Etiquette and Insult: Just when should you offer your seat?

Priority seat for pregnant commuters

Male commuter: “Excuse me love, would you like this seat?”

Female commuter: “Oh, that’s very kind of you, but I’m not actually pregnant.”

Male commuter: “I know, I just thought you were old.”


If there was enough room in a tube carriage for tumbleweed to pass, this would have been the very moment when it slowly rolled down the aisle in stony silence.

The unfortunate exchange (which a member of the Commuting Expert team witnessed in its full unadulterated horror), was hopefully a rare and extreme example of commuting etiquette gone badly wrong.

But whilst the gentleman in question was likely more tactless than most (feel free to contradict us), it does raise the wider question of when and how you should relinquish a seat to someone whose need you perceive to be greater than yours.

One technique is to try making eye contact with the person in question and see if it’s returned with a hopeful expression.

But stare too long and your generous spirit risks being misinterpreted like some inappropriate and unspoken chat up line.

On the flip side, it can be a challenge for those who genuinely do need a seat to make it clear that that’s the case – especially when everyone in the carriage appears to be ignoring them.

Surely this shouldn’t be so complicated!

Perhaps the reason that the answer’s not entirely straightforward is that the divide between chivalry and insult can be a very narrow one:

After all, in our youth-obsessed culture, at what point is it not just plain insulting to offer your seat to someone who you think looks old?

And how unequivocally pregnant must someone be before it’s clear-cut that you should ask if they want to sit down?

Comedian Jimmy Carr put it in his habitually blunt style when he quipped: “I’d rather see a pregnant woman standing on the bus than a fat girl sitting down crying.”

Well, thanks for the insight, Jimmy, but take that too literally and those in genuine need of a rest from their two feet get ignored and chivalry’s dead.

So what’s the answer to avoiding this most embarrassing of commuting etiquette faux pas?

Baby on Board

Leaving the age question aside for just a moment, some believe that what’s needed is a way for pregnant passengers to remove any biological ambiguity and make it clear to their fellow commuters that they’d genuinely appreciate a seat.
TFL Baby on Board Badge
This is especially important for the benefit of the chromosomically-challenged male who is really, really bad at judging it.

Well, you may not be aware, but help is at hand as TfL mulled over this very problem and have addressed it by making available “Baby on Board” badges to pregnant women so they can make their pre-maternal status explicit.

They’re available from station ticket offices, or can be requested by emailing your full name and address to

But hang on – we’re curious: would you seriously want to wear one?

We can’t help wondering whether donning such a badge reduces pregnant women to the ambulatory equivalent of a car with a bumper sticker.

Not the most flattering comparison, surely?

On the other hand, comfort and safety may trump the need for subtlety, in which case – get emailing!

Your advice, please

No doubt there will always be a small minority of passengers who deliberately ignore the needs of everyone around them, however much they should give up their seat.

Other more well-intentioned individuals meanwhile simply fall into the age-old commuter trap of being so focused on their own commute that they quite unintentionally miss what’s happening around them.

Perhaps we could all do with looking up from the Metro a little more from time to time.

Is there anything else that can be done?

Whilst there may be no hard and fast rules, we’d really like to hear your views, comments and advice on this most delicate of subjects.

If you don’t want to leave anyone crying, just how and when should you give up your seat?
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  • Graham

    Tricky one. Head down earphones on is the norm. The obvious signs/badges aside I think it’s about looking out for distressed individuals, male or female, who look like they need your seat more than you. I reckon there’s also a correlation between seats offered on a Monday versus Friday (more on the latter?)…

    • Commuting Expert

      Thanks Graham – sounds like the Friday feeling can make us all feel a little more generous!

  • Natalie

    I find it truly amazing when younger commuters just look the other way when someone’s obviously in need. Having travelled whilst pregnant a few years ago I got fed up with having to ask people if I could have a seat – not quite sure I’d want the badge though… that’s just a bit weird!

    • Commuting Expert

      Hi Natalie, interesting to hear your view on the badges – did you find any other ways of making it clear you needed a seat, or did you just have to ask?

    • Ambler

      While I don’t doubt your experiences, I’ve literally never once seen a disabled or obviously pregnant passenger not immediately be offered a seat, in five years of spending three to four hours a day on buses and tube trains in London. Just the opposite in fact, it warms my heart the way that every time I see an expectant mother step onto the train, half the carriage immediately move to stand up! Perhaps manners vary by area or line or something? Where were you travelling?

      • Ambler

        Oh, and it’s usually the younger passengers, like teens to early twenties, who are most polite and accommodating!

        I mainly use the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines, and that’s where I’ve observed that seat-giving is absolutely universal. I also use the District and Overground a bit though, and for some reason I find these lines a bit surlier, I could more imagine people keeping their heads down there (though I’ve still never seen it).

  • Alex

    I’ve seen the baby on board pins and as chromosomically-challenged man I really like them. I’ve often seen them on women I wouldn’t normally have considered giving a seat to and they always make me smile and wonder if there’s anything else I could do to help.

    • Commuting Expert

      Thanks Alex, good to hear the badges have been helpful – we’ll defer to other readers to respond if there’s anything else we can do…

  • Patrickz

    I can understand some people not knowing whether to give a seat to someone who looks older or perhaps pregant, but I cna’t stand it when people ignore commuters with disabilities – it’s so obvious they need a seat and some idiots just sit there or look the other way!

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  • Fed Up

    Pregnancy is a choice, and I don’t think that pregant women have anymore right to the seats (I am a woman). There are some people who may have an invisible illness or disability, or really bad period pains/back ache etc… but we don’t have signs for all of those. Age, illness (unless hungover) and disability are not choices and some of them are not visible. Please be more aware of others.

    • Ambler

      Oof, you just reminded me of a few months last year after I badly pulled a hamstring. I was never once offered a seat, however much agony I was clearly in or how pained and obvious my limp was.

      Still, in more obvious instances (ie when elderly, pregnant or more noticeably disabled people have stepped on a train), I’ve always been very pleasantly surprised by the swift willingness of other passengers to give up their seats.

      Anyway, personally I think pregnant women should be offered seats. Yes, it is technically a choice whether or not to get pregnant at a given time, however the instinct to procreate isn’t a choice, it’s pre-programmed and ultimately a biological necessity. Since the resulting condition makes standing more wearisome, I think it’s appropriate that we offer our seats to those women who are in the process of going along with their biological drive to propagate the species!

    • carmeleeta3468

      Knee surgery is a choice, too. Do you ask someone on crutches if the surgery was elective? I would always give up my seat for someone who was visibly pregnant.

  • Ambler

    I think the badges are great. Since this article was written you must have seen them become the norm, they’re really ubiquitous now.

  • carmeleeta3468

    If your city reserves seats near the front for seniors or people with disabilities and you are sitting in one, just get up if you see someone you think needs a seat. I am not that old and certainly not disabled, but I have had my day ruined when someone has offered me a seat. Is it because I am a woman (fine, but not needed)? Do I look pregnant (doubtful)? Or just old (yikes!)?