Last week I was riding the subway. Oftentimes when seats become available, there will be these rather grand, friendly exchanges along the lines of, “You take the seat.” “No, you. I insist.” It is part of the culture, and happens not just to women, the elderly, or visible foreigners. People are quite sincere about it. It is nice although sometimes it includes things that would be read as aggressive in the US, like putting your hand on another man’s shoulder to firmly, but kindly, guide him to the open seat.
I got into one of these common exchanges last week. After several rounds of back and forth, I won (or perhaps lost, depending on how you keep score) and remained standing. (For me standing is often more comfortable because people are squeezed pretty tight sitting on the benches. I have a very American idea of personal space in this regard.) Soon after the guy sat down, he grabbed my black, canvas shoulder bag. I was surprised and confused. A stranger trying to grab your bag off of your shoulder on public transportation in the US would be considered pretty threatening. Then I realized, since he got the seat, he was offering to hold my bag as an expression of gratitude. He had a big smile on his face. In reality, since I was standing over him, he was in no position to steal it. Our exchange--him offering to hold my bag and me politely refusing--went a few more rounds of facial expressions and hand gestures. In the end, we were both smiling and I was left holding my bag, unwilling to let go of whatever vestige of yankee mistrust it represents.