Trying to find the line between Good Samaritan and Creepy McCreeperson
August 1, 2010 2:47 PM   Subscribe

I saw a woman weeping on the subway and I did nothing. Was that the appropriate response?

I was taking the 1 train in lower Manhattan the other day around 6 pm. A woman sat down alone across from me and my friend. After a few stops, I noticed that she had begun crying. She wasn't listening to music or reading a book, she just spontaneously began sobbing and continued for a good five minutes or so.

My first instinct was to reach out to her and make sure she was ok. I feel like this would have been fine in the south, where I'm from. I didn't, though, because I didn't think it would go over so well in NYC. For the record, I wasn't trying to hit on her or anything, I just wanted to be kind and make sure she didn't need anything.

Men, what would you have done? Women, what would you have liked me to have done? Does gender even matter in this question?
posted by soonertbone to Society & Culture (82 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I would either do nothing or if they seem especially distressed I would say "Hey, are you ok?".
posted by josher71 at 2:50 PM on August 1, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've been in that woman's position, and I would have wanted you to leave me alone. It's embarrassing enough to cry in public.
posted by dino might at 2:53 PM on August 1, 2010 [34 favorites]

Usually I offer a tissue or something and see if they have any interest in conversation (they almost always don't want to talk). If they decline I just say I hope they feel better and leave it alone.
posted by Menthol at 2:53 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think a "hey are you okay" might have been a good starting point if she seemed really out of sorts.

This isn't a man/woman thing either. It's a person-to-person thing.
posted by moviehawk at 2:54 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a woman, I would personally be most comfortable if you offered a kind word as you were getting off the subway, or as I was and you were clearly staying on the train. That way I would know I didn't have to explain myself to you or engage you in conversation, and it would be absolutely clear that you weren't trying to hit on me. But it can be nice to know that people are thinking kind things about you, when you're in a spot so crappy that you end up crying in public.

Avoid platitudes or reassurances like "it'll be ok," because you don't know that it will. Avoid "cheer up!" because people hate to be commanded in this way. I really think the best possible phrase for this kind of circumstance is "hang in there." It conveys support and belief that they'll somehow make it through, along with an acknowledgment that life sucks.
posted by vytae at 2:55 PM on August 1, 2010 [14 favorites]

Asking someone who's weeping if they're ok is sort of silly.

Also, "woman weeping on the subway" is way too general of a situation to have a pat answer. In your specific instance, you seem to imply that you witnessed her start and stop crying. Did she stop crying? She didn't seem lost or confused, just sad? From the way you describe it, she just seemed sad, in which case she probably didn't need your help. In general, though, that sort of situation demands, well, some situational analysis.

If things do seem to demand your intervention, "Do you need help?" seems more appropriate than "Are you ok?".
posted by carsonb at 2:55 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think "are you okay" is a good thing, or "is there any way I can help you?". But leaving the woman alone was okay, too. If she was in some kind of trouble, there's plenty of ways to get it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:56 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

i would silently hand her a Kleenex if I had one (which I usually do) but otherwise leaver her alone.
posted by fshgrl at 2:58 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

At least twice I've seen women (both hard-looking women above age 45) weep openly on the subway for extended periods of time. When people spoke to them, they wound up asking for money. Not that all subway-weepers are like this, but you have to admit, it's a pretty good set-up for panhandling.

Doing nothing was acceptable. Asking "are you alright?" is another normal thing to do, but leave enough alone.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:59 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would generally not do anything whether it was a man or a woman. I figure, people do have personal tragedies in their lives. It's quite common. And people often have some reason they need to be in public at a certain time (it's likely she was coming home from work), and it's not their choice to have a personal tragedy going on at the same time. In fact, considering the huge numbers of people surrounding us all the time when we venture out in public in a big city, and considering how common personal tragedies are, I'm sort of surprised we don't see this kind of thing more often.

Who knows what her explanation would have been for why she was crying? Aside from the panhandling possibility (which is a good point by Sticherbeast) ... Maybe her mom just died, or her son just died, or her dog just died. Maybe she was just diagnosed with cancer or found out she was HIV positive, or maybe one of these things happened to her best friend. Maybe she separated with her spouse or even had a bad breakup. Maybe she lost her job.

There are so many things it could be, and so many of them are none of your business.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:01 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There has been a handful of times i've cried on the train. This always rather quietly and behind sunglasses. I did so either because I just learned my father was dying or due to being laid-off from work.

If a person need outside assistace it will be obvious either because they ask for such or because they are clearly incompacitated in some way. My advice is not to worry about it.
posted by marimeko at 3:01 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been in that woman's position, and I would have wanted you to leave me alone. It's embarrassing enough to cry in public.

This, this, this.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:02 PM on August 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

Seriously? Leavebher alone. Maybe she's got allergies.
posted by dfriedman at 3:05 PM on August 1, 2010

The one time I ever saw this in public (actually, it happened to be a pretty "hard" looking woman over age 45) I asked her if she was okay. She said she had just almost been raped and asked me for a hug. Then she asked me if I would wait with her until her cab got there. I asked her if she needed any money and she said no.

I don't think there's anything wrong with asking someone in that situation if they are okay. I think if you want to ask, you should ask. Just follow their lead and if they say they're fine, then back off.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:07 PM on August 1, 2010 [13 favorites]

I've wept on public transportation when a patient I volunteered with died. I just wanted to be left alone.
posted by halogen at 3:08 PM on August 1, 2010

As a woman if I was crying somewhere public I would absolutely want to be left alone. If somebody asked me if I was okay I'd feel totally embarrassed.

If it were me and I was the one seeing somebody crying I might hand them a tissue (if I had one) and not say anything. I'm the kind of person who regularly chats up the people waiting in line at the supermarket, so I'm not against talking to strangers. I just think crying is different.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:09 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've walked down the street in NYC crying because of a breakup. Nobody stopped me to say anything. I would have actually liked someone to toss out a nice word or two.
posted by MsMolly at 3:10 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've cried in public a handful of times and I always wanted to be left alone. I don't know if it matters, makes any sense or is offensive, but I'd especially want to be left alone by a man (maybe it's having been told to smile so much by random men).
posted by Pax at 3:13 PM on August 1, 2010

I've cried on airplanes and on buses... never the subway but I'm sure it's just a matter of time. While someone handing me a tissue or giving me a sympathetic look might have been appreciated, I really didn't want anyone to ask me what was wrong/ask anything that required a response.
posted by SputnikSweetheart at 3:13 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd have wanted to be left alone in that situation. And I'd leave someone else alone, too.

Though if the person looks particularly distraught or confused, as opposed to just normally sad, you could ask "Do you need any help?" That would be OK by NY etiquette too.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:16 PM on August 1, 2010

When I lived in Boston, I left an appointment with my analyst, and went to a cafe. I was trying to sort things out, and just ended up sitting and crying. I thought no one noticed. An elderly couple sat next to me. They ordered dinner, and after their order was taken, the woman got up, leaned over me and put her hand on my arm. She said, "Life isn't easy, is it?" She smiled and sat back down.
That happened about 20 years ago, and remains one of the greatest acts of kindness I've ever witnessed.
Say something. Pray for her, if you pray, and tell her. I know it's not a popular view, but reach out and make that connection. You'll probably both be better off because of it.
posted by littleflowers at 3:18 PM on August 1, 2010 [34 favorites]

I'm thirding dino might. I've cried on the subway before and someone saying anything to me would have made me cry harder out of embarrassment.
posted by blueskiesinside at 3:20 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The few times I've been so overcome with emotion that I've cried in public, I would have been mortified if anyone had acknowledged it. That was on an airplane, but it would hold doubly true on the subway in NYC where lots of folks expect a little bubble of "leave me alone."

This would not hold true, however, if the tears were accompanied with bruises or bleeding. In that case I think a "hey are you OK?" would be the decent thing to do.
posted by ambrosia at 3:22 PM on August 1, 2010

it's an "it depends" kind of situation. It depends on who you you are, how you present, time of day, part of town, appearance of person crying. I think hal_c_on has fantastic instincts about how to judge the situation.

I've been that person. Sometimes it's just life, sometimes it's been something terrible, twice I was actually terrified and getting away from a bad situation (the latter in the 80s). I've had elderly women ask me if I was all right, bus drivers say "sweetie you okay?" and one punk rock girl insist I take her seat in a crowded train. I've also had inquisitive looks from other women which were actually reassuring.

I'm usually happy for the sign of humanity and that this city isn't entirely doomed, but never expect it to happen.

The last time I was on the other side (asking someone who appeared in distress if she was okay) was a girl at a subway station late at night, wearing a short skirt, and I even walked past her at first before coming back and asking if she was okay and if there was anyone she wanted me to call. That kind of woke her up a little and she said "No, thanks, I'm fine" and got on the next train.

I don't think it's ever wrong to say something if you feel strongly called to do so. But I also wouldn't think badly of you for not saying something.
posted by micawber at 3:24 PM on August 1, 2010

I was in Germany and saw a man fall to his death off the subway platform. By the time I was able to catch the next train, I think the horribleness of it finally hit home and I started crying on the train. A lovely little old German man handed me a tissue and asked in German if he could do anything for me. I said no and he left me alone from that point. I'm normally a very private person and I hate being the center of attention, but that gesture made me feel connected and not so alone, which is what I needed at that moment.

So I think a tissue and a "Can I do anything for you," said quietly and unobtrusively, wouldn't be frowned on. Sometimes a connection to the outside world can be a very big thing.
posted by cooker girl at 3:28 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

If I am genuinely upset and crying, someone asking me "are you ok" makes me furious. I am obviously not OK, no?

I would offer a tissue if I had one, otherwise do nothing.
posted by gaspode at 3:29 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the potential embarrassment of asking if they're okay might be outweighed by the good that could be done if you do ask. For example, what if they were just attacked? You could help call the police for them. If they're somehow injured, then you could call for an ambulance. Maybe they're suicidal. Maybe asking them if they're okay makes them feel like someone gives a damn and they're not invisible.
posted by inturnaround at 3:30 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've cried in public and semi-public before. Being asked if I'm okay by strangers, male or female, comes off as "Hi, whatcha cryin' about?" It feels like a combination of condescending pity and gawky curiosity. It puts me in the position of having to brush them off (a lot of askers follow up with "are you sure?" "you're really sure you're okay?"), and if I'm upset enough to cry in public I'm not in a very good frame of mind to do that gracefully. And, at those times, there has never been anything I've needed from a stranger.

If someone's crying but functional enough to ride the subway and walk around, leave them alone. If you feel like you have to say something, make it a quick "hope you feel better" that they don't have to respond to.

However, my public crying has never been from any sort of trauma or danger - the advice to check to see if the person's injured or rattled is good.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:30 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd err on the side of leaving people alone.

I have had bad experiences with people telling me to smile, telling me it's going to be okay, hitting on me, etc. I'm the kind of person who has a very low threshold for crying and if it's something minor like having a rough confrontation at work then I don't want to feel like I'm being put in the spotlight when it's not something "worth" crying about. And even if a person's intentions are entirely pure, if I'm upset already then the effort necessary to engage in any kind of conversation is going to stress me out even further.

The one time I was grateful to someone for saying something, I had just injured my finger, badly (it was broken, though I didn't know it at the time) and there was a paramedic sitting across from me who took a look at it for me.
posted by Jeanne at 3:32 PM on August 1, 2010

I wouldn't try this on the NYC subway, but one time I was crying in high school after school and a girl I didn't know came up to me and said "You look like you need a hug." And she gave me a hug and that was it. I don't know her name and I don't think I ever saw her again.

Public transit is a little more impersonal than the halls of a high school, though. If you had said "Do you need anything?" I think that would've been OK. At the same time, not saying anything is also OK. I've cried before on trains and planes and such and mostly, I was just having a private, personal moment and didn't necessarily want anyone to notice. However, if someone had and said something kind quietly without attracting attention to the situation, that would've been fine with me, too.

I do think your situation -- being a man wondering if he should say something to a crying woman -- is a bit different than a woman saying something to another woman (or even a man saying something to a man, or a woman to a man) in terms of the unfortunate power dynamics between men and women. So honestly, it's hard to know what, if anything, you should've done her. I think it would've been fine if you had said something to her, but it's also OK that you didn't. I don't think it's something you should worry too much about (but I think it's great that you are thinking about it).
posted by darksong at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2010

I gave a pack of tissues to a woman who was crying. It's not intrusive, so if she wanted to be left alone, that's the end of it. But if she was in a really traumatic situation and needed help, I would hope that by the act of me sharing something with her would have let her know that there are friendly, helpful people in the world if she needed someone to turn to.
posted by saffry at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2010

If I am genuinely upset and crying, someone asking me "are you ok" makes me furious. I am obviously not OK, no?

Yes, but I don't think that such a literal meaning is generally implied by the inquiry.

"Are you OK?" is generally taken to be an linguistic idiom, meaning in broader terms "i'm sorry to see you're upset, is there anything to be done and do you need help"
posted by DavidandConquer at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2010 [10 favorites]

As someone who has also cried (for fairly legitimate reasons) on many different forms of transportation, I generally prefer to be left alone. A sympathetic look makes me feel a little less crazy, but too much attention is just awkward and embarrassing. Unless, of course, there is some other sign of illness or injury.

If you do want to say something, I like the suggestion of "Is there anything I can do for you?". While "Are you okay?" doesn't make me furious, it is a pretty useless question in this scenario. She is clearly not okay, but doesn't know you well enough to use that as a stepping stone to asking for help - I would never assume that a stranger meant anything else other than "Are you okay?"
posted by scrute at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2010

They ordered dinner, and after their order was taken, the woman got up, leaned over me and put her hand on my arm. She said, "Life isn't easy, is it?" She smiled and sat back down.

Maybe I'm a cold-blooded jelly donut, but had I been in that situation (and I have, sans old people) I would have told the condescending old biddy to mind her own damn business.

As for the crying woman on the subway - about 5 years ago I had an outpatient medical procedure that turned out to be a lot more painful and traumatic than I had led to believe it would be. I walked to the subway sobbing, and rode the train home sobbing, and walked to my apartment sobbing and was relieved when no one looked at me or talked to me or even acknowledged my existence until I got home and my roommate hugged me and gave me a Valium.

Had I been in genuine distress and needing aid from strangers I probably would have attempted to make eye contact with people, rather than keeping my head down and just trying to get through it.

Sometimes a stranger's concern can be comforting. But most of the time it's really not.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2010

One time I was crying on the subway about a dying family member, when a stranger approached me, offered a tissue and said "Honey, he's not worth it." It was so awkward, but it made me laugh, and I was grateful for the contact. It's totally okay to leave a crying person alone, but if you want to reach out, go for it. There's a good chance the person will appreciate the intended act of kindness no matter how clumsy the wording.
posted by ladypants at 3:55 PM on August 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you do decide to say something, try and time it so you're near the end of your ride. Nothing's worse than "No, I'm fine, thanks," followed by 20 minutes of awkward silence until it's your stop.

(Tongue in cheek: geez, I had no idea how many people carried tissues! You're all just so... prepared!)
posted by ErikaB at 4:04 PM on August 1, 2010

I think "do nothing" is an appropriate response, because that's probably what she expected people to do. It is, after all, NYC. But, at the same time, an "are you okay?" isn't inappropriate either. It's a natural response to seeing somebody cry.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:12 PM on August 1, 2010

I think, in this situation, you should do what comes naturally to you. That will probably be the best thing.
posted by smorange at 4:13 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe I'm a cold-blooded jelly donut, but had I been in that situation (and I have, sans old people) I would have told the condescending old biddy to mind her own damn business.

And I think here you have your answer. To one person, a gesture they still remember fondly and to another an incredibly irritating and condescending thing to do. Hard to know how the crier will react.
posted by josher71 at 4:24 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another vote for well, it really depends.

I remember a few months ago having had a really, really terrible day and, while not actually streaming tears, was walking down the street obviously very upset. An older man noticed my face and kindly asked if I was okay and wished me well. I was tremendously touched.

In another instance, someone asked me on the subway if I was okay while I trying to mentally process an upsetting situation. I ignored him at first and he asked again, following up with a cheery "ohh, whatever it is, it can't be that bad!" This made me feel stabby.

I think that body language and the asker's expectations have a lot to do with it. In the first instance, the exchange was brief and in passing, he made eye contact first, and he didn't stop me or expect me to have a conversation with him. Just one human noticing another, check. In the second instance, I felt like the person was putting himself in my space and expected attention from me; it felt invasive.
posted by desuetude at 4:27 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Echoing ladypants...

I once wept on the subway and a man, before exiting, said "Don't worry, you're too good for him." I was crying about my grandma. I felt insulted. (Thanks for assuming girls only cry over men, subway guy. Even if it's a joke, not reeeally in the mood for a laugh right now because MY GRANDMA IS DYING AND I'M SO OVERWHELMED WITH GRIEF THAT I CAN'T CONTROL MY EMOTIONS IN THE MOST PUBLIC OF PLACES SO PLEASE SHUT. UP.)

My point is this: Ladypants appreciated it. I did not. Your best bet is to say nothing. It's really ok. If you're really in the mood to be a friendly stranger, on your way off the train you could tell her you hope she feels better soon, or something along those lines. Nothing that requires a response from her. All she needs in that moment is to cry, publicly, anonymously. I'm sure if she needed help, she would've gotten it. If she's physically distressed or having trouble breathing or dry heaving or having some sort of attack...that's a different story.

Also, on the subway, there are usually other people around, so your asking her if she's ok or if she needs help only draws attention to her. One person will overhear and glance, then another, and another. That would only make her feel worse.

Thanks for being a nice person though.
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 4:28 PM on August 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I didn't, though, because I didn't think it would go over so well in NYC.

Kindness and empathy are universal. Just because the subway is a place where most of the time people in close proximity ignore each other, doesn't mean that you can't make a simple gesture to someone who is clearly distressed. Reach out and ask if they're ok, and when you ask, really mean it. No matter where you are.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2010

I agree with vytae that you shouldn't say anything like "it'll be ok." When I've been in that situation those type of reassurances just make me think more about all the ways it's currently NOT ok.
posted by scrambles at 4:32 PM on August 1, 2010

Almost twenty years ago, I sat in a half-full subway car on the O'Hare line, big sunglasses over my eyes, staring out the window and ruminating on [bad thing happening]. I didn't even know I was crying until the man sitting across the aisle from me gently, quietly, discreetly said, "I'm worried about you, miss."

I smiled a little, shook my head, and told him I was fine. He nodded gravely. At my stop, we nodded and smiled again, both a little ruefully.

I wasn't fine, but he couldn't help me. No one could help me, because life sometimes brings sorrow and that's just how it is.

Except that fellow passenger did help, just by reminding me that even strangers sometimes care about each other, and that the sorrow is outweighed by the caring.

I've never forgotten him. Thank you, fellow passenger.
posted by Elsa at 4:34 PM on August 1, 2010 [22 favorites]

"Are you OK?" is generally taken to be an linguistic idiom, meaning in broader terms "i'm sorry to see you're upset, is there anything to be done and do you need help"

Yes it is a linguistic idiom that can be taken to mean any number of things and leaves options for the person being addressed to respond in any number of ways. However, I think that in the sort of situation where one is compelled to intervene it is likely to be more beneficial to be as direct as possible. Eg, "Do you need help?"

And in this particular case, MYOB was very likely the right thing to do. The woman didn't appear to be in danger or distress, only very emotional.
posted by carsonb at 4:34 PM on August 1, 2010

I had that happen to me in London, on the Tube - as I left I just touched her on the shoulder and said 'I hope it gets better' as I was walking out.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:38 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have cried on public transport. A kind smile is enough. Women get creeped out by too much concern from strangers. I actually regret the times I have not done this to someone in distress.
posted by fifilaru at 4:47 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Are you OK?" is generally taken to be an linguistic idiom, meaning in broader terms "i'm sorry to see you're upset, is there anything to be done and do you need help"

Sure, but the person crying might be someone like me who is genuinely annoyed by it. I agree that "can I do anything?" is a much better tactic.
posted by gaspode at 4:51 PM on August 1, 2010

As someone who has been in a similar situation and would have been mortified at someone else noticing my inability to keep my emotions on lock-down, these two things would still have been appropriate:

"Are you okay?"
"Do you need help?"
posted by batmonkey at 4:59 PM on August 1, 2010

Even if you feel that you have to check on her, I'd refrain from touching *at all*. Sometimes it's okay, but if I was already upset enough to cry on the subway, I would actually feel that unwanted touching was more invasive than usual, even if it was just on the elbow or shoulder. I am also the sort of person who despises waiters and other strangers touching me to make a connection, so YMMV.

Personally, I'd leave her alone unless she appeared to be physically hurt or lacking a purse/bag/place to carry money and a phone. I'd be mortified if someone on the subway didn't helpfully pretend to ignore me.
posted by wending my way at 5:00 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Women get creeped out by too much concern from strangers.

It's a tough line to discern, and we each need to walk our own line here.

In my own case (described above), I think the key was that he wasn't engaging with me as a damsel in distress but as a fellow human in distress. He didn't get paternal or flirty, didn't approach me, didn't persist when I waved him off (though I'm pretty sure he knew that I wasn't okay, no matter what I said), and didn't seem to have any goal beyond reaching out to a stranger who might need some kindness. He just acknowledged that I seemed upset and let me direct the rest of the exchange.

I've done the same for fellow passengers (of both genders) even when I didn't expect to be able to offer tangible comfort. Sometimes that shared acknowledgment that, hey, we're all muddling through this messed-up world together is enough.

OP, I'm not saying that you should have done something. Saying nothing is okay, too. Sometimes an extremely public place like a big-city subway feels deeply private by virtue of its anonymity, and it's quite possible that the woman you saw didn't expect anyone to notice or care.
posted by Elsa at 5:03 PM on August 1, 2010

Just an observation.

Reading through the responses to this point, it seems like the good done by offering a sympathetic gesture can present a long-lasting and powerful positive memory.

This would argue that, even at the risk of giving offense to a few, a properly placed word of sympathy or concern might generally do more long-lasting good than ill.
posted by DavidandConquer at 5:14 PM on August 1, 2010 [12 favorites]

If you have clean tissues I'd offer some, and definitely not make fun of her or start talking loudly about how some relative died recently or something else insensitive. Otherwise leaving her alone is probably best.
posted by meepmeow at 5:15 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sure, but the person crying might be someone like me who is genuinely annoyed by it. I agree that "can I do anything?" is a much better tactic.

It's interesting to see how people react differently to the words used, and how I suppose we read our own contexts into them. (Re-reading my words below, I can see the ghost of my annoyance with my overprotective parents in my reactions.)

Me, I'd rather get the idiomatic "are you ok," which I would take as a general expression of sympathy/support rather than a literal question. In return, I'm going to say "fine," even though I'm not, in a likewise idiomatic acknowledgement of your concern.

"Can I do anything/do you need help," would make me feel like I had to mentally justify the need for tears, as I obviously have a situation that looks like it needs fixing, or else it's not worth crying over. Also, I would feel that the chances of the person actually being able to help are so slight as to almost make the question seem disingenous. NOT that I think that this is the way that it is intended at all. Just that this is how my gut would react.

I think in the end, it's safe to say that sometimes a kind look would be the best thing to do, sometimes a word would be nice, and sometimes you should let someone stay in their invisible bubble. If you think that you've guessed wrong, just let it go and don't beat yourself up over your actions or lack thereof -- they might be appreciated differently later on by that person.
posted by desuetude at 5:22 PM on August 1, 2010

I cried on and off for six hours once on a train to Lille. The old lady at my elbow looked concerned, and smiled hugely at me when I asked her to let me out of the row so I could go to the bathroom, but she never said anything. That was fine, but if she'd said "Are you OK?" or something, that would also have been fine. How can I get picky about the existence/non-existence/exact wording and intonation of some poor innocent bystander's reaction, when I'm the one making a wet sniffly scene on the damn train?

I've never been on the other side, but I would say something. It just seems so much worse for someone to feel all alone and ignored than for someone to be annoyed, embarrassed, even mortified. But as you can see from all these responses, other people feel differently. You're not psychic and you just can't ever know. All you can do is be as kind and sensitive as possible. Think, but don't worry.

On preview: I don't see how "Can I do anything?" is supposed to be better than "Are you OK?" It seems more annoying if anything, like now I have to make up a plan of action for you, or else figure out how to turn you down politely? But again, NOT the end of the world.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 5:38 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

DavidandConquer: "Just an observation.

Reading through the responses to this point, it seems like the good done by offering a sympathetic gesture can present a long-lasting and powerful positive memory.

This would argue that, even at the risk of giving offense to a few, a properly placed word of sympathy or concern might generally do more long-lasting good than ill.

To this I would add, if (the rare) someone is going to be offended by a kind gesture then they probably are offended several times a day and the cumulative harm of your "offense" is almost negligible.
posted by Bonzai at 5:38 PM on August 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

Oh geez. White knight syndrome. Get over it, and leave such people alone.
posted by mnemonic at 5:43 PM on August 1, 2010

To this I would add, if (the rare) someone is going to be offended by a kind gesture then they probably are offended several times a day and the cumulative harm of your "offense" is almost negligible.

Don't just write off people who react in a certain way. Some people are private and might be made uncomfortable and even more upset by people calling attention to their crying.

I had a bad breakup, and then had to walk the 40 minutes home in a busy area. I was crying and it was really embarrassing, but that's just what I do when I'm upset. It's mortifying enough without having people call attention to it.

At the end of the day you just need to try and pay attention to body language to figure out if they want privacy or some help.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:57 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Instead of people who are crying, I actually tend to approach people who look lost, dazed, drunk and alone, whatever. ESPECIALLY drunk women because of all the people I know and know of who have been slipped date rape drugs. Sometimes this is misguided, one time quite notably I approached a young woman who was sitting on the curb only to realize a few moments later she was the bride-to-be at a bachelorette party and about 5 feet from her limo! Oh well.

Another time I approached an older woman who was having trouble getting through the turnstiles. I looked closer and she was trying to use her house keys to get on the subway. She had some sort of dementia. It was sorta subtle but she definitely needed help. So it's not just crying.

1. Make sure you actually have the resources to help, meaning a relatively relaxed and calm attitude, a tissue, some cash, a granola bar, a bottle of water, a metrocard, whatever. If you don't, that's okay.

2. Be non-threatening. This is relatively easy for some people. If you're a guy, maintain physical distance, don't make prolonged eye contact or stare, maybe even get out of the train pretty soon after. You can always walk out of the end of one car then onto the next car so you don't have to switch trains. At the same time, don't act like they should be ashamed of themselves and don't act like they're the world's most delicate creature

3. Don't make the situation worse or demand a lot of time/thought/attention Basically don't ask them to explain anything, don't boss them, don't intimidate them.

Other than that, use your instincts. I know that sounds overly simple. My personal preference is to say/do something because that's what I want and a few times it seemed to be majorly helpful. One time someone got really annoyed so I apologized, she seemed to relax and actually talked to me a little bit after that.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:21 PM on August 1, 2010

The only problem I could foresee with "Do you need some help?" is that you then have to be prepared to do something if she says Yes. Well, that might not be problem for some people, but just know in your own mind that you will be able to do something before you say that, and not not think "Oh geez, I have to be somewhere in 15 minutes, and now she wants me to help her do X." Just a thing to be aware of.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:22 PM on August 1, 2010

Unless there are signs of physical injury, leave the poor woman alone, please!

I have cried on public transport... One of those "I don't want to cry in public but I just can't help it" situations.

In my case, it was because of physical and mental exhaustion + physical pain from an RSI-type injury + being bullied at work + homesickness + loneliness + boyfriend troubles.

A stranger talking to me would not have helped.

It would have felt like an invasion of privacy. I would have felt selfconcious, defensive, and angry.

What I needed was to be left alone. Not to be told "Cheer up", "Smile", "It will be okay."

Any of those things would have sounded patronising and offensive.

Leaving her in peace gives her at least the illusion of privacy.
posted by Year of meteors at 6:22 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Some people are private and might be made uncomfortable and even more upset by people calling attention to their crying."

I'm an extremely private person, and I hate drawing attention to myself in public.

However, this thread just made me tear up again, remembering a kind gesture from a stranger just after I got the call that my father had died. I don't think the stranger's actions had anything to do with "white knight syndrome" - and it wasn't creepy, or weird. It was simply one human showing concern for another. And while I may still be slightly embarrassed by having bawled in front of a stranger, and then gently questioned about it - his concern for me, and yes, even the little prayer he said, means so much more.

I say, ask.
posted by HopperFan at 6:30 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's better for someone to get annoyed at your offer of assistance than someone to not get assistance who needs it because you didn't offer it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:31 PM on August 1, 2010 [10 favorites]

If the person made eye contact with me, I would ask "Do you need anything?" or words along those lines. Assuming a negative or no answer, I'd say "OK," while holding eye contact, and then break it. If the person didn't make eye contact with me, I'd probably let it go unless it was really progressing to serious meltdown time.
posted by KathrynT at 8:00 PM on August 1, 2010

Ask if the person is ok.
Ask if the person needs anything.
If you have a kleenex, offer it.
I've been there, and I was very grateful that someone noticed and offered a kind word.
Kindness counts.

Also, what Civil_Disobedient said.
posted by enzymatic at 8:51 PM on August 1, 2010

As someone who just does not cry in front of people (too stubborn), I'll admit I've gotten a little teary on the N train at a couple points over the past few months over a couple things. I would have been mortified if someone had said anything, and while it was happening, I hoped that no one saw. (I am a very private person when it comes to such things.)

I tend to leave people alone/turn away when they're crying. Maybe that's jerky, I don't know. But it's because when I'm upset, I need to be alone. I don't know what to do otherwise.

So, don't feel bad. Really.

I can't help but think that this is the internet equivalent of seeing someone upset and us all saying, "you did ok! don't worry about it." But really...don't worry about it.
posted by AlisonM at 9:06 PM on August 1, 2010

If it were me crying, I'd want to be left alone. If I saw someone crying I might approach and offer a tissue (I rarely have one) and/or help, but that would totally depend on the situation, body language or signs of trauma.
posted by deborah at 9:35 PM on August 1, 2010

White knight syndrome? Excellent. I'm so happy that now we have a condescending, faintly sneering pseudo-clinical term for simple acts of human kindness. It makes it so much easier to rationalize away the need to simply be decent to one another.

"Well, my first impulse was to lend a hand, or at least show some compassion," I told my therapist later. "But then I realized I was just having an attack of White Knight Syndrome. More Xanax please!"

Count me in with the condescending old biddys.
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:59 PM on August 1, 2010 [8 favorites]

someone asking me "are you ok" makes me furious. I am obviously not OK, no?

I dunno, maybe I'm a sentimental old fool, but don't be so literal about these things. It's an attempt by one person to alleviate the pain of another, however ineffectual the attempt may be. Give your fellow person the benefit of the doubt; it's so much more pleasant than always looking for a reason to be offended or pissed off. Good lord, and the other poster who called the kindly old woman a biddy for attempting to console an upset person, that's just really obnoxious. It makes me sad to think of that woman encountering such a response in real life.

I think the best response is one that quickly and kindly acknowledges the pain, without necessarily requiring a response. Along the lines of the elderly woman who said, "Life isn't easy, is it?" Maybe not those words exactly, but something that comes natural, expresses empathy, and quickly closes the subject if the person in distress doesn't feel like answering.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I sat at a restaurant table adjacent to a couple where the man got angry, stomped off, and left his girlfriend to eat alone. He was a complete ass and had a quick temper, insulted her before leaving, and she was clearly humiliated but determined to eat on her own and make her own way home. But she cried. And we were so near, I felt so so bad to ignore her pain but also felt it less humiliating for ehr than if we acknowledged his assiness and her pain. So we said nothing. But it has eaten away at me ever since, that I ignored her and left her alone in her pain, and also that I didn't point out that he was an abusive ass. But maybe she didn't want her pain acknowledged, or her boyfriend's poor character discussed.

I dunno, it's tough to know what the right response is for a given individual, but I would err on the side of brief and sympathetic acknowledgment with no expectation of response.
posted by JenMarie at 12:38 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

A while ago I was crying my heart out on a train (relationship issues) and the guy in the row in front of me just turned round and handed me some tissues and smiled. I was really touched - there was no way I wanted to start explaining what was wrong to a total stranger, or indeed talk to anyone at all, but that little gesture of kindness meant a lot.
posted by cmarie at 3:18 AM on August 2, 2010

I was driving back from my grandfather's funeral in Cleveland to my place in a suburb of Pittsburgh on a crisp late-winter morning in my red Toyota pickup. The after-service had been a generally cheerful unification of my dad's wide-spread family despite the sad situation that precipitated it. Grandpa lived a long and very full life.

I had a long, quiet drive, listening to the radio, thinking about those times when my cousin and I would be on school break, doing odd jobs for his construction company. We would come into the industrial park office on Friday afternoons to get our paychecks, and we'd find him there into his second glass of boxed wine. "Come to steal your beer money from me I see..." he'd growl at us.

Anyway, I got 95% of the way home - and then about 2 miles out it all kind of hit me that he was gone. I was driving through Sewickley Heights, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the entire northeast. The speed limit throughout the neighborhood was 25mph and it was rabidly enforced by an over-funded police force. So, of course, I couldn't drive faster to get home and run inside. And, of course, that's when a cop came driving the other way, also doing 25.

He gets a good long look at me tearing my eyes out crying while he drives by, flips a U-turn, and pulls me over. Instead of sitting in his car, he quickly hopped out, walked up and knocks on my window, but stands behind it a bit, not looking directly at me. I rolled my window down and he asked if I was OK. After I managed a response he told me to take as long as I needed, then just give him a honk and he'd drive down the hill in front of me.

I've been pulled over more times than I can remember (lead foot) but that was the only time I remember uniquely as being a true kindness. Another vote for ask.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:42 AM on August 2, 2010

In another instance, someone asked me on the subway if I was okay while I trying to mentally process an upsetting situation. I ignored him at first and he asked again, following up with a cheery "ohh, whatever it is, it can't be that bad!" This made me feel stabby.

Yes, it's a bit like someone telling you 'Smile!'

I usually prefer to be left alone, though there was one occasion where I got a tube home not just crying but weeping - really, really frightened and upset, for a number of reasons. So upset that I didn't much care about dignity or privacy. What was worse was feeling like I was actively embarrassing other passengers by my upset presence. A kind word or two would have made me feel like being upset was okay, and even if it wasn't, someone cared enough to ask.
posted by mippy at 6:02 AM on August 2, 2010

As someone who was a prolific and habitual New York City Transit weeper between the years of 2000-2005 or so, I would have wanted to be left alone.
posted by millipede at 6:17 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I cried on a subway during a particularly angsty time in my life. The older man sitting next to me offered me a tissue and told me, "if this is about a guy, he can just go to hell". It wasn't, but I felt much better.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:19 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't live in NYC, or in the US for that matter, but for me it hardly matters where you are anywhere in this world.

I would've love to be asked. It may be intrusive or embarrassing, depending on who I was at the time, and where I am in my life, but kindness for me is never overrated. You might be a stranger, and you might rankle my bones, but if I was crying, surely I have been there, and what could be much worse?

I've told myself a hundred times over that I will never cry again in public, that I will not let myself be so broken and open that way, but once in awhile things and people get to me, in a way they've never been before. So if I happen to suddenly just cry, then there was really nothing I can do. I am a mess, apparently, and if you were to come up and ask if I was ok, I would probably want to die on the spot. But I would try my best to pull myself together and say I'm fine, and most importantly, thank you, because no matter how ugly a spot I am standing, there's still room for kindness, else where would we all be?

So ask. Better be rebuffed than not reach out at all. Sometimes you'll find there would be people out there still who would appreciate the gesture. Reading this thread is proof enough.
posted by pleasebekind at 11:25 AM on August 2, 2010

Whether your attentions will be welcome or not seems like a total crapshoot. That said, I think I'd rather err in the direction of adding to the embarrassment of someone crying in the subway rather than in the direction of not offering assistance to someone who might really need it. Just make the first overture very general and step back if they give you any sign that they're not interested in talking.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:36 AM on August 2, 2010

I've thought about this a lot, and I think that 'it depends' is really the best answer, but you need to do what you can live with. If it seems like they want to be left alone, do so. If it seems as though you might be able to help, offer. Don't ask, "Are you okay?" because (as people have stated), that person is clearly not, and man, I hate having to lie when I'm already upset. I would say, "I hope things get better," or something along those lines that requires no response on their part, as you are getting off the train might be the best way to go.

Ultimately, this comes down to what kind of person you want to be, as it's clear that everyone's response to your action will be different. Do you want to be the kind of person who errs on the side of respecting privacy or errs on the side of possibly comforting someone? Neither is the right answer or more valuable that the other, as both have good arguments to be made for them and might be appreciated by the other person, and it's okay to choose differently on different days.
posted by questionsandanchors at 12:02 PM on August 2, 2010

There's further discussion about this on several other sites - see the Jezebel write-up for links & commentary.
posted by batmonkey at 3:09 PM on August 2, 2010

It's better to regret something you have done than something you haven't done.

(and by the way, if you see your mother, tell her)
posted by Sebmojo at 3:18 PM on August 2, 2010

I've cried in public a number of times, particularly when I was going through a very bad patch at work. If people asked me if I was OK, I appreciated the kindness (if only because it reminded me that people do care about other people) but the mortification of making a spectacle of myself made me cry harder. I never felt upset because anyone hadn't responded; it actually made it easier to get myself back under control.

Having said that, the most annoying response was the woman who pushed a tissue into my hand along with a religious pamphlet. The nicest responses were the girl who was chatting to her friend and offered her one of the lollies she was eating, and then offered it to me as well, and the woman who just asked if I would like a tissue and then gave me one, both with sympathetic smiles.
posted by andraste at 4:36 PM on August 2, 2010

See also: The Awl, which mentions this question.
posted by questionsandanchors at 5:10 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always ask "are you okay," or something like that if I see someone crying, and I've had people ask me as well. At least it's an acknowledgement that a human being near you is going through something difficult, and pointing out that they're not alone in the world. Just ignoring it seems pretty counterintuitive to me.
posted by walla at 7:32 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

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