Subway stressful situation
Last summer, I was in the NY subway with my wife and her parents from Germany who speak almost no English. A group of 5 teenagers got on after we’d been on for one station. They were maybe 13 to 15 years old including what appeared to be 3 boys and 2 girls of mixed races. They were shouting at each other very loudly in an animated romp, falling to the ground sometimes and then jumping up on each other. Screaming out “Motherf*#!*er this!” and “Motherf*#!*er that!” My wife, who is sensitive to noise, started crying. Her parents were scared. My sense (or story) was that these teens were demonstrating their power to do as they pleased whatever the circumstance, and they were being outrageous to possibly elicit a reaction. Or maybe they were just oblivious. In any event, it was super stressful and I could not imagine a response that would have led to them quieting down. The aspect of race, age and income was present. I’m white, middle aged and own apartments. These teens may have been from lower income situations. We just all sat there – the whole subway car. No one said anything to them or made any move to respond. What would have been an open-hearted way to meet this situation? What would an appropriate response have been?
As someone who takes the NYC subways often, I have wondered what it must be like for tourists or people who are not used to the atmosphere on the trains. I can imagine that it could be very confusing as well as overstimulating. NYC is one of the most densely populated areas in America, and the crowds on the subway during certain times of day reflect that. Even as a resident you are likely to encounter mostly strangers, people whose motives you don’t know, and you can’t be 100% sure who is safe and who is potentially unstable.
Because of this, what I’ve observed on the subway is that people usually strive to leave one another alone. When an individual or group passes through who is loud, rowdy, or trying to engage in an aggressive manner, people generally ignore it. They avoid eye contact and will move away if they don’t feel comfortable – but not so obviously as to attract attention, since that might escalate things or single them out as a target. Even when there is an argument, people will only intervene if they can identify an obvious victim in the situation and there is a clear action to take. For example, when there is a physical fight, other passengers might strive to separate the two combatants. I have witnessed only 2 incidents like this in my 15 years of riding the trains. Mostly, people will wait for the disturbance to pass through, maybe roll their eyes at each other or say “Oooookay then”, and then go on their way.
In my view, this strategy generally works for getting by. Because we have so little information about each other, it’s very difficult to know what to do or say in response to a random person or group of people on the train. There’s often no opportunity to make a connection, especially with a group. Rather than have a negative encounter, people choose not to have the encounter. They turn up their music, go to another car at the next station, or report the disturbance to the conductor if it’s really disruptive. I’m sure that riding the trains and encountering stressful situations (and not just rowdy teens… having the door slammed on you, having a huge crowd all shoving to get in the same door, delays in the tunnel, and so on) make the city a more stressful place to live in general. So maybe the most open hearted thing to do is focus on self care, if you can’t directly engage with the person or people who are causing the disturbance.
Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could get to know each other better so that we could reach out in a situation like the train cars. As a teacher, I can do this with students I personally know. I have told the high school students at my school many times to get up off the floor or sidewalk, lower their voices on the street, look both ways a little more carefully, etc. They respond to humor and lighthearted interactions, but more importantly, many of them have known me for a while and there is a level of trust. They know that my motive is to help them. At a time when they want to be independent and are testing how much they want to conform to society and to the peer group, some of them would be suspicious of getting feedback on their behavior from people they don’t know or trust. And that’s without the differential of being from a “better” neighborhood or otherwise having more privilege.