by Nancy Rechtman
We all need our own personal space. We get extremely uncomfortable when people stand too close to us, enter our personal comfort zone, breathe the air that we've put on reserve as our own. We rightly get frustrated with those who think that their cell phone conversations are of interest to everyone within the same zip code as they blare the most intimate details of their lives at full volume while waiting on line in stores, sitting in restaurant booths and walking down the street. You might think that is the subject of this column, in fact. But you'd be wrong. That subject has been discussed so frequently, by so many others, that I don't need to add my voice to that chorus, although I am in complete agreement with all such protestations.
What I would like to discuss is what I perceive to be the backlash to this problem, which, in its own way, is just as challenging. I will give you two examples of recent situations I faced and how I handled them in the face of my utter astonishment that they even occurred at all. The first was last summer, taking a 4-hour trip on Amtrak. When my (teenage) children and I boarded the train, it was fairly empty, so we each took a seat - two of us next to each other and the other child across from us. A woman who was expensively dressed and somewhat older than me (yes, they still exist) sat two rows behind us, drinking tea. I asked my son a question - the woman glared at me. Mind you, I didn't shout, he was just one seat over - I spoke in a normal speaking voice. My son answered me in his regular speaking voice - she glared at him. A few minutes later, my daughter spoke to my son - the woman leaned forward imperiously and said, "Shhh, you need to be quiet!" We looked at her in astonishment. This was a train, after all, a train we would be on for the next few hours. As there were a number of empty seats still available, and rather than get into an argument with an obviously wealthy and testy woman, apparently used to getting her way and, most likely, supremely comfortable ordering others around, we moved to different seats where we conversed easily and no one was bothered by our occasional remarks to each other. The train soon filled up and I felt complete and utter satisfaction when I turned around and noted a young businessman confidently sit next to our silencer, speaking loudly and unceasingly into his cell phone.
The second incident happened recently at our public library. Many people come there to not only find books, but to have study groups, for tutoring or to let their children play on the computers. I was there to meet with a child who I sometimes tutor. Today's library is not a sound-free zone, just a please-talk-as-softly-as-possible zone. There was one table free, so I motioned for the mom and her child to sit there. We quietly discussed how school was going, what we needed to work on that day, etc. Suddenly, the woman sitting at the table just in front of us turned around, glared at us and said "Shhhhh!" very loudly. We were completely taken aback, as we had been talking very softly. But we resorted to whispers at that point, practically miming what we were attempting to communicate. Within two minutes, the woman icily turned around again and said (I am not kidding you here), "You will have to leave; I'm trying to work here."
She wasn't kidding. "You will have to leave - I need to do some work. There's a room up front you can use."
I was so astonished, as was the mom I was with, that I didn't know what to say, aside from asking whether she had a sister who sometimes rode Amtrak. And there was a child present, so we knew whatever we said would have an effect on her. So I said, as politely but assertively as possible, "Ma'am, this is a public library and people are allowed to talk in here. And many of us come here often and talk and work together. We are talking as softly as we can."
She shook her head and said, "Yes, yes, you still have to leave."
Not wanting to make a scene, I finally said, "Well, we'll see if the room is available, but if it's not, we'll be right back." With as much dignity as possible, we marched to the front desk, although I kept imagining what I would have said if there hadn't been a child present. And when we went up front to ask the librarian if the room was available for us to use - which it was -her mouth fell open in astonishment when we told her of the woman's demands.
What I had wanted to say to this woman (diluted here into a G-rated explanation), was that if it was so important for her to have complete silence, she should have asked for that room herself, or just worked at home. And, more importantly, if she had only turned to us and explained that she was working on something that demanded her complete concentration and it would really help her if we could move to another table, we would have been happy to do so. It was the attitude that she basically owned that space in the library that brought about our frustration. Along with the loud "shhh!" Attitude is everything, as I realized in both of these examples. Neither woman had a right to dictate to the rest of us that we had to keep complete silence in a public place because she said so. Basically, these two women were just as rude and as wrong as those who blatantly invade the personal space of others.
There has to be a happy medium between being forced to listen to every intimate detail of someone's rendezvous the previous night and being forced to sit beneath the Cone of Silence. So for those of you who blithely go through life invading everyone else's comfort zones, have pity on the rest of us. Because not only are we tired of listening to everything you have to say, we might have something we want to say as well. On a plane, or on a train, or even walking in the rain. Or on a bus or by a tree, or even if you go by sea, I ask of you to hear my plea - just try some common courtesy. Thank you very much.
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