Rude, how?

I paid for my coffee and doughnut and sat at my customary place near the entrance, on a bench facing the window. Immediately in front of the door is an alcove; in the middle of that alcove is a pillar; and on that pillar is a sign, clearly legible through the window, declaring that, in accordance with the city bylaw forbidding smoking within 7.5 metres of business entrances, smoking in the alcove is forbidden. Shortly after I sat down, two very fat men emerged from the coffeeshop, stood in the alcove between me and the sign, and began to smoke.

If it had been summertime, the door would have been propped open, and their smoke would have offended my nostrils; but it was a rainy spring day, the door was closed, and even when it swung open briefly as customers passed through, the wind luckily blew the smoke away. The offense was purely visual. I thought about tapping on the window and pointing to the sign. Instead I harrumphed and tried to concentrate on my newspaper.

I’m old enough to remember when non-smokers were grateful for a little section at the back of the restaurant where they might, if they were lucky, be spared from having smoke blown directly in their faces. I should be grateful, I thought, for the victory of having banished those fat men out into the chill. Let them shelter from the rain, I thought. The fat men smoked away, unconscious of my generosity.

A young man sat down at a table a little behind me and began watching videos on his phone. I was aware of this because he didn’t use earbuds; the scratchy sound of laughter and music was annoyingly audible through the phone’s tiny speakers. I turned to look but his back was to me; even if he’d been facing me, however, I wouldn’t have said anything, or even given him a glare. I had looked only to verify my hope that the kind of person who’d play videos on his phone without using his earbuds must be visibly aberrant in some way: a bearded biker with swastika patches on his jean jacket, maybe. But no, as I’d expected and feared, he was an ordinary-looking young man. I harrumphed again and returned to my paper.

A few months back a friend and I were at a diner, eating breakfast side by side at the counter, when a guy – an ordinary-looking young man – took the open seat beside me, pulled out his phone, and began watching a sitcom. Again, no earbuds. I said nothing, to him or to my friend; if I’d muttered what a jerk! the stranger couldn’t have helped overhearing, as his elbow was only a few inches from mine. Although I tried to ignore it, the sound of his sitcom disturbed me, and I rushed what would ordinarily have been a leisurely meal. Driving home it was my friend who brought it up. “Could you believe that guy? Watching TV on his phone?”

“I know, huh.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

“Is it?” I said. “I mean, I’m glad you think so, and I agree. But is that universally considered bad manners, or only by old cranks like us?”

“No,” my friend declared. “It’s not just us.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ll see.”

The young man at the diner obviously hadn’t heard the news that his behaviour was unacceptable. If my friend or I had spoken up, he might have apologized and changed his ways. But I didn’t speak up, not only because I’m shy, but because I had no idea whether I had a right to complain. What, after all, did I find so objectionable? The noise his phone was making? But I’m pretty sure if he’d whipped out a decibel meter he could have proven that he was far from the noisiest person in the diner; my conversation with my friend was just as loud, and the family with small children in the corner booth many times louder. Smartphone speakers have a particular tinny, penetrating quality that some of us find annoying, but I suspect the reason we find it so annoying is because we object to hearing it at all, because we consider it rude not to use earbuds when other people are around, because why would you do that? But it appears that for many people the answer is, why wouldn’t we do that? – to which, what more can be said?

Those of us who object could attempt to shame or intimidate the rest into compliance. We could, but we won’t, because we’re quiet, contemplative, conflict-averse – the very reasons we instinctively recoil at the thought of subjecting bystanders to unnecessary noise. But if we don’t speak up, the consensus will form that not using your earbuds is fine, and more and more of us will start leaving our earbuds at home on the grounds that, well, everyone else is doing it, so…

Perhaps in the coffeeshop today an old gent noticed my far-from-clean sneakers, or my elbows propped on the counter, or the untidy way I stuffed doughnut pieces into my mouth, and shook his head sadly at how standards have declined. If he’d chastised me, I would have listened with quiet amusement, nodded, and after he’d gone away, thought nothing more about it.

M.

In 2011 I complained about noise pollution and negative externalities. In 2010 I empathized with John Howard Griffin (author of Black Like Me) as he suffered the harangity hangity hangity hangity oomp oomp oomp of ’50s jazz music. And in 2016 I imagined Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing time-traveller shaking his head at our modern nonsense.

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