How to deal with awkward social situations: What to do when someone is in your reserved seat

train2Here’s a situation which occurs mostly when travelling by train. You’ve booked a ticket and reserved a seat for your journey. You board the train and find that someone who got on at an earlier stop is occupying your place.

Now for some of you this hardly rates as a ‘situation’. You pleasantly point out that you have reserved this specific seat, maybe wafting a ticket or gesturing to the electronic status display. As far as lively journey anecdotes go, it doesn’t even touch the sides.

But for others, the question ‘would you say something?’ presents an social and ethical dilemma up there with should you tell your friend their partner is cheating on them, and leads to just as much wine-fuelled argument around dinner tables.

It’s understandable, when you think about the number of ways in which this situation triggers our social anxieties. There’s the dislike of speaking to a stranger (a concept which perhaps resonates most with fellow Brits). We don’t like drawing attention to ourselves (ditto). It will look as if we are ‘making a fuss’ (ditto). We might seem aggressive, or over-demanding.

So rather than speak, we stand, or feel we are doing so, all the way from London to Edinburgh, or from Manchester to Liverpool, or manage to find an unreserved seat in what we instantly think of as an inferior position.

The first thing is to remember that it’s perfectly OK┬áto point out that someone has taken your reserved seat. You are engaging in straightforward communication and clearing up a mistake. It’s the grown-up choice. So how do you do it?

You don’t want to sound argumentative. You could say ‘You’re in my seat. Please move’ — or rather, you probably couldn’t. These and similar words can sound a bit in-your-face, and there’s no need for that. After all, ‘your’ seat is only reserved for your specific journey, and outside those stops, it’s up for grabs. So be gentle and firm with the person who is outstaying their welcome.

Say ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’.

Don’t use the expression ‘You’re sitting in my seat’. This phrase might make you feel and sound a bit peevish and proprietorial, as if you have found Goldilocks invading your house.

Say something like, ‘I’ve reserved this seat from Norwich/Northampton/Nailsea’.

Repeat the seat number, 24a or whatever.

You might find that you automatically precede your statement with ‘sorry’. That’s fine. In this context, ‘sorry’ is only a polite word which acknowledges that although you are ‘within your rights’ to do so, you realise you are causing a little inconvenience. It’s not apologising unnecessarily, it’s being human.

Just don’t playfully grimace, ‘Wow, this is awkward!’ or get apologetically matey with a ‘Sorry, dude!’ You’re not Tina Fey and you’re not in a bro movie. And please don’t say, ‘I’m not being horrible or anything, but…’

Stand back if you can and give the person plenty of room to move.

If they say that someone had taken their seat and that’s why they are in yours, or where are they expected to go now, or some such, don’t get drawn in. Just smile in sympathy and say something like ‘Travel, eh’ or ‘I know what it’s like.’

Say thank you and smile.

Of course, knowing you can handle the situation in this way doesn’t mean you have to. Before you say anything, you could check if there is another free seat which would suit you. If there is, even if it isn’t quite as nice, you might choose not to speak to the usurper who is is comfortably established with laptop and coffee, or is clearly with a family or friendship group. If there is no free seat available and you really need to claim the one you have reserved, say, ‘I can see I’m disturbing you, but I’ve reserved etc.’

You might feel that even though you don’t mind them having your seat, they should be made aware they are bucking the system and that it just so happens you are being magnanimous. It’s hard to convey this without sounding a bit of a dork. You could just keep quiet. No one need know you are spreading good karma. Your turn will come.

What if the person who has taken your reservation refuses to budge? What if this person happens to be of an intimidating size and presence? You could ask again. You could speak to the guard. If you judge, on balance, that neither of these options is going to have a good outcome, you could move away, get a comforting drink of something from the bar or trolley, and let karma do its stuff.

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