7 Awkward Situations That Occur Far Too Often On Public Transportation And How to Avoid (Some Of) Them


1. Odor Unknown: A Space Time Mystery

Whenever you step on the subway, there is usually a 50/50 chance your nose is going to be overwhelmed with some foul stench that mystifies the senses and can keep you guessing as to its origin for the duration of your ride.  It will take all of the willpower you can muster, but you must resist scrunching your nose and frowning upon odor impact, as some people may deem this action offensive.  You can only hope the unidentified smell is merely a strange concoction that a fellow passenger has prepared for lunch or, heaven forbid, a neighbor’s body odor.  Just do your best to ignore this one and act like it’s a regular Tuesday and hopefully you can manage to exit without the scent latching on to your clothing for the remainder of the day.

2. Asking What Stops the Train Will Be Making

This seemingly easy task can be a great deal more difficult when new to a city and learning basic navigation.  Generally, (and this will sound like common sense) your best bet is to seek out the friendliest (most normal) person in the vicinity.  It sounds simple, but just taking that extra minute to find a normal person to ask can be the deciding factor between having a pleasant conversation with a stranger and getting the fabled “death stare” and/or being cursed at (sometimes in several languages).

3. The Crying Child Scenario

Far and away, this is one of the most awkward situations as a bystander on the bus or subway.  The method the parent chooses to handle it ultimately decides how uncomfortable the rest of the passengers should feel.  The favored scenario is that the parent does his/her best to calm the child, in which case you have no reason to feel awkward, and even less reason to be annoyed (it isn’t easy traveling with children- show some damn compassion!). Nothing builds more tension on a packed train than a mother yelling at her four-year-old to “stop yapping, or you’re not getting a Happy Meal later!”  It’s remarks like these that can make the seemingly quick jaunt from Penn Station to Times Square feel like one and a half eternities.  Of course this situation is only beaten out by…

4. The Happy Child Scenario

Sometimes all it takes to brighten up an otherwise dreary morning is the smile of a child laughing and playing with their parent on the train; it’s a truly nice moment, and most parents will smile back at passengers who get to enjoy their adorable child for those few minutes during the commute to work.  However, some parents are not nearly as understanding, and an innocent smile at the child could yield a very sour expression from the parent like you’re some kind of baby-snatcher.  It doesn’t matter that you’ve never snatched a baby before, and it definitely does not ease the situation to tell them that you have no intention of working “baby-snatching” into your daily schedule, but you can tell that’s what they’re thinking and there’s nothing you can do about it.

5. Passenger Loses Balance

Countless times, standing passengers will stumble as the train or bus lurches forward to continue on the route.  When a passenger begins tipping, my reflex is to extend an arm and stop his/her fall, as I’m sure many others would do.  This caring gesture can occasionally be misperceived as someone trying to perform a pick-pocket or perhaps even grope a passenger, which is a shame.  There’s no advice for this one- just keep being a good person and people will appreciate it. ☺

6. Making Eye Contact in the Window Reflections

“Woah, was that guy just staring at me? No I’m imagining things, I need to unwind and keep gazing idly out the window. Hmm… I’d rather double-check, though.  Let me take a second to look back in the direction of that windowpane over there just to ensure he wasn’t—yep, he is totally staring me down with heavy eye contact in the reflection of the window. This might be the most uncomfortable I’ve felt since that lady thought I wanted to snatch her baby out of the stroller this morning.”  This will happen way, way WAY too often- the only advice I can give is to stop looking in the window reflections all together, and get used to looking at your feet (side note: don’t polish your shoes to a fine sheen anymore).

7.  Unsolicited Death Stares from the Depths of Hell

Obviously, you won’t be instigating all the series of awkward affairs while riding public transportation (although you will unknowingly start a healthy 80% of them).  Some situations are totally out of your control and thus beyond your scope of preparedness.  Yes, I am referring to the formidable death stare that will find you one fateful day.  It’s not a curious stare either, like one might give you thinking they met you at a work function or that you are their friend Carol’s nephew from that BBQ- it’s an intense speculation on your soul.  You have never met this person in your life.  You haven’t spoken to them, and up until two moments ago you were unaware of their existence, but they are staring you straight in the face- unblinking, emotionless, and without motive, making them the most terrifying person to sit near on public transportation.  I suggest you first perfect your poker face and immediately remove yourself from the area as soon as possible due to the varying nature of people who ride public transportation (this is a nicer way of saying there can be a lot of creeps on the train!).  I apologize if that last line offends you, but in fairness I too use public transportation, so for all you know I could be one of these creeps as well, and you should be just as suspicious of me, seeing as we’ve never met.  Well, nice talking to you…maybe I’ll see you on the train sometime.