The sociology of the quiet zone: norms and public transport

An interesting story went viral in the last couple of days which has left me thinking about the issue of normativity for the first time in a while. I have no way to know the accuracy of the reports but that’s irrelevant. If it turns out not to have happened in this way then this account can function equally well as a thought experiment. The extract below is from the Telegraph’s account of what happened. Kudos to whoever chose this title for the post: “A hipster humiliates a ‘dying’ middle-aged woman on a flight. Twitter applauds”.

Elan, like lots of Americans, caught a plane at Thanksgiving, and the plane was delayed. A few rows behind him, a middle-aged woman overshared about her fear of missing her family time with the passing staff. Now, we’ve all come across these people. There’s one on every flight. They’re a pain in the neck, but anyone with a modicum of maturity might have reminded themselves that people who are behaving like this are usually compensating for something else – fear of flying, for instance, or distress of another sort – and quietly tutted to themselves.

But not our hero. No, he was made of sterner stuff. Elan took it personally, and shared his disdain with his Twitter followers.

“Her family is very important to her, she says. Her family has a special recipe for stuffing. She needs to be there to help. It is crucial.”

“She had to sit down because we took off. She has been muttering ‘about DAMN time’ and I can hear her breathing from 5 rows back.”

After a while, sharing his disgruntlement with Twitter was not enough and he decided that punishment was the way forward. So Elan enlisted the help of a male staff member and sent her a glass of wine with a note. “[This] is a gift from me to you,” it read. “Hopefully if you drink it you won’t be able to use your mouth to talk.” Oh Elan! Your rapier wit!

Emboldened – or perhaps frustrated; it must be awful when such an act of naked courage goes unacknowledged – by his fellow passengers’ failure to respond, Elan set forth, armed only with two miniature bottles of vodka, to slay the dragon.

“Oh my God I did it I walked as if I was going to the bathroom and I leaned over and put them on her tray table and walked away Oh my God.”

“She just stared at me like REALLY hard. I’m not going to lie I am shaking.” You betcha, Elan! We’d all be shaking if we’d just taken on a woman in “mom jeans and a studded belt”. You’re, like, Maximus in the Colosseum!

But then things got scary. Diane (for such was her name) had the temerity to call him “an awful person with no compassion”’, on a page torn from a lined notebook. No compassion! The cheek of it.

So he responded the way that only a true man can. He composed another note. “I hate you very much. Eat my d***.”

Wow, Elan! Touché! High five! Though presumably, as you were in the air, you might have had to ignore the seatbelt signs for her to do this.

Anyway, the upshot was that, after a bit more penis-related badinage, Diane gave Elan a slap in the face and he ran away, crying.

What interests me here is the role played by norms in the unfolding of these events. The story’s virality likely flows from the dramatically conflicting norms concerning behaviour on a plane which are being acted upon here. It’s compelling because we recognise on some level that this normative dissensus exists in society, particularly when it comes to conventions, but rarely does it manifest itself behaviourally in quite so dramatic a fashion. Elan clearly sees the woman in question as contravening apparently obvious norms of comportment when flying. The woman’s ‘oversharing’ and breathing (!) were impinging upon his experience of the flight and, in her failure to restrict her audial impact on those around her, she was acting contrary to Elan’s understanding of how people should conduct themselves when crammed into an overcrowded plane with many fellow passengers.

Though I’m generally critical about the concept of norm circle put forward by Dave Elder-Vass, it’s often struck me as a useful tool to make sense of behaviour like this. In essence he talks about the role played by an awareness of others being committed to a norm in engendering our own tendency to act in accordance with that norm. He sees this as a matter of endorsing and enforcing a given norm – we learn from past experience that acting in a way that contravenes X will tend to provoke sanctions and, through doing so, we come to endorse X and habitually act in accordance with it.

I’m not keen on this as an account of the genesis of normative behaviour. However I do think Elder-Vass captures something important about the social psychology of interactional norms when he further distinguishes between proximal, imagined and actual norm circles. The proximal norm circle are those people endorsing and enforcing a norm whom we have directly encountered. Though limited in number, we take them to be representative of a wider group: the imagined norm circle is the dispersed group who we imagine to endorse and enforce a given norm. The actual norm circle is the objective extension of endorsement and enforcement of a norm. There are a lot of problems with this account. But what I find useful about it is the distinction between the imagined and the actual in making sense of the social psychology at work in a public transport situation. Whenever we act to enforce a norm we do so on an understanding, implicit or explicit, as to the existence of a wider circle who share the endorsement which motivates our action. We also often choose not to enforce norms which we nonetheless endorse. My point here, which I’m not sure is the same as EV’s, is a claim about the phenomenology of norm enforcement – acting because we think X is wrong is unavoidably tied up in (potential) questions about the agreement or disagreement of others with our stance.

My examples for this always come back to the quiet zone on trains – the spaces where mobile phone use is prohibited. There’s a variability in the extent to which train staff seek to display their endorsement of this rule (by announcing it) or to enforce it (by actually intervening when people use mobiles). There’s also variability in the extent to which people recognise the norm in question (some clearly don’t), the extent to which they feel bound by it (for example if they were forced into the carriage by overcrowding) and the extent to which other passengers feel willing or able to enforce a norm. Next time you’re in this situation, watch other people’s behaviour when someone starts talking loudly on a mobile: there’s all manner of performative expressions of endorsement of the quiet zone norm which are entirely distinct from actually seeking to enforce it. I have no way to prove this empirically but I’d suggest, on the basis of observation and theoretical reasoning, that someone is much more likely to seek to enforce the no mobiles rule if other passengers are noticeably performing their endorsement of the norm e.g. rolling their eyes, irritated coughing noises etc.

My point is that the endorsement/enforcement and proximal/imagined/actual distinctions are useful for making sense of these kinds of interpersonal disputes. I’ve suggested that Elan’s behaviour was at root a matter of enforcing a norm which he endorsed and saw Diane as contravening. He clearly felt empowered to act in ways which, from other perspectives, seem to contravene far more important norms of interpersonal behaviour. It’s this swagger (real or fictitious) which I want to understand and I suspect twitter plays a role. The intuition I had this morning when reading this story is that twitter expands the imagined norm circle. When we complain on Twitter about someone we physically share space with, we’ll often receive what can seem like tacit endorsements of our complaints (responses, retweets, favourites). Perhaps more importantly I suspect that silence is seen as, at best, indifference to what we’re saying and, at worst, tacit endorsement of our irritation: we imagine that our twitter followers agree with us. As a proposal about twitter etiquette I’d therefore suggest: if someone is live tweeting their travel frustration and they’re being out of order then say so! As this dynamic becomes much more common I wonder if twitter could have a real effect on people’s tendency towards intolerance on public transport. 

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