Comments are only for clarifying and improving the question. Partial answers or general thoughts about the situation may be deleted without notice. If you'd like to write an answer, make sure to check out our posts on How do I write a good answer? and citation expectations first. Thanks! – avazula Sep 18 at 7:03
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    Note that OP already tried conflictive methods, albeit physical, but never did actually try to ask. I'm with @Kat. – Juliosor Sep 19 at 7:47
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    I don't quite understand what being a perceived man/woman means. I haven't met with such language construct... English is more complicated that it seems ... – Danubian Sailor Sep 19 at 21:52
99

Instead of saying

Excuse me, you are taking all the room.

I'd go with

Excuse me, I don't have enough space, could you move a bit?

It's just less accusatory (and as such, less confrontational), you're not telling them they're doing something wrong but instead making them aware you have a problem they can solve. For me, just a "Pardon" ("Excuse me"), while I'm trying to sit, is often enough, but sometimes I go with the full sentence if the person is not reactive. I'm female, and this has worked with men and women (they're not spreading their legs, but they sometimes have bags that take some space) in public transport.

And even though they're the ones who shouldn't be taking up so much space in the first place, it's better to say "Thanks" once they're moving. Or else you could sit for the next 10 minutes next to a person grumbling to themselves about ungrateful people...

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    I would suggest mentioning legs in particular. If I heard that, I might shift a few inches over in my chair, rather than bringing my legs in (which I already pay attention to, but in the general case). – Azor Ahai Sep 18 at 19:02
76

Quick note: This answer is writing from my own experience. I fully acknowledge that there are (several?) men (maybe women too?) who are far less considerate than I am and just push out to get as much space as they want.

Why I spread my legs (and why your attempts did not work)

I'm a tall man. 1,94 m (6 foot 4.4 inches) to be precise. I also can't stand heat very well. Especially around the parts that biologically make me a man. To combat this heat I prefer to reduce the contact area between the chair and my say upper legs as much as possible. At home or in my office chair this means I'm sitting so far to the front of my chair that anyone gently tapping it could push it from under me sending me crashing to the floor. (Quick note: I'm already wearing shorts most of the time, so adjusted clothing can't help any further).

Of course, in public transport, there's no room for this extreme sagging. Instead, I'm already forced in a more uncomfortable position and the next best thing to keep my nether regions somewhat in the livable temperature range is to spread out my legs as far as my surroundings let me vent it at least a little bit.

I'll attempt to at least keep some space between our legs but if, after a few moments, you moved your leg to gently touch mine I would probably take that like you don't care that we're touching so I probably won't change my position. Depends mostly on how I noticed the touching if it's gentle enough I might not even know it happened at first.

The second attempt, pushing my knee in a small tap has exactly the effect as you noticed already. I'll move my knee a couple of centimeters further so they're not touching when you sit in resting position. Since I have happily given you the now required extra space to sit comfortably (at least physically) all is fine from my point of view.

The problem we're facing is that from my point of view, I'm already limiting my position so that you can at least physically sit comfortably. I know I might be invading your personal space but I consider that invasion about equal to my own discomfort of not taking more wanted space and touching you instead. A woman next to me who doesn't know anything about how uncomfortable it is to close my legs will value her personal space far higher instead and think this balance highly unfair instead. (Quick note: most often this doesn't happen with men since they take the same approach as I do, and thus we both end up somehow equally spread out without mentioning anything).

What does work

Asking me kindly without blame.

You cannot phrase the request in a way that blames me for taking too much space. I know I'm taking more space than you would prefer. A request like that would feel to me like you're not taking into account that it might possibly be uncomfortable for me to do so. So statements like "you're taking too much space" mean nothing to me and will push me into a defensive mode which creates exactly the kind of conflict you would rather avoid.

The only thing you can do is try to make me feel that I've been underestimating your personal space in my tradeoff. Questions like "Could you give me a bit more space please?" or "Can you move your legs a bit please?" will work if you keep the tone at least neutral (if friendly is impossible since you're agitated). I'll always give you a bit more room. Most likely 15~20 cm depending on how much space there is for me to move my legs. You can't expect me to really move my legs parallel to each other if there's over 10 cm between us though since that would unbalance things too much against me.

Alternative reasons

This answer is based on heat as main issue. Of course there can also be other reasons why it's preferable to spread your legs:

1) low seats: All tall people will have exprienced this regardless of gender. If the seat is too low and you relax your legs, your knees will automatically fall to the sides. It takes effort to keep your knees together in such a situation and men having an "obstruction" in between doesn't help staying motivated on doing so. Thus some involentary spreading becomes almost inevitable.

2) fat: No, I'm not pointing fingers here, nor am I telling people to lose weight. I'm merely stating the fact that if there's fat in the way, closing your knees might actually be physically impossible. Be mindful that overweight people might already be really self concious about their body and asking them to do the (almost) impossible may be far more uncomfortable for them then tolerating them into your own personal space (at least that's what I've been told).

3) personal space: Usually done to prevent people from sitting next to you in the first place, same reason as to put a bag or purse on the seat next to you. (I might have done this once or twice when I was in a really bad mood myself already). The idea is that by taking up too much space, other passengers will first take the other free seats instead of sitting next to you. The correct way to deal with someone like this is to just nicely ask "can I sit here?" to socially force them to make room for you (just don't expect too much cooperation afterwards though).


Extra notes:

Comments like "Why don't you stand if sitting is uncomfortable" really aren't helpful. This exact same reason can be given to a woman that wants more personal space which isn't what we want either. I would prefer a balance on how far you let me invade your personal space along with a mutual understanding that it's a bit uncomfortable for both of us.

"Why don't you see a doctor if heat is such a problem". A doctor isn't able to make it any less hot. I've been to several doctors to deal with certain symptoms if things got too bad but that doesn't help with the core problem (me being too tall and getting too hot easily).

"That's just a lame excuse" or "Just learn to deal with heat" really aren't helpful. Believe me, if I could do something to take away my discomfort with the heat I would. Until such a solution exists, we're going to have to learn to compromise both ways (not only blaming men for having sweaty balls).

48

Have you tried politely asking them to move their legs?

From personal experience, they might not know that they're doing it. I have unintentionally sat in seats with my legs spread rather wide. I have always moved my legs when asked. Sometimes this simply wasn't possible because the leg room was physically too small for my long legs.

As Imus said in their answer, some might know that they're doing it but they don't feel like they're taking up too much room. Asking them will usually make them accommodate you.

If you want to sit down in an unoccupied seat that is being blocked by the person next to it, try something like:

Excuse me, can I sit here?

If you are already sitting down and the person next to you is taking up too much of your space, you could instead try saying something like:

Excuse me, could you move over a bit? I don't have enough room.

An alternative solution

Move to another unoccupied seat if one is available, or stand somewhere. This might not be an ideal solution for you, but it is the best way to avoid conflict altogether.

18

In my answer, I hope to give you some background on the issue that might help you overcome your shyness/conflict aversion over it.

You characterized this behaviour to be very rude and unpleasant. While it's certainly unpleasant, I think it's important to understand that it's not necessarily rude. Don't assume malice, where social unawareness, obliviousness, etc. are sufficient. If you do assume the other person is acting maliciously, then you will be prone to overestimate exactly "how much conflict there is", potentially causing you to be more apprehensive on acting than would be warranted.

Instead, (IMO) you should conduct yourself in a way that gives off a vibe of "this is a totally normal interaction of everyday life, we're just 2 adults who simply want to sit and both fit comfortably."

How I like to sit, and why.

Here are the 3 main positions I sit in when I'm on public transit, airplanes, etc.

  1. Sitting with my legs apart, similar to "manspreading", but not to the comical degree that you can see in popular photos on the internet. This is my favourite position. I can do so while keeping all my muscles relaxed. If no one is around, this is the absolute go-to.

  2. Sitting with my legs apart, but with my muscles relaxed, and my legs naturally resting against my neighbour's knees (as theirs do the same against mine). Generally, I find that men are more receptive to this than women. When I'm sitting with familiar females, like my girlfriend, this is how we typically end up.

  3. My next most comfortable position is sitting with my legs crossed. It's perceived as unmanly or whatever, but I don't really care. It's comfortable, it's rather passive (though not fully, because you have to flex your leg to keep it from sliding off). It doesn't disturb my 2 neighbours, but it does poke my legs out further forward, potentially interfering with the standing passengers in front of me. And for those wondering, you can position your genitals either above or below your legs, so there's no squishing going on.

  4. For me, the worst position by far is to try to sit with both feet on the ground, with my thighs parallel. That has rather obvious anatomical implications pertaining to male genitals, heat, etc., but one thing I seldom see discussed is the use of the abductor muscles. Those are the muscles that are responsible for squeezing your knees together. If I'm going to be on a bus/train/etc. for my hour commute, I don't want to be actively flexing these muscles if it's not necessary.

    And if I fall asleep (which I often do), flexing of the abductors naturally stops, and we're back into the man-spread territory. If I'm on a flight in which I'll expect to fall asleep, and leg-space-width is an issue, I'll take off my belt and wrap it around my knees to stand-in for my abductors, and allow me to sleep peacefully without needing to remember to keep my legs flexed. I don't do this on public transit, because that would be pretty strange, so it's not a silver bullet.

First contact

I've noticed that when one person sits beside another, there's a brief non-verbal negotiating period. One person's knees will make contact slight with the other's, and the other's response will dictate the remainder of the interaction.

If they don't pull away, then great, we can do position #2. But the worst outcome for me is if we make slight contact, and they immediately pull their legs tightly together. Oh boy, it's going to be 55 more minutes of position #4. Damn it.

Some tips on the interaction

  1. I think you should avoid making slight contact with hopes the other person will "clue in." It could be misperceived as accidental contact, and for people like me with absolutely no aversion to accidental contact, it wouldn't even raise a brow. It also doesn't work with sleeping people

  2. Just gently push back, and hold your ground. If you're comfortable with the contact, this would be the way to go, IMO.

  3. Just verbally ask. "Could I please have some more space?" Remember not to go into that interaction with the assumption that the other person is "out to get you." Chances are, they're completely indifferent to you, as most strangers are w.r.t to most other strangers.

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    It should probably be noted that keeping your legs together is only a problem in a seat with poor ergonomy - in particular, public transport seats often seem to be designed for 160 cm people for some reason. In a proper seating position, both your thighs, buttocks and feet share the weight of your body, but that's quite impossible if the seat is too low for the length of your legs. Which means having to either spread your legs, stretch them out or cross them over. Each of which means you take a lot more space than if the seat is the right size. – Luaan Sep 19 at 7:11
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    @Luaan I just played around with my office chair, and you're right. When my chair is at the right height, the weight being placed on my legs keeps them "planted" to the ground and together, without much muscle use. It works, but it still feelds a little unnatural. A nice 11 o'clock-1 o'clock angle works better for me, or perhaps even 10 and 2. – throwaway632495607 Sep 19 at 16:06
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You can't.

The conflict is inherent to the request.

There is some space. They would like to use it. You would them not to use it. This is a conflict.

There may be some interpersonal tactics available to have them capitulate more easily, but as the question stands, this situation is intrinsically not conflict-free.

Very long side note: Your question notes that the situation frequently appears to differ depending on the gender of the parties involved. I would posit that this also stems from the same place. Women, in general, will not spread their legs - in general, they do not want to use the space. Men, in general, will spread their legs - they want to use the space. (This is probably caused by physiological difference between the two genders, but that's neither here nor there). People, in general, are cognizant of this difference - thus, the majority of men will yield more space to other men, because they are aware of other men's general desire to use the space. The majority of women do not use this space at all, and thus this is generally a non-issue between two women. In situations where space is already limited - squeezing onto crowded trains, into elevators, and yes - into seats - personal space - your "bubble", as it were, is generally expected to be shrunk into near non-existence. In these space-limited situations, people will often do whatever it takes to be comfortable - perhaps one of the worst offenders being airline passengers who put their feet up. To stop these people from behaving this way, you have to confront them. Period.

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    Hi sp88, welcome to IPS. I see that you are presenting a frame challenge to the question. That is fine to do here, but you should check out our guidelines for frame challenges to make sure you get all of the necessary information. Right now your answer seems to be missing the part about providing a solution to the problem. You've mentioned that the OP will have to confront the men who are spreading their legs, but you haven't given any advice as to how to do that. – Rainbacon Sep 19 at 13:07
  • It feels like your observations about "this is conflict" could be applicable to any IPS problem, so you haven't really contributed anything to this one. Also, transit seats are not benches, and have lines molded right into them which indicate the seat boundary. You talk about "the space", but there's actually "your space" and "my space" clearly visible. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 19 at 17:44
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    @Harper That's not necessarily true about the seats; some major cities (for example and recently, San Francisco) have introduced cars that do use benches. sp88, could you add where your experience is from (country/culture, on the subway or elsewhere)? – Em C Sep 19 at 17:58
  • @EmC that Muni experiment is the exception, not the rule. Divisionless benches only make sense for >3 people, and those must be sidewise, and can only work on high density, high churn rail operations like NYC, London, Paris etc. where accel/decel are well controlled. They'd be Right Out on a bus (can't limit decel) and not very workable on light rail, as Muni will discover. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 19 at 18:11
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    @Harper That's one of several I found with a quick search, and OP is in fact located in Paris... anyways, that's a bit off topic, if the seating style is important hopefully the answerer will clarify. – Em C Sep 19 at 18:20
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As you've found, other people just don't mind or pay attention to physical contact as much as you might. So another approach is necessary.

Take up all your available space immediately when sitting down (always)

I realise this isn't exactly what you asked, and it may or may not be relevant to you, but I thought it might be helpful to someone in your scenario.

What I mean by "take up all your available space" is to sit however your legs would be right at the edge of your space (not crossing into their space), in order to prevent them from stretching their legs into your space. Of course this may not apply if you're sitting between two people and you don't want to sit in a V-shape yourself.

What I mean by "always" is that you should do it even when (especially when) no-one is sitting next to you (or at least when people are boarding or moving around). If you wait until they sit next to you, they may think you're reacting positively (you want to touch them) or negatively (you want to limit their space) towards them specifically, instead of it being about you and your comfort.

If they're seated before you and their legs are already spread, you could ask them in a manner described in the other answers. You could also try moving your legs towards where you would've put them if you could as you're sitting down, making contact with their legs in a slightly more forceful (but not hurtful) manner than simply sticking your leg against theirs (you could also apologise for this, and maybe follow it up within a second or two explicitly asking them to move their legs, if it doesn't seem like they will). Whatever feels natural to you, and whatever works.

People would use "available" space if it makes them more comfortable, and don't have the same idea of personal space. From their perspective: "They [you] aren't using the space, so why can't I? It wouldn't make a difference to them, so I might as well make myself more comfortable."

The "immediately" part is important, because, if you initially take up less space they may think: "they were perfectly comfortable with less space up to now, why do they suddenly need the space now?".

This may increase the amount of accidental physical contact with the person next to you, simply because you're positioning yourself closer to them. You can decide whether this is worth it.

A similar approach would be to fidget and move around a lot in your seat. People might be less likely to view that as "available" space they can take up and be more understanding if you ask them to move their legs. But of course this may be uncomfortable in itself if you don't have the need to do this.


I (male) have been on both sides.

Having others take up too much space, unsuccessfully trying approaches similar to what you describe and (probably) somewhat successfully using what I described (apart from asking, which would be uncomfortable for me, and I say probably because there may be some other factors involved here for me and I don't have that much data).

I personally have some medical issues and quite long legs, where taking up that little bit of extra space could make a massive difference to my overall comfort level. Although I expect for most people the difference probably wouldn't be so significant, and your approaches would probably work on me because I try to be considerate and find physical contact with strangers quite uncomfortable.

8

I am a woman, not very tall, so I can understand where you are coming from. I usually use the subway for work. I live in a country where personal space is rather small-to-non-existant. I have used the approach I will describe in subway and train (I can't recall if I used in the bus, but I don't take the bus much). However take note that if the person avoids eye contact on purpose, it will likely not work.

I find that normally these men you are talking about are already sitting this way before you go and sit (btw this works too when the issue are women using the seat next to them for their bags). That is the ideal situation. Because then the only thing you have to do is:

Smile, look down at their knees say "Excuse me", wait for them to move and sit.

In my experience, people move and correct their position right away. Of course, it would be nice if you didn't have to, but you can tell by the other answers that if there is space available it makes sense for people to use it. You also have to be understanding in cases the other person is very tall because it might be really hard for them to compress themselves too much.

Later if the person starts to sag down and spread too much again, you can look at them smiling one more time and say "I am sorry" or so and with your eyes you indicate what the problem is. People usually follow.

If you are sitting and someone comes and sits spreading, you have to do something similar. But you just act startled a little and again look at them smiling.

The key thing to avoid conflict here is to be polite, project affability. You shouldn't project something like "you moron why are you taking my space?", instead try to project something like "oh I know you are not doing it on purpose, would you mind giving me a bit more space?"

This projection idea may seem silly, but actually, if you are feeling aggressive in your mind, the body gives out a bunch of tiny clues than then the other person picks up and you wind up in an uncomfortable situation. Just act like is not a big deal.

This will work with many people, the thing here is prevention, don't let it go for too long before you say something because then it is too late. And of course, there are times you can tell the other person doesn't care at all about what you are saying, if these mild cues don't work you will have to escalate. And as someone said above, conflict will be unavoidable.

Also, I advise you to take it as if it is not a big deal, just for your mental health. Every day a lot of people commit this tiny acts of aggression against one another and if you take them too seriously it can add a lot of stress to your life (I am talking from experience).


Side note: I read the other answers and someone said that they use the space and touch the other person and if they don't complain it means they don't mind. That is the recipe for abusive behavior. Overstepping other people boundaries and rights while they don't complain is just plain abusive, and if you think you are being polite, well you are not.

I have been in countless situations where I said nothing because I knew I would have a negative response from the other person, and I wasn't comfortable.

Not complaining doesn't mean you are happy with a situation. And you shouldn't assume so.

  • Good answer :-). One nitpick: I don't think touching someone and waiting for them to complain is necessarily abusive behaviour. Things like that depend on the circumstances - for example, if it's very crowded, or someone very broad/tall, touching may be hard to avoid, and possibly even expected on public transport (think hopelessly overcrowded train). – sleske Sep 20 at 14:23
  • OTOH, if there is enough space and someone pushes against you, it's fairly clearly abusive. In the end, it's all about conventions and expectations and context. In borderline cases like this, unfortunately you cannot rely on people respecting your wishes if you do not state them clearly. – sleske Sep 20 at 14:25
  • @sleske yes I agree, most likely that is the case since the person would have to be over-stretching on purpose. I think, though, that unless the person hit you or is truly being harmful is better to err on the "nice side". Sometimes people are just soo much into their own lives and problems that they fail to notice they are being mean to others. I think we all have been there and trying to connect with the other person in a nice way can go a long way. However if the person purposely avoids eye contact it is pretty likely they are doing it on purpose. – Mykazuki Sep 20 at 14:37
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    Yes, exactly. I just meant that whether or not the person is "mean" is sometimes a judgement call - and as Hanlon's razor says, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." (or in this case, lack of attention). – sleske Sep 20 at 14:59

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