The psychology of riding the train with angry, self-righteous commuters

Dear self-righteous humans: Leave us mere mortals alone

I would like to pen this post to address a serious problem we are facing in the United States. Everyday, without fail, I come across the self-righteous. You would think this is something that one would have to measure by administering a personality assessment tool.  No, not these days.  At times, people wear their self-righteousness as a badge of honor and at other times with utter obliviousness. For example, there are those who listen in on your supermarket line conversation and feel it is their duty to inform you of how misinformed you are on everything you just said. There are those that yell and cast a curse at you because you didn’t notice they decided to run into oncoming traffic without looking both ways.  There are those who take it upon themselves to tell you how you should feel in a certain situation (more often than not encouraging a sense of outrage at what they feel is outrageous). There are those who are so self-righteous that they take it upon themselves to correct the behaviors of strangers on a train.  These people really bug me.


I recently had an encounter with such a self-righteous train passenger. She took it upon herself to tap me on the shoulder as I was sitting down to let me know I should lower the volume on my iPod. First off, I was just sitting down. I always turn off my iPod once I am seated. Second, she didn’t ask in the way I just wrote it out. She was a complete duck. It was a totally obnoxious shoulder tap, followed by a snarl and enacted contempt. After which I responded that of course I would be lowering the volume as I have been doing for the past five years once I sit down. She couldn’t leave the matter alone, however. She decided to speak with a fellow passenger about me and how I was going to lose my hearing someday and that “these people” are so unhealthy and uncaring. What? What people did I represent to her?  Younger women? Hispanics?  IPod users (which is pretty much everyone). Mothers?  I didn’t know which label she was attributing to me. I turned around and stated that I didn’t need a lecture and that she was not my mother. But she puffed in her self-righteousness. She sat smugly there placing her bags so no one could sit next to her.  You could see from the look in her eyes she had been dying to make such a statement for a while. I happen to be the glorious winner of her targeted self-righteousness.

I was left to wonder what it is that drives someone to that point of vociferous smugness. She obviously felt the need to express herself. She perhaps could have been feeling that her voice was stifled at work or at home. She could be a grown-up bully.  She could be taking a self-empowerment class that got absorbed into her system at an extreme response. One thing is for sure: she is not alone in that behavior.

Just because we now have social media outlets that allow for that type of ventilation, it does not mean that should be acceptable in face-to-face interactions. It appears that the rules (or non-rules) of online etiquette are being transferred over into the real world.  Just because you can in online interactions comment loudly and anonymously on what you perceive to be someone’s stupidity does not mean you can do that on a train ride with actual fellow living, breathing humans. Hell, don’t even do it to non-humans. Have you seen those same self-righteous people try to correct the behaviors of dogs on the streets? It happens all the time in New York City.


Back to the train woman. I am sure that she went through the day feeling quite superior to others and that she had “shown me”.   Yes, she did. She showed me how I didn’t want to be now or in a decade or so. It is occasionally OK to have to deal with such self-righteousness as it helps one set a clearer path for oneself.  I do not need to be the self-righteous “police” patrolling for what I deem to be bad behavior.  In these types of situations, we have to try to ignore their self-righteousness and focus on the task or real needs that are present at that moment. We should also try not to get too peeved or too self-righteous ourselves. I admit I got close to engaging in those. But, a deep breath and a smile can get you out of those self-righteous traps.

At the end of the day, there must be a fine line between minding one’s own business and looking out for others. Hope, that as a society, we find that line soon.

16 replies »

  1. I never do it this way, but I wish I could respond to such people with irreverence that leaves them a little speechless. Like saying, “That would be an excellent way to lose my hearing. Thanks! I’m on it.” Or snarky, “If I lose my hearing, I’ll never hear you again.” Instead, I’d more likely just have a confused, “Huh?!?” I’ll just take vicarious pleasure in your reply.


  2. Oh the joys of commuting via public transportation. I am so glad those days are gone for me and I will N-E-V-E-R have to deal with self-absorbed people.


  3. Self-righteousness is something that I have noticed within society as a whole. It often leads one to believe in self-entitlement – or the idea of being better than someone else. I am so glad that I was brought up amoungst different races, genders, cultures, identities and values – as I now, as an adult, can appreciate that kindness, equality and social justice are really very rare qualities in the world of today and I think they are also the best qualities in the world today.


      • Have you seen the movie Revolution by Rob Stewart? [] basic – I think the movie conveys how the top layer tries to make decisions for the bottom layer of the hierarchy system. I would prefer if this system changes a little bit. Perhaps into a more decentralized style. Do you think that would ever happen in the Americas (North America – The United States, Canada and Mexico)?


  4. Oh, I relate to this blog entry, SO much. I’m not sure what contributes to the whole self-righteous / self-entitlement that some people exhibit on public transportation, but I live in DC and there seems to be a general “I’m more important than you, so therefore I have more important things to do, places to go, etc. than you” mindset permeating this area. Recently, I watched as no one got up from their seats on the train to give a (very pregnant) woman a rest; I managed to “fight off” a middle-aged man to save her a seat – she was so grateful, but I was slightly appalled that the man kept fuming at me afterwards! *shakes head*. You’re right in reflecting that in noticing these behaviors in others, they’re perfect examples of what NOT to do in our own behaviors.


  5. Whenever I encounter people like this I “ooze” kindness. This sometimes diffuses the situation or silences the other person. Regardless, I remain at peace. I refuse to allow “others” to ruin my day.


    • I usually react to people in that way. But that day she just rubbed me the wrong way on so many levels. But i wrote about it and its out of my system, even though I now see her everyday. Lol. I think she feels a bit embarrassed now. Sigh.


  6. I feel your pain in Boston! I think commuting might bring out the absolute worst in people. My favorite is the commuter who pushes past everyone (at the last stop!) to make sure they get off the train first.

    I think all of this self-righteousness can also be seen in people who talk/text during movies. I just don’t get people sometimes.


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