DEAR MISS MANNERS: On public transit, the law requires giving up one's seat to the elderly and disabled. But there can be fuzzy areas to those categories sometimes, so I wonder if rules of etiquette can provide any guidelines.
I am a 60-year-old man with slightly graying hair, but am physically fit and able (slim, walk four miles a day, gym three times a week, etc.). On recent occasions -- though it's still rare -- someone has offered me his or her seat on the bus. The latest episode was a young woman who reached through a crowd of other standing people to touch me on the arm and wave in a frantic pantomime that I could have her seat.
It actually startled me. I think I managed to smile and shake my head no -- but I was truly offended. I wondered why in the world she had zeroed in on me out of that busload of adults. Was it merely the salt-and-pepper hair? Or do I really look that old and in need of help?
Over the years, I have seen other people get offended when offered a seat. And these aren't always the "gray-area" cases like me -- but ones who seem truly elderly and frail. It's as if they take the offer as a public accusation that they are worse off than others.
Of course, some people really do need and want to be seated, and the exchange is usually simple and polite. But what is the best etiquette in these cases to minimize any offense -- both for those offering and those being offered seats?
GENTLE READER: It is for people like you to stop feeling so ashamed of growing older that you are insulted at being treated courteously.
Granted, you are not rude to those who defer to you. Many people are, as you have seen. But you share their feeling that there is something embarrassing about aging, and that any recognition of it can only be motivated by pity.
Actually, precedence based on age is the fairest system. With any luck, everyone gets a turn. It is especially valuable now that workplaces try to disguise the fact that their precedence system is based on rank, and the social precedence system known as "ladies first" is passing out of use.
Why have a precedence system at all (you may ask)? Because the absence of an accepted one results in the me-first system of shoving -- as you may have noticed.
Your objection to age precedence is that it interferes with your illusion that you are passing for younger than you are. Good for you that you keep fit. But your record at the gym does not negate your obviously being a generation older than the polite young lady. It is doubtful that she had analyzed your hair and figure to calculate exactly how much older.
In due course, she will be in the older generation herself. Miss Manners only hopes that by that time, the concept of respect for the elderly will not have been killed off by misplaced vanity.