When Does Bad Behavior Cross the Line?

Existing in public space is full of annoyances - headphone spillage, loud talkers on cell phones, people who spit sunflower seeds on the floor of the Metro like animals in a barn. But who can ultimately judge what is rude?

The New York Times looks at the world of "etiquette vigilantes," people who feel like the best way to fight rudeness is to combat it directly:

These days it seems that as the rudes have gotten ruder - abetted by BlackBerries, cellphones and MP3 players - the scolds have gotten scoldier. True, many people have grown complacent about having to endure others' musical tastes or conversations - or more accurately, half of their conversations. But among the disapprovers, withering glances and artfully worded comments have given way to pranks and other creative kinds of revenge.

On Broadway, the actors Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman took turns breaking out of character during a September performance of their show, "A Steady Rain," to admonish an audience member who refused to silence his cellphone. Patti LuPone, too, has recently garnered some of the most enthusiastic ovations of her career for stopping shows to publicly berate people for similar offenses.

Celebrities have also been on the receiving end.

Last month, the Argentine opera singer Gabriela Pochinki was arrested at a French bistro on the Upper West Side when she allegedly scuffled with the restaurant's manager after several customers had complained about her loud cellphone chat.

The idea is to shame people into behaving well, but as some experts have pointed out, this isn't exactly a foolproof proposition. What if a person doesn't respond to having their behavior pointed out? The Washington Post did an entire article on the proliferation of watching porn in public, and time and time again, the offenders were not at all concerned with the reactions of those around them:

On a recent cross-country trip from Los Angeles, Jana Matthews thought she'd lucked out when her friendly seatmate cued up a cartoon on his laptop. Her four children were enthralled; she hoped listening in might keep them occupied. Then the cartoon characters started doing things that cartoon characters should not be doing. Naked things. Naked, noisy things, unfettered by the restraints of human anatomy because the participants were, after all, hand-drawn.

After unsuccessfully trying to divert her kids' attention, Matthews asked the guy whether he would mind watching something else. After a little grumbling, he put on some headphones and turned the screen away. But he was still watching. She knew he was still watching.

Sometimes, people refused to be ashamed, which creates a whole other situation:

Sandi Benedetti, a bartender in Northeast Washington, was catching some extra sleep on a long morning Metro ride when a guy in a business suit took the seat next to her — the only one available on the rush-hour train.

"He sits down, reaches into this leather bag, gets his laptop, and suddenly I'm hearing Ah Ah Ah Ah AhAhAhAh!" She tried to ignore it, but the volume was loud enough for other passengers to hear it, too. "The guy in front of us turns back and glares at me! Like he thinks I'm with this guy! And then the woman across the aisle, too."

She thought about saying something, or circling her finger at her temple in the universal crazy gesture — anything to demonstrate that she had no part in this guy's morning wakeup call. But Benedetti is an adventurous gal, and as the train chugged on she began to ask herself when a bizarre event like this might happen again. "I was already being blamed for the porn anyway, so I figured I'd just play along."
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She leaned into her seatmate and started watching.

"Dude smiles at me," she says, "and then we both just watch together. Stop before mine, he packs up the computer and gets off. We never said a word."

That's not exactly what I would count as a happy ending.

Now, like most people, I would like other folks to behave a bit better. But as someone with more than a passing interest in etiquette (I used to pour over everything I could find on manners as a kid, back when I was learning how to class-pass) I share the chagrin of manner experts like Judith Martin and Anna (great-great-granddaughter of Emily) Post:

Those who subscribe to the age-old advice of our forefathers look very askance at this kind of antic.

"It's been the plague of my life," said Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners. "People very proudly tell me how rude they were to someone who was rude to them, and they expect me to pat them on the back."

Such behavior only "doubles the amount of rudeness," in the world, she said. Worse still, she said, it's not likely to work: usually the revenge-seekers just alienate the offenders, making them defensive about whatever they were doing.

Better to fight rudeness with sticky sweetness, said Anna Post, a great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute (yes, there is such a place).

"You catch more flies with honey than vinegar," Ms. Post said. "Just because someone is rude, you still have a standard to hold yourself to."

True! Etiquette, far from the "which-fork-goes-where" memorization techniques that people like to trot out, is really just about behaving gracefully in a social situation. Being kind, defusing tense situations, and lubricating social visits is the purpose of having good manners - not bludgeoning someone else when they don't live up to your personal expectations.

Much of the friction around rudeness in public does hinge on personal expectations. While I think most of us can agree that doing things normally reserved for the private realm (watching pornography, playing with boogers, sharing STD status updates) would make other passengers and passer-by uncomfortable, we are also fine with throwing some conventions (applying makeup in public, talking on a cell phone in a public, non-enclosed space) to the wind. Also, much of the application of etiquette depends on the person - some people seem to take a perverse pride in correcting others, but that tends to flow along perceived lines of power - I see more shy teenagers get checked than boisterous ones, and more managing of the behavior of the young than the behavior of older people.

The etiquette in each situation really depends on who is telling the story.

Recently, I was on the Amtrak Acela train from DC to NYC, a study in horrific manners. In addition to those that will push past you to land a particular seat, you are then subject to the whims of your seat mate for most of the ride. I was listening to music while the woman across from me was napping. She woke up, and then said "Do you know I can hear your music?"

She meant for me to take that as a notice to turn the sound down. However, it already was down - if I'm indoors, I generally keep my music to about 50% of max. Obviously, she was trying to sleep - but wasn't that also the purpose of having a quiet car on the train, with low lights and a prohibition on cell phones and other loud noises? I informed her it was down, and went back to my work.

A little later, she got off and another passenger got on, loudly informing me that I needed to move my seat since she needed to sit facing forward, not backward on the train. Now, two immediate - and opposite - impulses came to mind. The first was to be accommodating to anyone who legitimately needs a special seating arrangement. Obviously, I am able to switch seats, and all disabilities are not visible to the eye. However, her insistent demand and hovering grated on my nerves - she didn't appear to be actually in need of such a seat, but was trying to force her preference on me.

Luckily, a kind woman across the aisle from me intervened, pointing out that the woman had the train direction wrong - she actually wanted the empty seat in front of me, as the train was moving in that direction. Without even a thank you, the woman plopped herself into the seat across from me, arranged her things, and proceeded to talk loudly on herself about things that didn't seem urgent or important.

As Post and Martin would say, I knew the proper thing to do - I turned to the other woman and thanked her for observation. Then, I let my passive aggressive side out, and cranked the volume up on Pitbull.

As the Rudes Get Ruder, the Scolds Get Scoldier [NY Times]
Publicly, a whole new lewdness [Washington Post]