Once a week I make a roundtrip commute via Amtrak from NYC to Washington DC. On each trip I sit in the quiet car: the one car on the train where loud noise isn’t permitted. The rules of the quiet car are straightforward: no use of cell phones, no loud electronic devices, and keep all conversations to a library-like whisper.
As a PhD student in the field of conflict resolution, I frequently use the solitude of the three-and-a-half hour commute to reflect on the major conflicts in the world. It often happens, however, that the quiet car gives me an opportunity to gain first-hand experience with real-life conflict.
The trouble with the quiet car is simple: not everyone is quiet. When people don’t follow the rules, conflict develops between passengers who police the car and those who transgress its norms.
It goes something like this: You’re sitting snugly in your seat, when you hear the following monologue a few seats behind you:
“Yeah, Jack, it looks like we’re going to have to reschedule that meeting…I told you so!…She may not like it, but that’s her problem… By the way, did you catch the game last night?”
As the conversation continues, you think, “How can this jerk be so disrespectful?” So you turn your head, try to identify the culprit and “hit” them with the stink eye. When the strategy fails, you think about confronting the guy. You search the train for moral support, hoping someone else will do the job for you, and finally summon the courage (not without anxiety) for a face-off.
“Excuse me”, you say, “This is the quiet car and you’re making way too much noise. It’s rude.”
The response you get depends on the type of passenger you confront. Will he shut the phone off, or just tell you to buzz off?
If he’s an ignorant passenger (unaware of the existence of the quiet car), he’ll most likely end his conversation, or simply move to another part of the train. If, on the other hand, he’s an arrogant passenger (one who is aware of where he is sitting but refuses to play by the rules) then he’s likely to respond in a less civilized manner.
Of course, like in any conflict, much depends not only on the type of person you confronts, but also on the way in which you communicates your message. As evidenced in the example above, by the time the annoyed passenger speaks up, he/she has already decided on a storyline. Often, people’s default assumption is that the passenger in question is arrogant as opposed to ignorant. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, which refers to our tendency to explain other people’s perceived negative behavior as derived from their personalities rather than the situation.
As a result, the message of the annoyed passenger often comes out with a lot more aggression than intended. This is conveyed through word content, tone of voice and body language. In response, the offending passenger – who is almost always ignorant as opposed to arrogant, and who may under other circumstances simply say “I’m sorry” and change their behavior – will act defensively and respond in an aggressive manner.
I’ve heard people say, “I’m a New Yorker. I’ll do whatever I want”; or, “Why don’t you mind your own damn business?”; or, “Why don’t you make me move?” Stories of people threatening violence are not uncommon either. In all these situations it becomes necessary to call the conductor for assistance, otherwise, the conflict is likely to escalate.
So what is to be done? How do we get everyone to follow the rules? And, what’s the best way to respond when they don’t? Here are two sets of advice: one for Amtrak and one for the concerned passenger.
Amtrak: Help needs to come from above. What my observations have shown is that when a conductor, who represents a strong authority figure, takes a few seconds during ticketing to explain the rules of the quiet car, the result is a nice, tranquil ride. However, when it’s assumed that each passenger is aware of where he/she is sitting, then the chances of a smooth ride is significantly reduced. The effectiveness of the conductor lies not only in the information he/she imparts, but also in the authority carried by the uniform and the persona. Unfortunately, most conductors do not take the time to individually inform the passengers.
Therefore, Amtrak must insist that every conductor take a few seconds to inform passengers of the rules. Also, make the signs in the quiet car more numerous and/or visible.
Concerned passenger: Always assume the transgressor is ignorant, not arrogant. This way you won’t feel wronged and can communicate your message with less contempt and hostility. Remember that the problem lies not only in the noise itself, but also in the story you have attached to the noise.
What specific steps can one take?
Andrea Bartoli, director of the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and frequent rider of the quiet car, gets the offender’s attention and simply points, without talking, to the sign on the ceiling of the car. By communicating silently, Bartoli manages to inform and censure without breaking the no-talking rule. According to his observation this has a 2/3-success rate.
My approach, ever mindful of the fundamental attribution error, is to get up and say, “Excuse me, I am not sure if you know, but this is the quiet car.” By giving people the benefit of ignorance, I find less defensiveness and greater willingness to cooperate.
The interdependent environment of the quiet car is very sensitive. Maybe even unnatural. And it’s not surprising that some passengers have given up on the quiet car all together and opt to travel in the noisier parts of the train. With some tinkering from above and fine-tuning below, however, conflict in the quiet car doesn’t have to be our destiny.