Why Is Confrontation So Hard?

Yesterday morning I was riding the train, lightly dozing with my head against the window. My hand was resting on my purse in the seat next to me.

I awoke to the sensation of my purse (and, consequently, my hand) being lifted. I opened my eyes just in time to catch my bag as it was dropped, laptop and all, into my lap.

The culprit (or “douche nozzle”, as my husband would later refer to him) then threw his own bag on the overhead rack and sat down next to me without saying anything. I sat for a couple minutes, confused and stunned.

A little background on LIRR culture:

  • Keeping your bag on the seat is acceptable, until someone else needs the seat.
  • If someone wants to sit there, their role is to say “Excuse me.” Two words only. (Also, tapping someone on the shoulder is a breach of protocol, as I found out the hard way.)
  • When you hear the words “Excuse me”, you move your bag to your lap, the floor, or the overhead rack. It is not necessary to say anything or make eye contact.
  • The other person may choose to say “Thank you”, or not.
this is basic stuff, right?

this is basic stuff, right?

So there I sat, mulling over what had just happened. I realized that I hadn’t breached protocol and this guy, Scott, was totally in the wrong. (I happened to catch his name and employer info on his email signature while looking over his shoulder. Sue me.)

Now I had to decide whether or not to say anything. He was wrong. He needed to be corrected. Or did he? I felt bad for him as I watched him sort through endless work emails that had come in over the weekend. Maybe I’m too nice.

Side note: once, on the subway, a guy yelled at me until I cried because he thought I was trying to push him. (Really, I was just part of a crowd that was all being pushed.) And still I thought, this guy must have something terrible going on in his own life if he needs to take it out on some girl he doesn’t know.

So that’s kind of how I was thinking yesterday morning. I used to work in tax too. That really sucked. I was depressed and anxious. And it is tax season.

Still, no. He had done something wrong. He needed to be corrected. For the sake of decent society and commuting culture. Someone had to stop him. Ok, I decided to say something.

But what do I say? I thought about it. I should just turn to him and say, aggressively:

“You could have just said excuse me.”

“You should have just said excuse me.”

“Sir, you don’t touch a woman’s purse. And you don’t drop a heavy bag on a person while they’re sleeping. You should have just said excuse me and I would have moved it.”

But I knew full well that no stranger would let me get through a speech that long without interrupting. I decided on something straight and to the point. I turned to him, opened my mouth and… closed my mouth again.

I couldn’t do it. The train was completely silent. We were in a quiet car. What if the other passengers sided with him simply because I was disrupting their peace?

I lectured myself… Jill, you’d better make sure that if you’re not saying anything, it’s because you made the conscious decision not to ruin anyone else’s morning, and not because you don’t have the guts.

I had my little speech memorized. Why is it always so easy to say in my head but so difficult to say out loud? I knew from experience that there was a decent chance that I would start crying in the middle of it. All the more reason to keep it short.

Finally, finally, finally…. as we were pulling into Penn Station, Scott put away his phone and reading glasses, and I said…

“Sir? You upset me before when you grabbed my bag. You could have said excuse me.”

“Alright. I apologize.” he said.

“Okay, thank you.”

And then he walked toward one door and I walked toward the other, shaking.

I had spent 45 minutes deliberating what turned out to be a 3 line conversation. And I walked away shaking with my pulse and blood pressure through the roof.

I don’t know why confrontation is so hard for me. I guess I just want to be a nice person. Not in that women are supposed to be quiet and nice kind of way, but just because I know how hard it is to live and work in this city. I know you never know what another person’s going through. And, you know, the high road thing, which I like to take.

As I walked to my office I wondered if it was worth it. Still, I guess I’m proud that I said it. And even prouder that I got through it without crying.


  1. If more people thought out their confrontations like you did and didn’t freak out, we would have a better society. I think you handled that so well. Just my $.02.

    • Thanks Lauren :) I still keep going back and forth on it.

      Today I thought I should’ve just yelled at him. But I was too groggy to think that quickly. That’s happened to me before. Like a couple minutes later I realize I should be mad but it’s too late to react emotionally.

      • I agree with Lauren. People are too quick to flip out most of the time.

        I am a firm believer of “treat others how you would like to be treated.” I am not perfect, and sometimes do stupid things but also do not enjoy being yelled at, but am glad to be told, so I don’t do the same stupid thing again. I think you made a good call. Sometimes people don’t think, so I do think he needed to be told. Now (maybe) next time he will think before he does it again. I’m not sure if that really made sense, but I can’t seem to think how else to phrase it. =P

  2. I have a hard time confronting strangers, too; especially ones who are stupid and careless and drop laptops into a woman’s lap. What if you were pregnant? Just had a c-section? Had horrendous cramps?! Clearly, he’s an idiot. And you were kind to let him off the hook so easily ;)

    • You are absolutely right. In general, people should be careful when it comes to touching strangers. He doesn’t know my health status.

      Thanks. Maybe I was too easy on him but I guess better to be too easy than too hard.

  3. Confrontation is always hard, especially with strangers when we don’t know how they will react. I think with so many horror stories of people’s reaction or violence on public transport many choose to suffer in silence.

    I was thrown a bit by you saying that you were dozing. If he felt you were asleep he must of thought he was being polite by trying not to wake you. If it is clear you were awake maybe he would say “Excuse me” all along?

  4. That was rude. You don’t touch someone else’s stuff.

    Good for you for saying something! And keeping it together.

    • Thanks! Part of me wishes I had yelled at him immediately but actually I know he would’ve just gotten super defensive, we would’ve argued with the whole train staring at us, and he wouldn’t have learned anything. OMG I sound so mature. Maybe I’m ready to be a parent. (I’m not.)

  5. I think you made your point without escalating the situation. If you had yelled at him who knows how he might have reacted? He could yell at you back. You handled this situation beautifully. He acknowledged that he was wrong and apologized. Can’t ask for more than that.

  6. And I think your timing was impeccable! If he got all crazy on you you can just walk away instead of having to deal with him the entire time with no escape!

  7. Oh, I remember commuting the first year of my job into the city when I lived on LI. There are a lot of douche nozzles on the Ronkonkoma line from what I remember. That guy had no right to do that. He should have awoken you and nicely asked for the seat. After one year of torture and wasting my life I moved into Manhattan.


    • Yeah. I mean, he might not have known this from looking at me but if he had just said “excuse me” I would’ve heard him. But yeah, there’s douche nozzles all over this great city of ours. Maybe a little worse on Long Island though because commuting makes everyone miserable.

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