Don't take seat disputes sitting down
Updated: 2012-09-14 08:22
By Tang Yue (China Daily)
Altercations over polite behavior on public transportation offer a window on a changing society, reports Tang Yue.
If you're riding the bus or subway and see a pregnant woman, an elderly person or young child standing up in front of you, you might want to think seriously about offering them your seat.
If you don't, you may discover that the consequences are serious, given that a number of altercations have happened recently and some have even ended in violence.
On Aug 23, a young man on a bus in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, did not give up his seat to a pregnant woman. As a result, he was given five sharp slaps across the head by the woman's disgruntled husband, despite the fact that he wasn't occupying any of the seats usually reserved for the elderly and infirm, and, moreover, had a crippled leg.
Three days after that incident, a woman slapped a man on a bus in Jinan, Shandong province, after he failed to respond to a public announcement asking seated passengers to consider other travelers. Instead of offering his seat to the woman's daughter, aged around 6 years old, the man simply turned his back on them. Enraged, the mother struck him repeatedly and shouted, "I am fulfilling your mother's obligation to educate you."
The aggression hasn't only affected men. Media reports of aggressive behavior include that of an elderly man in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, who sat on a young woman's lap after she refused his request to give up her seat. A similar incident is reported to have happened in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Public opinion suggests that, while those who doggedly refused to offer up their seat weren't acting from noble instincts, the actions of those who beat them were antisocial and unnecessarily violent.
So what makes people feel justified about the use of force against those who fail to comply with their wishes?
As China undergoes rapid urbanization, people who have grown up in an "acquaintance society", one where everyone knows everyone else in the neighborhood, face challenges from the increasing need for daily interaction with strangers, according to Yang Yiyin, director of the social psychology research office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
"In traditional Chinese society, where people are tied by family and blood relationships, emotions and morals, rather than reason and law, guide people's behavior," said Xiao Qunzhong, professor of ethics at Renmin University of China.
As a result, people tend to automatically, but mistakenly, use their sense of moral superiority to legitimize their behavior, including the use of verbal and physical violence.
However, while the traditional mindset remains, tragedies such as the case of Xiao Yueyue a 2-year-old girl who died after being ignored by 18 passers-by as she lay in the street in Foshan, Guangdong province after she had been hit by a car and then run over twice more also indicate a value-system in flux as the country moves through a period of rapid social transformation, said Xiao.
"Civil society in China is not as developed as in the West. People are still learning how to respect the fundamental rights of others and the bottom line for behavior," he said.
To deal with other passengers on a bus, where people come and go in a very short time and very limited space, serves as a very good test of social attitudes. It's one many people fail, noted Yang Yiyin of the CASS.
"You will always see female colleagues or friends trying very hard to persuade each other to take the only seat, even if there are only a couple of stops to go," said Yang, 57. "But they still don't know how to negotiate with strangers.
"That helps to explain why those with a sense of moral superiority just skip the discussion process and begin dictating to strangers, sometimes in a very rude manner."
People in the West have more experience in dealing with everyday public life and are better at expressing their needs and opinions, be it through lectures, negotiation or debate, she noted.
Zheng Liudi, a 29-year-old who rides the subway to work in Shanghai, knows exactly what Yang means. Zheng said most people are pleasant when help is offered. However, she said that on occasion, usually just as she was about to offer her seat to someone else, she has noticed a "You owe me" look in the eyes of seniors or mothers with young children. "I change my mind, then. I just dislike their attitude," she said.
She recalled that on one occasion, a woman in her 50s kicked her shoes from time to time. "I think she did it on purpose, to hint that she wanted the seat. But there was no way I would offer it to her under those circumstances," said Zheng.
"These extreme examples of wrangling over a seat also reflect a general feeling of anxiety and irritability," according to Yang.
Individual personality, values and the prevalent mood at the time of an incident all contribute to people's behavior. The background socially, however, is that many people are highly stressed and restless, and thus tend to appear aggressive on such occasions, she said.
"The prevailing mood in China now is being competitive every single second and not miss a single opportunity to gain something, anything. Sometimes, people just use incidents such as these as an outlet for suppressed anger," she explained.
Just too crowded
Regular users of public transportation might not know much about social theory; but they certainly feel the social reality during rush hours in the mega-cities and fully realize that a seat on a crowded bus or train is a precious commodity.
Every working day at 6:30 am, Jiang Xin, a 26-year-old auditor in Beijing, gets on the bus at the first stop on the route. Her journey takes roughly 90 minutes.
"At first, I used to sit down as soon as I got on the bus, just near the ticket seller. But I found I had to give up my seat several times on each journey and felt exhausted when I arrived at my office. So I changed seats and now sit in the corner instead," she said.
"On the weekend, I always offer my seat to people if they need it, but during the working week I really need that seat in the corner so I can take a nap."
Qin Jianhua is not as lucky. The 31-year-old works in Beijing, but bought an apartment in Yanjiao, Hebei province, in 2009. His daily commute to work takes two hours door to door, including one hour on the bus, a 10-minute walk and another 50 minutes on the subway.
The bus is always crowded, so it requires an enormous effort just to get on and there are always four or five passengers always standing crammed on a single step by the door. People always swear loudly if they can't squeeze on and some even block the road to stop the bus if they can't gain access, he said.
"When I'm on a comfortable bus, I give up my seat if others need it. But it's always so crowded and smelly on the bus I take to work. Everyone is very sleepy, almost collapsing, so giving up your seat would be the last thing you'd want to do," said Qin. The bus trip got old quickly, so Qin now lives in a rented apartment near his office during the working week and only goes home on the weekend.
The experience has given him a fresh insight into the issue: "Don't judge someone until you have been in his shoes. That person may be aggressive on the bus, but may also behave politely in a different environment," he said. "Also, standards seem to vary. I've seen some people happily and politely give up their seats to seniors, but the same people acted totally differently to a migrant worker. So, how do you rate them?" he asked.
Yang Wanli and He Na contributed to the story.
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