Miss Conduct

Manspreading? Blocked doors? How to handle the worst T etiquette

Plus, dealing with conversation sidebars.

Riders got on and off trains at Downtown Crossing station.
Riders got on and off trains at Downtown Crossing station. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)

On the MBTA, what’s the best way to approach someone who is blasting his phone for the whole train, standing in front of an empty seat, wearing a backpack, not moving into the train, blocking the door, getting on before letting people off, manspreading, etc.?

K.N. / Salem

Get that person an agent and sign him up with Cirque du Soleil! That’s some impressive multi-tasking.

Oh, wait, you meant people in general, not a double-jointed one-man-band of annoyances. Good for you for wanting to stop it — the temptation to retreat into an i-cocoon with one’s phone is strong.

You can try “Excuse me! Do you mind turning that down?” with the phone blasters, but this is likely to turn their loud music or conversation into a loud argument with you, which is no improvement. I rarely recommend passive aggression but this is the time for it. Sing along quietly with their tunes or add your own muttered commentary to their conversation; if this feels too brazen, at least make sympathetic eye contact with other passengers. Nothing brings strangers together like mutual hatred of That Guy Playing Nickelback on the subway.

To get people to move, say “Excuse me” in a different way: Kind of let your voice resonate through your nose a bit so you sound less threatening and more nerdy. A good, loud, nasal “Excuse me!” will usually clear out the door or seat blockers. As well as your sinuses!


Backpackers are a trickier matter. If you see a backpack coming at you, block it! You’re not obligated to allow yourself to be hit. A solid block (accompanied by that “Excuse me!”) might make a backpacker realize that packs on the train belong between one’s feet, not between one’s shoulder blades. You can also point out that keeping backpacks near the floor or on one’s lap reduces the chance of pickpocketing.


My own preferred technique with manspreaders is to sit down next to them and take up the amount of space that my body requires. Once another person’s thigh is firmly pressed against their own, manspreaders . . . contract.

My partner and I have an argument I hope you can resolve. When out with friends, sometimes one will insist on engaging in a sidebar conversation. It is distracting in a group of four or more when an individual tries to pull attention away from the conversation of the group to have a tete-a-tete. I say, ignore this rude and boorish behavior. She engages with them. Thus, the argument.

M.A. / Boston

When a group of friends converses, it’s natural for subgroups to emerge and then mesh back in with the larger group. It’s a sort of dance. Your friend may be “sidebarring” in a boorish way — that’s eminently imaginable — but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional sidebar per se. It is boorish to straight-up ignore a conversational overture, as you recommend. If you want to stay part of the main conversation, tell Sally Sidebar, “That’s fascinating — can you hold that thought? I want to hear what Molly Mainstage is saying right now.” And don’t try to tell your partner what she ought to find rude, or what conversations she ought to participate in.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

When should you speak up about a faux pas, and when should you not? Ask Miss Conduct at Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.