Excuse me, can I have your seat, please?

A classic behavioural experiment on the New York subway produced startling results. Julia Stuart attempts to re-enact it on London's Underground
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The Independent Online

New Yorkers have always been known for their brusque attitude to life. So when, 30 years ago, a group of Yale University students were sent by their professor, Dr Stanley Milgram, to venture on to the city's subway to ask passengers to give up their seats, one might have imagined that they would get short shrift - if not a more violent response.

New Yorkers have always been known for their brusque attitude to life. So when, 30 years ago, a group of Yale University students were sent by their professor, Dr Stanley Milgram, to venture on to the city's subway to ask passengers to give up their seats, one might have imagined that they would get short shrift - if not a more violent response.

The students, only partly joking, asked Professor Milgram whether he wanted to get them killed, but the psychologist ignored their qualms and the experiment in obedience went ahead. One student found the prospect so daunting that it made her sick. But, incredibly, 68 per cent of subway passengers willingly got up from their seats when they were asked.

When The New York Times decided to re-enact the experiment earlier this month, using two reporters, they found that an astonishing 13 out of 15 people gave up their seats. New Yorkers, it seemed, have softened.

But what about Londoners? What would happen if the experiment were repeated here? At a time when the shrill voices complaining of a breakdown in civic values and decency have never been louder, and when unprecedented numbers are said to be moving out of the capital in search of a gentler lifestyle, would anyone be prepared give up their seat in that heaving underbelly of the city - the Tube? It is time to find out.

Noon on the Piccadilly Line, and every seat is taken as we pull out of Holborn station. A young woman is engrossed in a book, looking settled and comfortable. But will she give up her seat for me - a young woman with no apparent need for one?

"Excuse me, do you mind if I sit down, please?" I ask her, worried that I'm going to get whacked or abused, or both. A chap next to her with headphones on, presumably her boyfriend, immediately gets up without a word and stands next to the doors. I sit down happily while other passengers stare.

I change carriages, and approach a man with thin legs and a checked shirt writing microscopic notes on a pad. I ask him the same question. There's a long pause, and he asks, somewhat indignantly: "What's wrong with me sitting here?"

"Nothing, I just thought it might be quite nice if I sat down, don't you think?" I venture.

"I'm getting off at the next stop," he harrumphs. He stays where he is, spending the rest of the journey fiddling with his Waitrose carrier bag and looking towards the approaching station. He's clearly rattled.

As we leave Leicester Square station, I spy my next target, an Oriental woman: "Do you mind if I sit down, please?" But the woman doesn't speak English. A woman sitting next to her asks: "Why do you want to sit down; are you not well?"

"No," I lie, though I am now so hot with embarrassment that I have turned a shade of puce.

Suddenly, the man opposite springs to his feet. The woman enquiring about my health is now also on her feet, and I have a choice of seats. I sit in the space vacated by the woman, who enquires solicitously, while hanging on to the handrail, whether I'll be all right.

I move on to pester a teenager in jeans, headphones and track-suit top, who is sitting on an end seat. He can't move fast enough, and he goes to stand politely by the door as we head out of Russell Square. Two women sitting opposite stare.

This is not the Tube we know and hate. A survey conducted by London Underground revealed the network to be festering with bad manners. The biggest irritant - cited by 17 per cent of users - is people getting on to trains before passengers have had time to get off. The second is people's failure to say "excuse me", "please" and "thank you". The third is people asking for money. But the list goes on - standing on the left on the escalators, people not moving down the carriage, people who "pick their nose and flick or eat the contents", and people pretending not to have seen a pregnant woman who needs a seat.

But back on the Piccadilly Line, as two more passengers move without complaint, it is becoming clear that, faced with the prospect of head-on confrontation, typical Londoners keep their gripes to themselves.

Perhaps fear is a motivating factor. Another survey into Tube etiquette, conducted in 1999, revealed that one-third of Londoners believe that they are about to be attacked if someone says "good morning" to them.

I find another full carriage. A young girl with a ponytail, yellow cardigan and handbag with a panda on the front is looking far too comfortable for my liking. "Excuse me, do you mind if I sit down, please," I ask, looking her right in the eyes. "Sure!" she says, springing up and clambering across people's legs to stand by the door. The woman sitting opposite gives me a benevolent smile.

As we rattle out of Holborn station, my next victim glances at my stomach, presumably to see whether I'm pregnant. Despite no visible bump, he immediately replies, "No problem," and is out of it in seconds. The passengers opposite give me quizzical looks.

Everyone wants a seat after the scrum that is Leicester Square, but no one more than me. I approach an Asian man in jeans and baseball cap. He, too, looks at my belly, but immediately gets up and moves away to the doors, where he stands drinking Lucozade and watching me.

My success continues. I displace another five weirdly compliant passengers, including a young American tourist, a man with a heavy flight-bag and a middle-aged Asian chap in a green suit and violent tie.

I can't believe how easy it has been. I try to raise the stakes for my final passenger, a young woman scrabbling inside her bag. Not only does she look busy, but there's a seat available next door but one to her. "Excuse me, would you mind if I sat down, please?" I ask. "Sure," she says, immediately vacating it. I follow her as she gets off at Covent Garden and ask her why she gave me her seat.

"I thought you wouldn't have bothered to ask if you didn't really need it," says Sarah, 24, who works as a laboratory technician. "People don't ask unless they're desperate." Or in need of a nice little sit-down.

In the end, 14 of the 15 people I asked immediately surrendered their seat to me.

Professor Milgram's other experiments in obedience involved testing whether ordinary people would be willing to give apparently painful electric shocks to protesting victims if a scientist in a white coat commanded them to. He found that 65 per cent of those tested were willing to do so.

Whatever the request, all you have to do, it seems, is ask.

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