Save me a seat


As I walked through the airport concourse, I spied a vacant seat – perhaps the only place to sit in the crowded departure waiting area. I approached the unoccupied chair, smiled at the people sitting on either side, and spun around in preparation of planting my bottom on the waiting Naugahyde. But as I bent my knees, the woman on my right, in a daring maneuver, stuck her hand between the chair’s seat and mine saying, “I’m sorry, this seat is taken.”

Taken? These seats are assigned? What’s the deal here?

The deal, it turns out, is a curious occurrence where, in certain situations, people assert personal rights to public property. Even more curious is that these “rights” are usually respected by the rest of us. Indeed, caught off guard, I excused myself for my gaffe and moved away from the empty seat to lean against a nearby post.

But what if I really, really wanted to sit in that saved seat? Short of creating a scene or turning the situation into a donnybrook, what can be done to defy a seat-saver’s claim? And how the heck do seat-savers get away with it anyway? With the help of Dr. Floyd Rudmin, a social psychologist at the University of Tromsø in Norway who studies these sorts of things, I’ve prepared a list of common seat-saver tactics as well as measures we can employ to counteract them.

The Possession Tactic. A seat-saver marks her claim through her nearby physical presence, which she can expand by putting her hand on an adjoining chair, wrapping her arm around a neighboring seatback, or placing objects such as luggage or sweaters or magazines on the claimed furniture.

Countermeasures: If a body part is deployed to stake a claim, simply continue to seat yourself. A saver’s hand or arm will almost assuredly move. Objects on seats present more of a challenge. In those cases, simply grab the items, and as you settle in, hand them to the vanquished seat-saver saying, “Do these belong to you?”

The Legal Tactic. A seat-saver refers to his “legal” right to hold a seat by invoking permission of some authorizing agent. For example, “The gate agent told me I could save this seat.”

Countermeasure: Acknowledge the saver’s authorization; then pull rank by invoking a higher authority such as permission from airline management.

The Need Tactic. A seat-saver uses a sympathetic ruse as a “need” for the yet-to-appear savee. He might say, “I’m saving this seat for my grandmother who is feeble, hard of hearing, and afraid to fly.”

Countermeasure: Just as you can cite a higher authority, you can usually find a more pressing need. Who would argue with, “I’m on my way home after open-heart surgery and have to stay off my feet as much as possible”? (If and when grandma does totter up, you can always pretend a rapid recovery.)

The Social Agreement Tactic. A seat-saver establishes his right through the passive collusion of nearby sitters and standers. He may ask, “Is it okay if I save this seat for my companion?” Though they may be uncomfortable with being recruited by the seat-saver, people in the vicinity are unlikely to object.

Countermeasure: You can erode a seat-saver’s support with a statement such as, “Things aren’t done that way here.” Because bystanders and bysitters may feel mild complicity in the initial seat-saving act, they are unlikely to give you strong support. However, also feeling slightly manipulated, neither are they likely to defend the seat-saver, undercutting his social contract.

The Ignorance Tactic. A seat-saver pretends not to comprehend that she cannot hold a seat for another. Countermeasure: Act even more ignorant. As you take your seat, smile and mumble something like, “Me no English.”

Keep in mind that experienced seat-savers will use more than one tactic so you may have to exercise more than one countermeasure. However, with a little practice you will soon be able to find a place to sit in any crowded waiting area.

And if you get there before I do, save me a seat.