Intimations of Mortality II
Guest Blogger: Mimi Merrill

Why is Noise the Default Public Behavior?

[EDITORIAL NOTE: On a recent post about a blogging survey, several readers suggested a survey of elderbloggers. It's such a good idea that I am creating one as we speak that I expect to post next week. On the theory that one person can't think of everything, I welcome your suggestions for what you would like to know about the elderblogging community. Just click the "contact" link in the upper left corner of this page to send your thoughts.]

Last week, 60-year-old John Clifford appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court on charges of disorderly conduct, harassment, misdemeanor assault and petty larceny (a business card).

Among the specific acts that led to the criminal charges were cursing a train passenger, slapping the hand of another and berating many for talking loudly to one another and into their cell phones. All he wants on his commute, Mr. Clifford told Judge Larry Stephen, is to read his newspaper and get started on the day’s work.

Crabby Old Lady’s sympathy for Mr. Clifford is boundless. If Crabby could find him, she would give him a hug, a big kiss and buy him a drink because he is willing to make a jerk of himself (and he certainly has) to take a stand against NOISE – constant, daily, insistent, annoying NOISE from louts who believe their right to assault others’ ears and concentration supersedes everyone else’s right to peace and quiet, particularly in a closed environment.

Crabby has never asked a loud cell phone user to please keep it down without having been berated, scorned and blasted with the F word. When she has asked train conductors, restaurant waiters and even movie theater managers to ask others to lower their voices, she has been told there is nothing they can do.

Cell phone users reserve the right to screech, yell, shout and holler in all public places, frequently asserting that right with "It's a free country, lady." When Crabby commuted more than hour each way by train for two-and-a-half years, there was not one trip on which these boors didn’t talk loudly enough to be heard ten rows away. (And that complaint doesn’t include obnoxious iPod wearers who crank up the volume so that an irritating, buzzy noise precludes any attempt at rational thought.)

When did noise become the default public behavior, Crabby wants to know, the standard against which there is no recourse? And why are the noise makers always defended? The The New York Times, in an editorial about Mr. Clifford, accused him of “vigilantism”:

“…despite years of complaints, arrests and summonses, none of which have stuck – [Mr. Clifford] is free to keep doing what he does: abusing fellow commuters in the name of peace, quiet and civility.”

They said this with such certainty of their position, with such an utter lack of irony that one can only assume members of The New York Times editorial board are among the cell phone troglodytes.

Did you know the word “noise” is derived from the Latin word nausea and that noise has serious health consequences:

“Noise is among the most pervasive pollutants today…

“Noise negatively affects human health and well-being. Problems related to noise include hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, sleep loss, distraction and lost productivity, and a general reduction in the quality of life and opportunities for tranquility.

“The air into which second-hand noise is emitted and on which it travels is a “commons,” a public good. It belongs to no one person or group, but to everyone. People, businesses, and organizations, therefore, do not have unlimited rights to broadcast noise as they please, as if the effects of noise were limited only to their private property. On the contrary, they have an obligation to use the commons in ways that are compatible with or do not detract from other uses.”

- Noise Pollution Clearinghouse

Noise is a risk to everyone’s health, but you wouldn’t know it from official response. People whose ears are assaulted are routinely advised to remove themselves from the area. Judge Stephen asked Mr. Clifford, “You can move to another car, can’t you?” Crabby's personal train experience is that there is no car without cell phone yappers. The judge also asked, “But you have to realize some of your conduct is inappropriate?”

Clifford’s and not the cell phone jackasses' conduct is inappropriate? Along with the Times editorial board and the judge, Long Island Railroad officials have turned the idea of offensive behavior on its head:

"'Some of our customers feel as if they have been abused by Mr. Clifford’s behavior,' said Joe Calderone, a spokesman for the railroad.”
- The New York Times, 9 April 2008

Mr. Calderone and Judge Stephen sound like General Petraeus and President Bush: right is wrong; up is down; left is right. Crabby is reeling from cognitive dissonance.

In the end and to Judge Stephen’s credit, he acquitted Mr. Clifford of all charges, and Crabby fervently hopes he is back to "abusing" the cell phone barbarians on his commuter train.

Oh, and did you read that the European Union approved cell phone use on airplanes within the continent? Crabby wonders how long after this decision goes into effect the first cell phone homicide will take place at 30,000 feet. Listen carefully when you hear the news story; it may be Crabby Old Lady who is arrested for the crime.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Peter Tibbles recalls True Loves in a Small Town.]


At least i the UK long distance trains have one coach in which, ipods, cellphones and radio's are not allowed. Guess which coach fills up first.

I stopped going to the pictures (cinema) over 10 years ago - it was just too loud, even tried earplugs.

I am now a grumpy old 70 and still hate excessive noise - it is like invading my personal space.

During the 15 years I road a commuter train there were many times that I wished I had the courage to join in a loud cell phone conversation as a third party. Could have been amusing at least for me.

Could all this loudness be a result of loss of hearing by the offender? There are so many things to stick in one's ear that it can't be good for the cochlea.

Great post. But I really can't comment on it as just thinking about it makes me angry and irrational! Maybe even crabby as well!

Oh yes! You go Crabby Old Lady! Great rant!

I love it that long distance trains in the UK have a noise-free coach. Remember when there used to be smoke-free coaches? Now they all are?

So I'm standing in a line at a subway shop a few years ago and the boob behind me is screeching into his cell-phone. When my turn comes to give my order the clerk can't hear me over the idiot.

I yelled out to the clerk, "I'm sorry but I can't hear you either over this guy talking on his phone."

Guy hears that, shuts up for a minute, and I put in my order.

Then I turned back around to him looked him dead in the eye and said "Too loud man, Way too loud."

He said nothing, others in line smiled at me. For one small moment I felt like a hero.

In my mind it is still an open question if Cell phones have aided or harmed our society.

I'm am of the opinion they are much more nuisance that necessity and way more annoyance than advantage.


While I am sympathetic to the increase of noise on public transit, and while I confess to having homicidal thoughts towards those who turn up their mp3/CD players, I truly do not understand the backlash against cell phones.

I commute every day on public transit and on some trains there are groups of commuters who have gotten friendly with each other. They sit together and talk and laugh all the way to their stops. No one glares at them or asks them to keep it down. This makes me wonder if it's really the noise that upsets people or the fact that they can only hear one side of the conversation.

If the person on the other end of the call were on the train sitting next to me, I'd speak to them. We would most likely hold a conversation in a relatively normal tone of voice. We wouldn't be shouting at each other, but neither would we be whispering.

Would this be a breach of train etiquette? Would I be better off communicating with my seat mate in sign language or semaphore?

I don't dispute that hearing "I CAN'T HEAR YOU. HELLO?! HELLO!? ARE YOU STILL THERE? I THINK WE'RE IN A DEAD SPOT." is irritating.

But if it's a normal conversation that's no louder than if the person were physically present, then I see no reason why that should be cause for chastising someone.

Great rant, COL!:

Normal conversation, where both sides of the conversation are heard, even when it gets boisterous with 4 people playing bridge on a commuter rail, is normal. We can put it in the background, we subliminally track it, but it doesn't carve up our consciousness.

One sided conversations, where the other shoe NEVER drops are not. When a single person is talking and I am in the vicinity, I always assume they are talking to me, ergo I 'have to pay attention'. It is the polite thing to do, but it continually wrecks my concentration on MY thoughts. No matter how much I try, that one sided 'normal conversation voice' always draws me back. I have been able to 'background' one sided conversations in languages that I don't know..

You might consider that those buzzy iPod wearers are making their own 'escape' from the one sided din! It is just another version of 'escallation'.

My pet peeve is 'gym music'. I've though about getting an iPod for use at my gym, as people tend to leave you alone if they see you in headphones. I am a 'big strong' older woman, and that excites some attention and people feel free to interrupt my workout. I like people and I want to help them, but I have a limited amount of time to spend in the gym and I need to move a certain amount of iron. It would also have the side benefit of having Aretha or Mick drowning out the techno-drivel or rap-rot that passes for 'rock' these days.

I wear foam ear plugs, which help enormously in airports. But it seems a shame that it is necessary.

People on cell phones pretty much have to talk louder to be heard than they would to someone beside them and it is obnoxious. It seems Americans can't go or do anything anymore without being on that phone. I suggest to my husband that he take his calls out of the store when he has to use it on a 'techie.' P

eople used to be able to escape from others when they left the house; now there is escape. Yes, they have safety aspects but they have to emotionally be very questionable for how healthy it is to always stay connected.

I don't like a constant drumbeat of noise and even in my home I often prefer silence to music or anything else in the background-- if I have a choice.

Right on, sister! Several years ago I went on a raft trip down the Grand Canyon. The deep silence there was palpable, unlike anything I had ever "heard." Yet all day long people talked, shouted, and whooped. Thank God cell phones wouldn't work down there! On the last day some of us asked if we could be in a boat somewhat removed from the others and ride in silence. The tour guide begrudgingly accommodated us, but there was no end to the guff we took at the end of the day.

My other pet peeve is constant background music in every establishment, it seems, which is too loud to be called "background."

I wonder what the American aversion to silence is about.

I take earplugs everywhere I go, and I use them at least a few times a week.

My antipathy to cell phone users in public stems from what is probably a very primal sense of community. We are together on this train and they are not "here." I suspect this is hard to articulate because it is such an ancient part of the human compact as to seem least to some of us older folks.

Thanks for this well-articulated rant. It did my heart good! Peg

Cap'n Jan and Peg:

At the risk of sounding as delicate as the princess in "The Princess and the Pea" story, which Crabby is not, Crabby Old Lady must report that she doesn't use an iPod or earplugs because they hurt ears.

And even if iPod buds didn't hurt her ears, Crabby likes to be able to hear what's going on around her when she's out in public. Many years ago in New York City, it saved her from a mugging and who knows how many times hearing a car turning a corner fast saved her from death or maiming.

Oh yes, thank you Peg for mentioning the ubiquitous 'background' music that isn't in the background. Then there are the TV sets blathering away everywhere, in airport lounges, in doctors' waiting rooms, anywhere there is a captive audience. Radios blasting from every corner, with inane, hyped-up commercials, pounding 'music' and frenetic announcers talking faster and faster and faster until I expect them either to explode or to go into orbit. As to the thought of cell phones on planes: well, as Clive James on his BBC blog remarked the other day, "On a train you can get off at the next station and walk. On a plane you'll be getting off at Dubai with your hands locked around a mobile phone user's throat."
Yes, it is true that we have a 'quiet coach' on our UK trains( usually Coach F). But when you book tickets on the phone or the Internet you can't select which coach you want. And even if you do manage to find a seat in Coach F, it won't be long before the peace and quiet is shattered by one of those ghastly ringtones. Sometimes the guilty party apologises and scuttles off to take the call somewhere else. But sometimes he or she stays put and brazens it out. And since the British have a tendency to suffer rather than 'cause a fuss', (except for the crabby ones like me, of course), this bad behaviour usually goes unpunished.

Yes, yes, yes! So very aggravating. I hate cell phones and I hate the use of cell phones and I hate the noise of people talking on cell phones, especially in public places. Did you know cell phones, while convenient in emergencies, may cause significant health risks? My son spotted this article from the UK last week, which was not picked up in the USA as far as I know, indicating cell phone use may cause brain tumors:

I have always known that there were advantages to being hearing impaired, such as not hearing things that go bump in the night, but noise pollution is new to me.

To be honest, I don't mind at all. I am so grateful to be able to hear anything I don't even mind the screeching bird that calls incessantly outside my open door.

Some have commentated on not minding the noise of a group of people, but being irritated with the one-sided conversation of a phone user. Perhaps it's simple curiosity that irritates us. We want to be part of it and feel left out.

I have a couple of friends who always call me on the cell phone from their car.

I hate that. One, I want them to pay attention to their driving, and two, when people call me I want them to pay attention to me and not something else.

The abuse of cell phones is rude and selfish. To call others while you are doing something else is rude to those around you AND to the person you are calling. This fake caring for others of always having to be speaking to someone else is out of hand. If you really care for others, you go see them, you don't yack on your phone at them while on the way to someplace else.

One time I was at dinner, and a table of four people all had their cell phones out talking to someone else. I just laughed and asked them why they weren't talking to each other,and they all looked embarrassed and hung up shortly afterwards.

For me it is not about the noise. It is about being in the moment of where you are. Those on cell phones are out of touch with where they are and what they are doing. They are distracted from others around them, walk into people, drive into people, bump into others, annoy others around them, and are simply rude. An important call is one thing, chatting with someone just because you can't stand a few minutes alone with your own thoughts is something else. I think Americans are so used to being bombarded with noise and the constant barrage of the media that they are afraid of silence and having to actually think their own thoughts.

And when you do talk to these people, you are accused of being rude to them. No, they are rude to you. They have made you part of their surroundings, instead of another human being.

We need to learn to respect each other again. All of the others, whether we know them or not. And one way we do that is simply paying attention to those we are actually with at the moment - whether we know them personally or not.

A few years ago I was on my way home to DC from Florida after a long and tiring board meeting. Had to change planes in North Carolina when there was a problem with the plane. We ended up staying on the plane on the tarmac for around 2 hours. People got settled in and started reading, working on their computers and quietly talking to one another. All of a sudden the little screens came down and they played this insanely loud program about snowboarders. I sat fuming for about 5 minutes and then started looking around. Not ONE person was watching the program. I got up and walked to the flight attendants and asked if they could turn off the program. They were shocked "we show it to pass the time!" I asked them to look to see if anyone was watching it and tried in my least whiny voice to explain how this quiet time on the plane was needed by myself and probably many others. Much to my relief they shut it off.

Sometimes, when the cell phone talker is loud and close to me, I read my book outloud with the same volume and attitude as their's. I keep focused on the book and when they quiet down or hang up, I lower my voice and gently let it fade away. Usually quite effective.

We were on the tube in London and some "youth" got on with a boom box. One of the other passengers, an elder, shouted at the kid to turn it off. Know what happened? The kid turned it off. A friend visiting me at the time from New York said that he felt that nobody in NYC would have told the kid to turn it off for fear of being shot and it was so refreshing to not be afraid.

Wow, Judith. That's a great idea. Crabby Old Lady can't wait to try it and wishes she were so clever to think of it.

Hello Crabby,

One day I was on the Fifth Avenue bus headed to the Museum and a fellow in back of me got on his cell phone and called a restaurant.

"Hello, is this the blank restaurant?" Is there a party of four waiting for one more person? There is? Let me speak to one of them."

"Hello, yes, this is Max", he said in his loudest voice. "I am in a Limo on my way up to the restaurant. The traffic is terrible.

Driver, Can't you make this Limo go any faster?",he shouted into the phone.

Just then the bus driver slammed on the brakes and the sound it made would wake the dead. Max quickly covered the phone and said." Did you hear that? You didn't? Good. It was nothing."

By now the other passengers are sick of Max and they gather around his seat and begin talking and shouting as loud as they can. He has to quickly hang up and he was so embarrassed he got off the bus about four blocks before the restaurant and we could see him running up Fifth Avenue.

I have a feeling he never pulled that stunt again....

Hah! Judith cracked me up.
My husband (12 years younger than I) has a growing hearing problem, born of years as a trumpet player. His response to most of my comments from another room is, "What happened?" I am weary of screaming around the house. I'm afraid my voice is going to turn into a cackle, making me truly sound like a crabby old lady. I told him recently that I'm no longer going to respond to him when I'm in another room because he'll only wonder "what happened" anyway.
His problem doesn't affect his being extremely irritated by vehicle boomboxes and loud speakers broadcasting obnoxious music, however. He wants to make a CD of the old Lawrence Welk theme song and blast it back in response.

I think Donna has it right:

"An important call is one thing, chatting with someone just because you can't stand a few minutes alone with your own thoughts is something else. I think Americans are so used to being bombarded with noise and the constant barrage of the media that they are afraid of silence and having to actually think their own thoughts"

This is why I live in the country where the loudest sound I hear during the day is the bray of my little donkey.

Of course I make it into town where some of these things described do happen, but for the most part, people are much more polite than the subway and train riders of the large cities.

Seriously. I could not stand to deal with these things of which most of you refer... day after day. Talk about soul-killing stress.

Actually I suddenly feel very blessed today. I think I'll go ride my horse.

Yeah, the noise in this society is horrendous -- you spoke my thoughts. Am sure many will develop hearing loss at earlier ages than need be just as rockers found out the hard way and have done the same -- severe loss in some cases starting back in 70s but pretty much kept out of news in the beginning.

If people don't actually see outward physical damage signs to their body, like a cut or scrape, they often don't realize the harm until it's done. Once those little hairs in the ear die, they're gone -- no regeneration.
High frequency sounds are usually the first to go i.e. think of all the words with s, f, t and a number of other sounds.

I couldn't believe they would allow cell phone useage on planes when I first read they were considering the issue -- incredible -- and I'll bet there will be fights and problems at the least if the user/abusers start calling and talking louder. Sure hope I never sit next to one of them.

Oh boy. Cell phones on airplanes. Just when I thought air travel couldn't get any worse.

Why is it, do you suppose, that we can't enjoy simple silence?

There are some exceptions to my reaction to noise pollution. Today, while working in the yard, I was serenaded by a house painter who for some time sang at the top of his lungs--from atop his ladder, across the street and one door down--totally oblivious to my presence. Thankfully, he was wearing earbuds so that I didn't have to endure the music that he was accompanying! He was obviously enjoying his world.

My generation wanted to "Be Here Now," but my students seem to want to be everywhere else but here. They fidget endlessly in class with text-messaging. Some companies are trying to market cell phone booths (see my blog archive for January), but I don't think these are going to take off. I think there is something a little off about a person who cannot stand to be in his or her own company, even for a few moments. There also seems to be an exhibitionist element to this oh-so-public display of cell phones: See how important or desirable I am? I cannot be out-of-touch with others for even a moment.

I have started pining in my old age to live on a remote mountaintop -- even though I've been a city girl all my life. Of course, I don't plan to go unless I can have a satellite dish, hi-speed Internet, and cell phone. Wink.

Crabby, if you go to jail for the first cell phone homocide, I'll join the thong of other elderbloggers who will carry giant placards for your release on grounds of mental torture. I'm going to remember Judith's method, too. In fact I can hardly wait!

Some years ago, the now defunct magazine New England Monthly proposed that every New England country inn should have a "New Jersey room" in which visitors from a certain state could converse at their own chosen volume level without disturbing others.

Regional jibes aside, more and more people seem to find silence threatening, so that those of us who value silence have more and more trouble finding it.

I'm sorry Mr. Clifford was driven over the edge. If I lived in the hellish cacaphony of a large city, however, I might well fall over the same edge.

Some of my own sensitivity to noise is the result of working around jet aircraft in the Air Force nearly forty years ago. I learned firsthand that at a certain level, noise will induce physical illness—including vomiting. It takes waaaaay less noise cause irritability.

I survived a couple of hours at my daughter's rowdy, packed 21st birthday party, and was shocked to see her 20-year old cat purring peacefully on a couch. He's always been an ultra-high-anxiety, stressed-out cat--even a single visitor would send him into hiding for hours or days.

My daughter said, "we didn't spike his kibbles--didn't I tell you Zeus is now totally deaf?" I spent 20 years assuming this poor cat was terrified of *people*, when it turns out, all he needed was for people to STFU.
The look of pure bliss on this cat's face was miraculous.

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