The other day I was in a fast-food restaurant, hiding from some home repair people and trying to do a little work while enjoying endless refills of Diet Coke, when a family sat down at the next booth. It was a mother, a father or stepfather, and two little kids, maybe 4 and 6. The kids started acting up—nothing terrible, just blowing on their straws and shouting while they played with the small toys that had come in their meals and stuff like that. But the father kept telling them what little brats they were, and then he started threatening to smack them. It was clear to me that he and probably his wife hit them fairly often. Anyway, things escalated, the kids started whining, and the man started talking in this loud, creepy voice, reminding them that they didn’t want a “repeat of last night.” Then he slammed his fist on the table and the kids started to cry.
I got more and more upset—and when the dad slammed his fist down, some other customers started shaking their heads and raising their eyebrows at one another and so on. Finally, without really thinking much about it, I stood up and told the couple that corporal punishment is against the law in our state and that if they made good on their threat I was going to call the police. And I added something about how nobody wanted to hear any more of their abusive language, but by then I had started to trail off.
Luckily for me, nobody was packing heat or anything, and all the guy did was call me a fat whore (he was half right) and tell me to shut up. There was a hush in the restaurant, but nobody else said anything. I am pretty sure that, on the whole, they thought it was stupid and embarrassing of me to have caused a scene. Nobody looked at me. The family finished its food and left. I stayed a few minutes longer, partly to avoid having to interact with them and partly because I was still shaking. Then I packed up my laptop and got outta there.
Did I do the right thing? What would you have done?
—Vocal in Vorhees
I like to think that I would have had the courage and initiative to do something, and I believe that your response was brave and admirable. You did take a risk, but when kids are in danger, most risks are worth taking. Given all the time in the world, you might perhaps have come up with a better way to approach the situation. For example, you might have taken a somewhat less antagonistic tone, maybe even spoken with a tinge of sympathy, saying something like “Eating out with kids can be a pain in the butt, but you’re out of line.” Or you might have looked around to see if there was a competent-seeming manager on the premises, and quietly asked that person to step in. You might also have asked the abusive man if you could speak to him privately, so as not to publicly embarrass him and the kids.
But I am not sure any of those alternatives would have worked any better. The manager or employer might have refused, or proved less effective than you, or sucked you into a controversy or even a brawl. The less antagonistic tone may have come off as condescending; or the man might have totally discounted you as effete and ineffectual. And it’s easy to imagine how taking the man aside could backfire. In fact, one of my readers has pretty much convinced me that asking the man to get up would have been way too risky: it is unpleasant to contemplate what a bully like him might have said or done to you once his family and the others were out of earshot.
Although the odds may be against it, there’s a chance that your speaking up had a positive effect on the couple. One or both of them may have needed to be reminded—or, if they come from abusive backgrounds, put on notice—that their behavior is viewed as abnormal and serious by some people, including one total stranger and a passel of lawmakers. While there is also a chance that your small intervention may have backfired—that the man may have directed his shame and anger against the kids and hit them harder than usual when they got home—I still believe that in this case, as in most cases where the outcome is uncertain but the wrong is obvious, it is better to speak up than not, and better to make an effort than to accept defeat.
Bear in mind that, although your confrontation may have led to unintended bad consequences, it may also have led to collateral good ones. Perhaps your speaking up for them just made those poor kids feel ashamed; but, then again, perhaps it gave them some glimmer of a sense of self-worth and bodily integrity. Maybe it made them start to realize that there are adults out there who will take their side.
Your actions may also have effected some small shift in the minds of the other customers, giving some of them a deeper sense of just how unacceptable family violence is. Maybe a few of the other customers—parents and kids—talked about the incident over dinner that night, and one of those parents or kids will never forget that dinner conversation. You never know when something you do or say will matter and live on. By the way, those customers who kept quiet were probably just risk-averse, not disapproving. I bet that at least some of those silent customers did not find you “stupid and embarrassing,” but were impressed by what you did, and envied your courage. And if they didn’t, so what?
Way to go!
La Wally’s response to Vocal in Vorhees: You did the right thing. Either way, you would have had regrets, so why not follow your heart?
I manage a medium-sized, two-screen art house theater. We used to be a quiet, polite crowd, but lately more and more of my customers are complaining about other patrons’ talking during the shows. We have the usual on-screen notices about talking, courtesy, and noise. We also rotate a few of those cute 15-second spots various sources send us about silencing cell phones.
What should I do? I am at the theater most nights, and would not mind making an announcement before the shows. I could also make a video for when I am not there.
I think the patrons who complain are 100% in the right, but I do not want to make everyone feel bad, and look bad myself, by sounding like an old curmudgeon who is scolding the audience.
What do you think I should do?
—Irritated in Illinois
I am in complete sympathy with your aggrieved customers, and often find myself longing for the good old days when people sat through serious films in a sort of reverential hush. I do sometimes wonder if those days ever existed; maybe I just used to be better at blocking out distractions and hearing over ambient noise. No matter: either way, you and I are agreed that your patrons should not disturb one another with what my local theater calls “unnecessary conversation and noise” during the movie.
I think it is great idea for you to make an in-person announcement whenever you are around. If you want to sound like less of a scold, you could preface it with announcements about upcoming events or new concession items. But when you get to the meat of your message I would recommend at least a soupçon of curmudgeonliness. I would go beyond general remarks about silencing cell phones and not talking, and let people know that other customers have complained. I would also remind people, with a smile if you think you can pull off that kind of smile, that one person’s whisper is another person’s very audible comment. In your place I might also request that, if people have questions or comments about what is going on in a movie, they should hold their questions until it is over; and point out to them that, for many film patrons, the auditory elements– dialogue, music, sound effects, silences—are as important as the visual. But that might be a bit much.
One problem you face is that there are so many different reasons people talk during movies. One, of course, is that they are discourteous jerks. Or they may be trying to impress their date with their filmic knowledge and, in the first flush of infatuation, have totally forgotten that there are other people in the theater. Or they may be totally desensitized to interruptions after years of watching movies at home.
Another problem I have noticed in our local art houses is that some older moviegoers do not seem to hear as well as they used to, which creates the double issue of their not quite getting what is going on and not realizing how loud their voices are when they ask about it.
There is also, of course, the broader societal problem: not everyone seems to agree that, although it is in fine, and fun, to make some collective noise in big loud action movies, or to scream in horror films, most indie films and art-house offerings are best watched with a minimum of outside distraction.
If you know your audience, you can tailor your comments to it. You can also tailor your comments to the particular movie: for example, I have noticed that some people think it is fine to talk during movies with subtitles. It’s not!
As for making a personalized video for when you aren’t there, why not? If you do, I would keep my tone relatively mild, since many of your customers will probably see it many times. Deputizing other staffers to speak when you are not around could also work, if you think they would be good at it. And you could try having your ushers sit in the back of some of the more at-risk movies (the talkier, quieter, or more tragic ones) and actually call out any unduly noisy guests. This would show the people who’ve been complaining that you take the problem seriously. It would also be a great boon to patrons who are bothered by noise but endure it because they do not want to offend or upset anybody, or cause a scene. And it might work: one visit from an usher to one patron, and maybe everyone else will shape up.
I wish you luck. As one who recently writhed in agony during Manchester by the Sea while the man behind me talked over half the dialogue to ask his wife where they had seen various actors before, and to tell her which parts of the movie were funny and which were sad, I salute you.
LaWally’s response to Irritated in Illinois: There are ways to tell people to be quiet and be nice about it. I would definitely get up before every performance whenever you are there and talk to the audience directly. And I agree that it makes sense to have your staff sit inside with the audience during the performances if you can afford it.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
Image credit: Roey Ahram on Flickr
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