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I never know where to sit when I get into a car driven by a hired driver.  Do I sit in the front seat? The back? What does it mean when I sit in one place versus another?

And then there are those times when the driver’s side is on the right instead of the left like I’m used to, and I wait stupidly next to the driver’s door until he says ‘Oh, you want to drive, eh?’

I realize I have issues if these are the things I worry about, but the only drivers I’ve ever hired are street taxi drivers, and I’ve always just sat in the back unless the taxi was exceptionally crowded.

When I’m traveling and it comes to a riding in a vehicle with someone who’s hired by an organization and whose full-time job it is to drive, I’m never quite sure what to do. Do I sit in the front seat because I believe we are equals despite our position in the hierarchy? Or is that being ridiculously silly and American? And actually, which seat actually holds more status? The back or the front? And if I sit in the front, do I end up just embarrassing the poor guy with familiarity and friendliness when he’d rather I sit in the back so he can just do his job and go home? Or is it rude to hop in the back? And in the end, does the driver even care?  I  am probably being self-important to think it matters. Visitors come and go.

I Googled “where to sit hired car driver,” to try to find out, and nothing. What’s a girl to do?

And what about when there are more people than just me and the driver? What then?

Sometimes when traveling in different countries where my organization works, people offer me the front seat, but I never totally know what that means. Do they think I expect it because I’m a visitor, or from the US, or working with the regional office, or all of the above? If I don’t take the front seat, am I offending people by not accepting a gesture of respect and welcome?

Other times I end up in the back seat with 2 or 3 other women. I imagine it crosses all of our minds to try at least a little to avoid the cramped middle seat. Or we wonder if we should secretly engineer it so that a female colleague we want to show gratitude or respect to can have a window seat while we suffer with no legroom.

I don’t think I’m the only one that notices, because normally there is some kind of banter about who’s sitting where and whether they are fat or skinny and whether we all fit.

This afternoon was tricky because it was just the driver, a female colleague and me.  She said ‘Oh please, do sit in front!’ I said ‘Oh no, it’s fine, let me just sit here!’  She got in the front and I sat in the back seat, on the right hand side. Since she’d earlier been identified as my sister, because she had just gotten her US Passport, I thought it would be OK to ask her about car etiquette.

Of course, it turns out that there is etiquette. The higher status person should sit in the front, just like in the US, where parents or people being shown respect get the front seat.  (I forgot to ask if it’s common to yell ‘shotgun’ on the way to the car when everyone is of equal status to determine who gets the front seat….)

My colleague told me that in some parts of Cameroon, men always get the front, ‘because women are just getting to a place where they might think about sitting there’. Sometimes though, someone will offer you the front seat as a gesture, in which case you should take it.

She explained that if the owner of a car has a hired driver, the owner normally sits in the spot where I was sitting (right hand side, back seat). ‘This lets everyone know that he is the owner of the car…. If he’s a big man, his bodyguards will then sit in the front seat and to the left of him in the back…. And if you are riding with a group of people, you might ask or wait to be instructed where to sit so as to ensure you are not sitting in the owner’s spot or offending anyone.’

Makes total sense.

In the end, I suppose there will be slight variations to car etiquette, but it’s pretty much the same everywhere, and I should just go with my gut feeling.

But I still don’t know if I’m supposed to get in the front or the back when it’s just the driver and me, and he doesn’t indicate by nodding or opening a door.

Help.

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