Are silent transgressions better than noisy ones?
It was the Lincoln Plaza Cinema—and a film I had been dying to see. I had the perfect seat. I had the perfect movie companion. I had the perfect popcorn.
The movie started and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a man in the row in front of me had begun to move his arm up and down in time to the music. The motion was elegant and practiced. His other hand was also moving a little; he was silently conducting his own imaginary orchestra! I found it very distracting, as the rise and fall of his arms kept pulling my focus away from the movie.
At first I wondered if he could be delusional—if he somehow believed he was actually on stage. On the other hand he didn’t seem crazy. Was this an absent-minded act? Maybe he was a professional maestro who simply could not leave work behind. But as the pantomime performance continued, it became apparent that this was just a guy who was oblivious to people around him. And I also understood, as I watched his confident posture, that a large part of why he considered this conduct acceptable was because it was noiseless.
We are more apt to commit noiseless breaches of good behavior than noisy ones. Theatergoers who would never dream of failing to turn off their phone’s ringers think nothing of leaving the phone itself on, its glowing light plainly visible and potentially annoying to everyone around them. My pet peeve involves fellow audience members who freely play with their long hair, unaware of the fact that half the time it is flicking close to the faces of people behind them. Yet, who am I to complain? They paid for their seats, and more important, they are not making any noise.
Unless the offense is audible—gum cracking, loud talking, candy wrapper crackling—or we are physically touched (as when someone kicks the back of our chair), we tend to hesitate before daring to say anything. For one thing, we can’t be certain that it is bothering anyone except us. And we do not feel so clear about it being our inalienable right to complain. If an audience couple chooses to engage in enthusiastic entwining (whether they are smooching or merely leaning their heads together), thereby making it impossible to see, we still feel funny about tapping the lovebirds on the shoulder and saying, “Your kissing is ruining the show!” After all, we think, shouldn’t we be able to tune out a noiseless distraction like this?
As New Yorkers, we are trained to block things out. With constant stimulation all around us, we can’t possibly process it all. If we let every annoying thing get to us, we’d be basket cases. So we learn to have boundaries. Therefore, when we do find ourselves distracted by something relatively trivial, like a guy waving his hands in a movie theater, we are conflicted. “Jeez, it’s not that bad,” we think. “The guy’s not making any noise, after all. I should be able to concentrate on the movie.”
The truth is that many people would not have even been bothered by my conductor. Just as many do not get incensed by the cell phone lights—often because they have been guilty of similar infractions themselves. A friend of mine recently told me she saw someone scratching the back of the person seated right in front of her—with a wooden back scratcher.
“Did you call him on it?” I wanted to know. “Nah,” she told me. “My husband bites his nails in the movies; who am I to throw stones?”
But back in Theater 6 at Lincoln Plaza, I decided I was going to throw a stone. Trivial or not, this man’s faux-conducting was ruining the film for me. And I just knew it had to be driving others nearby crazy. But I would have to be the one to say something.
I took a deep breath and leaned forward, preparing to projectile-whisper, “Excuse me but your conducting is distracting me,” when just then the woman sitting next to him—who seemed used to this sort of corrective behavior—captured both his hands in hers and brought them forcibly down to his lap. He looked at her and smiled sheepishly.
Several people applauded. Which made everything even more perfect.
Jeanne Martinet is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.
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