Courtesy's Sad Substitute
Is the Quiet Car a Solution or a Symptom?
By ERIC FELTEN
January 14, 2011
For all the clackety-clack of the tracks and the distorted announcements crackling out of raspy speakers, trains are getting to be awfully quiet places. A decade ago Amtrak started designating "Quiet Cars" in which there was to be no cellphone yammering, no insect-like buzzing or muted thumping bleeding from headphones, no keening conversations. Now commuter lines are finally following suit.
While Philadelphia has been enforcing silence on designated train cars for more than a year, Boston and Chicago just rolled out the rolling library concept and New Jersey Transit expanded its program. No doubt those who choose to enjoy a little quiet time will be glad to have the option. But what does it say of our modern manners that such an extreme solution is so eagerly embraced?
The general manager of Boston's MBTA says riders want a more "peaceful and serene" commute. But of course there is nothing serene about a Quiet Car—it is a cauldron of "simmering rage," as New York magazine puts it. The New York Times reports that, in its infancy, the New Jersey Transit program has already bred a small army of silence scolds. They join the ranks of citizen enforcers who bridle at the merest whisper in their midst.
On a train between New York and Washington, my wife was riding in the Amtrak Quiet Car with one of our daughters, who was doing homework while my wife read. Stuck on a math problem, my daughter looked for some help. Barely had my wife started to whisper some strategies for untangling pesky fractions when an Elmira Gulch across the aisle hissed at her to be quiet. Never mind that Quiet Car rules generally allow for hushed conversation.
Comic novelist Christopher Buckley, who uses frequent trips on Amtrak to get his scribbling done, has admitted to being a "Nazi of the Quiet Car." And if all such volunteer wardens were as amusing as Mr. Buckley, they wouldn't be such a menace. But the "QuietRide vigilantes" (as a Philadelphia transit manager calls them) tend to be outraged absolutists wielding such blunt cudgels as the 90-decibel, jet-engine shush and the Silent Stare of Death. What is meant to be a calm and soothing atmosphere becomes fraught with enough quiet tension for half a dozen Ibsen plays.
Of course, the vast majority of those happy to have the choice of a Quiet Car are perfectly at ease with people having pleasant conversations in a normal tone of voice. What has driven them to seek refuge is the clueless and often crude cellphone jabberer who shoves details of romantic misadventures, family dysfunction or personal plumbing problems into the ears of everyone around. It is one of the most-hated phenomena of modern life, right between airport security and pop-up weight-loss ads.
Cornell University psychologists last year published research showing that overhearing half a conversation involuntarily engages us in listening. We end up distracted and irritated by these "halfalogues," and our "cognitive performance is impaired."
One could also say that such conversations in the midst of others are simply rude. But we don't have any way of dealing with rudeness these days. Take your kids to the ballgame and their ears are likely to be barraged with casual obscenities. Just try asking the often drunken perpetrators to watch their language and you are guaranteed to elicit more voluble profanity. If there were the option of a Quiet Section at the ballpark, many of us would line up for tickets.
But why should we have to give up the pleasures of polite conversation at the game to escape drunken rudeness? We can't seem to expect courtesy as a normal part of living, and so we resort to creating special areas in which people agree, by entering the roped-off space, to temporarily forgo barbarity. But it is a sad substitute for basic manners. It is an admission that we've abandoned any hope of encouraging thoughtful regard for others outside these narrow zones. And it doesn't produce courtesy, just a stern vigilantism of inflexible rules.
Something similar has happened in many schools, where an expectation of decent student behavior has been replaced with zero-tolerance rules strict to the point of being silly. Students can't be expected not to bring drugs to campus, and so the possession of aspirin becomes cause for expulsion. And would the obnoxious excesses of political correctness ever have gotten traction if they hadn't been preceded by a society-wide abandonment of civility (a trend encouraged, ironically, by many of the people who would later demand speech codes)?
We have this tendency to careen from extreme to extreme—either allowing and enduring behavior ungoverned by the slightest scruple or enforcing ridiculous regimens of hypercorrectitude. Missing is the virtue that sits in the middle, the common sense of common courtesy. The Quiet Car isn't so much a solution as a symptom.