7 Tips for Sharing Spaces Courteously

Real Simple's modern manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) give you the most mannerly moves for situations where there's little space to move at all.

People crowded on train
Photo by Image Source / Getty Images

When booking airline flights, I often pay extra to choose my seat. I prefer to sit by a window so I can take photographs of the sky and the earth. Recently a parent asked if her child could switch seats with me as the child wanted to sit by a window. I hesitated because I had paid extra, but I got up and sat elsewhere. Shortly after we took off, the child closed the window. He played games on his tablet for the rest of the flight. I wish I had turned down the request. What can I say the next time? — J. M.

Like any gift, a coveted airplane seat must be offered with no strings attached. Once you give it, you maintain no claim over how it gets used. It's like your sister using the beautiful vase you bought her as a bathroom garbage bin—annoying, maybe, but not for you to decide. Besides, you don't know why the child wanted the window seat in the first place. Perhaps the aim was less to enjoy the view and more to stay clear of people coming down the aisle or to have a place to rest his head. Nevertheless, feel free to decline next time. "I'm so sorry," you can say to the child's parent. "I'm a photographer, and I paid extra for this seat so I could take pictures out the window." Because we live in a culture that tends to take special care of its children, here's my caveat: If you're going to feel rotten for the entire plane ride—worried that you were less than generous or self-conscious about being judged as such—then refusing won't be worthwhile. You'll be better off giving up the window and enjoying the righteousness of the middle or the aisle. (This was not your question, but for the record, I think it would be unconscionable to refuse the switch if the issue at hand were keeping parent and child together.)

- Catherine Newman

If I'm squashed next to someone on a train and a less crowded spot opens up, will my seatmate be insulted if I move to it? — C.G.

The average person needs 2½ feet or so of personal space to feel comfortable, studies have shown. On a train or a bus, this isn't always possible. But if there is room to spare, your seatmate probably wants it as much as you. So it's courteous to take the initiative and move. No need to worry about being insulting—unless you previously registered irritation with your seatmate. Did you wrinkle your nose at his cologne or sigh loudly after his newspaper brushed your sleeve? If so, he might be a bit miffed; try to be more restrained next time. If not, skedaddle to that empty seat—quick, before someone else gets it!—with a clear conscience.

- Michelle Slatalla

So many people save seats for their friends at my local coffee shop, even when the place is packed and there is nowhere else to sit. What is the best way to approach them? They seem either inconsiderate or oblivious. — R.B.

If the seat-savers were behaving graciously, they would say, "I'm hoping to keep that seat for a friend, but please feel free to sit here until she arrives." That's what I would do, and I know that because I am guilty of guarding the occasional café stool. If no such offer is forthcoming, try asking if you can perch there until the friend shows up, at which point the shop will perhaps have cleared out enough to make other spots available.

However, if you feel that there is a more significant problem at hand (say, there just aren't enough chairs in the shop), talk to the management. Explain that you're a dissatisfied regular and ask if they could implement a no-seat-saving policy. In all honesty, I'm guessing that the issue doesn't need to be taken that far. Most likely, it can be solved with just a little bit of mutual courtesy.

- Catherine Newman

Recently I went with my mother-in-law to a production at a local theater. Before the show began, she said that she had eaten something she knew she shouldn't have. (She has numerous food sensitivities.) She also mentioned her concern that she was going to have "stomach problems" during the performance. Long story short: For the next two-plus hours, she continuously passed gas. People in front of and behind us fanned their faces, turned and glared at us, held their noses, and leaned in their seats to get away from the smell. I was very embarrassed and uncomfortable, but I never said a word to anyone around us—nor to my mother-in-law. How should I have handled this situation? — L.G.

Your mother-in-law's intestinal troubles sound distressing, especially for her, but they are not ultimately your responsibility. If you had been the one passing gas, you could have excused yourself and left the theater—but you weren't. And while it's fine to educate children about public flatulence ("If it gets really bad, find a restroom to take refuge in," I might say, "or else blame the dog"), it is not appropriate to school an adult in such matters.

However, you can take action to avoid this type of situation in the future. Before you head off to a public setting with her, ask her to be cautious about her dietary choices, since she seems to know what her triggers are. Above all, be compassionate with your mother-in-law. Yes, she emitted a noxious odor, and that's unpleasant. But it wasn't a willful act. As we get older, our bodies can betray us, and that is a hard thing for anyone to cope with. Even the intolerant audience members who were sitting near you will eventually reckon with their own physical limitations. Let's hope that they are treated by those around them with greater kindness and understanding.

- Catherine Newman

Recently I boarded a plane and stowed my carry-on luggage in an overhead compartment across the aisle from my seat. Another passenger got angry and demanded that my suitcase be removed because it was above her seat. I moved my bag but wondered, isn't that space free for anyone to use? — A.U.

Since the airlines' hefty charges for checked luggage have driven more travelers to carry on bags, overhead space is at a premium. Courtesy dictates that you try to put your suitcase near your own seat if the space is available, because the disembarking process will go faster for everyone. Asking you to stick to your side of the aisle, however, is overly picky. It sounds as if you took the high road and politely honored the request. But if that left you simmering angrily for the rest of the flight, try another tack in the future. Smile sweetly and say, "Gosh, I didn't realize there was a rule. Maybe a flight attendant can help us sort this out." Then hit the Call button and let an airline employee adjudicate the situation.

- Michelle Slatalla

I live in an apartment, and the woman who lives above me is incredibly noisy. I can identify her by her stomp coming up the stairwell, and she constantly bangs her kitchen cabinets. My weekends are ruined by her incessant thumping and slamming. Is there anything I can do, or is this just one of those grin-and-bear-it situations? — A.W.

There's plenty you can do, as long as you approach the situation with grace and good humor. Begin by assuming that your neighbor has no idea she's being noisy. Given that the din seems to occur when she's simply retrieving cereal bowls or ascending the staircase, rather than throwing huge parties or allowing her brother's band to rehearse at her place, this is very likely the case. Knock (softly) on her door and explain your experience in the most generous terms you can. "You'd have no way of knowing," you can say, "but sound carries a great deal from your apartment to mine." Describe the specific noises you can hear so that she grasps the scope of the problem. If she seems willing to attend to the issue, great—problem probably solved. If she's baffled, you could try gently brainstorming solutions with her (putting down an area rug, what have you). If she's unresponsive, you can discuss the building's policies with your landlord. If you rent, check your lease. Some leases have noise guidelines. Some buildings note quiet hours, although they tend to focus on parties rather than basic kitchen prep. Make that a last resort, though. You would probably do better investing in noise-canceling headphones than having a (noisily) resentful neighbor.

- Catherine Newman

Living in a city, I typically use the subway to get around. I understand it's a public space, but it's also a small space. So I get bothered when someone sneezes or coughs without making the slightest effort to cover his mouth or nose. Although I tend to give that guy (or woman) a death stare when this happens, I usually keep quiet. That's partly because I don't want to get this person's germs and partly because I don't know what to say. How should I deal with this situation? — R.B.

You could try informing Mr. Coldy McVirus about the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology research characterizing a cough or a sneeze as a "multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud" that propels germs further than anyone previously imagined. Or you could give him the benefit of the doubt, assume that the rogue sneeze was a one-off incident, and offer the fellow a tissue. Really, that's about all you can (politely) do on a brief subway ride.

However, if you are trapped near this person for a longer amount of time (say, on a commuter train or a plane) and want to avoid recurrences of this propulsive event, be direct. Say, "Could you do me a favor? I'm trying to avoid getting sick. Would you mind covering your cough?" When he's put on the spot, he'll hopefully acquiesce. Worst case, you may need to change seats.

- Catherine Newman

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