I have a several very good friends who speak very loudly in public. I am also, to some people, a very good friend who speaks very loudly in public. Both these facts occasionally lend themselves to some awkward situations. I have been on several modes of public transportation with a friend who is screaming about her latest sexual conquest, and I have had to ask her to pipe down for the sake of the mothers shielding their children from us.
I have also been that friend, and I appreciate how embarrassing it is to be shushed in the midst of your passionate defence of The Last Jedi.
Shushing is awkward, even if and when it’s necessary, and when done improperly, it can make you look like a bigger jerk than the person screaming on their cell phone in a restaurant. Shushing can also lead to conflict — when people are embarrassed, they tend to get defensive, and situations escalate. But there are ways to manage to shush someone without being a dick, and without causing a full-on fight in public. Here’s how.
Nathan W. Pyle, the guy behind the famous NYC etiquette cartoons, has a tip for all of you, if you’ll shut up for just one goddamn second. That’s the tip, actually: when someone says something, and now it’s your turn to talk, and you’re ready to respond emotionally and escalate the conversation, maybe hold your big mouth shut for just one little moment. Can you do that? Here’s Nathan’s multi-part Instagram post, if you can be bothered to click through and pay attention to someone else for once.
Don’t be a dick about it!
The best way not to seem like an arsehole is not to be an arsehole. Sometimes people are loud because they want to be, but a lot of the time, they’re just not aware of their volume. So, for instance, if you’re chatting with a friend, and your friend is being too loud, you might be able to get them to quiet down without having to call them out.
“I think a lot of times people in general don’t necessarily realise how loud they’re being,” Kelly Williams Brown, author of modern etiquette guides Gracious and Adulting, said. “So before you go, and I’m not even going to say nuclear, but before you’re like, ‘Hey, quiet down,’ a good tip is to just start talking more quietly yourself. People in a conversation will often match what their partner is doing.”
If the person you’re trying to shush is someone you’re conversing with, Myka Meier, who runs NYC-based etiquette school Beaumont Etiquette, says it’s helpful to suggest you’re both being too loud, rather than just blame your buddy.
“The goal is to not point fingers. In this case, I would look around and whisper back to my friend, ‘I think we might be a little loud.’” Meier tells us via email. “It instantly not only draws attention to the issue, but does not make it seem like you are just correcting your friend.”
It's not just you — shows and movies can be really loud. Carrying earplugs in your purse or pocket might sound like the kind of thing a cranky old person might do, but if you want to be able to complain about things like theatre noise when you're ancient, it's best to protect your hearing now.
Sometimes, bringing down your own volume won’t get someone else to bring down theirs. That’s fine! If you feel compelled to still ask them to be quieter, do it, but be direct and be polite. Don’t be accusatory.
For instance, Brown said, if you’re at a movie theatre, and the couple in front of you are chatting loudly, tap them gently on the shoulder and tell them, “I’m so sorry, I’m having a really hard time hearing the movie.”
“That would be my first line,” Brown said. “My second line would be, ‘I’m still having a hard time hearing the movie.’ Then that is not specifically putting blame on anyone. It could very well be that they think they’re being really quiet.”
Meier added, “Make sure you keep a low / non confrontational tone and insert a ‘please’ for polite measure.”
If that seems like a daunting task, note that it can work without prompting a spat. Jay Ackley, 31, was once at a small concert venue listening to a band play when he felt compelled to confront a disruptive couple. “It was this really lovely, nice kind of sad feelings song by this really quiet band, with maybe a dozen people in the venue,” he said. “There was a drunk couple, and they liked the music, but they were talking to each other really loudly.”
So, Ackley decided to approach them. “I just turned around and said, ‘I’m sorry, your conversation is really distracting,’ with the politest, most Minnesota smile I have,” he said. “They were kind of dumbfounded, and pretty much stopped talking.”
Note that this kind of polite discourse, when successful, benefits everyone. “Later, at the bar, I ran into the band’s singer and she said, ‘Thanks for doing that! I usually hate doing that from the stage,’” Ackley said. “I was glad she followed up.”
Don’t blame anybody
As stated previously, most people don’t know that they’re being loud. So if you need someone to quiet down, don’t act like they’ve personally affronted you, or committed a grave injustice.
“In general, when you’re asking things of people, you don’t want to make it seem like they’re a jerk, like they’re doing something uniquely bad, or that they’re particularly doing something to you,” Brown said. “I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been loud at a random person. I’m just loud.”
Instead, as Brown says, assume good faith. Inform the offender instead of accusing them. “I’m approaching it as like we’re on the same team here, right? I want this to be a relatively quiet and peaceful environment, and you are probably not the kind of person who wants to be ruining that environment for other people,” Brown said.
Some examples of this approach include:
“Hey, so sorry, but I’m having trouble hearing, do you mind chatting at a lower volume?”
“Hey, I know you’re not doing this on purpose, but it’s a tad loud, could you please take it down a notch?”
“Maybe we should be a little quieter, we might be disturbing people.”
Escalate if necessary, but only through an authority figure
Sometimes, no matter how nicely you ask, someone won’t shut up. If that’s the case, it’s fine to escalate the situation, but don’t do it yourself. If the loud offender isn’t responding to your polite overtures, they probably won’t respond to you yelling at them to shut up, either.
Plus, if you start shouting, then you’re the one creating noise, and you both lose the upper hand and disturb the people around you.
So, it’s not a bad idea to find an Adult. For instance, if the movie theatre chatters are still too loud after two warnings, Brown suggests seeking out an usher. “Their job is to keep things orderly. And if I’ve tried twice politely, this is not the hill I’m going to die on,” she said. “I paid for my ticket. I’m not going to get into a big fight with people over this, but nor am I going to feel bad about escalating after I’ve said something politely twice.”
If you’re at a restaurant, you can ask the waiter to change your table. If you’re at a concert, find a bouncer. Do not get cops involved, please.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing
The thing about living in a society with other people is that sometimes they are going to annoy you. You can ask people to quiet down, but sometimes they won’t, sometimes they can’t, and sometimes you just need to put on your headphones and chill.
“A much better solution than trying to control the behaviour of other people is, what could I do to make myself more comfortable in this situation? How can I make my phonic environment what I want it to be without relying on my ability to control other people’s behaviour?” Brown said. “That can be a real uphill battle.”
If you’re at the movies, or another setting where loud talking is impeding your ability to hear, it’s worth it to pipe up, Meier said. But, “if it’s not bothering you to the point that it does not affect the quality of your experience, or you can still hear or enjoy the performance or show, I would personally ignore it,” she added.
For instance, I’m always irate at people who play their music out loud on the subway, but I’m not going to engage with strangers in that confined a space. Instead, I plug in my own headphones and either put on white noise (if I’m reading), or turn my own music up and ignore it, because it’s just one ride and I’ll forget how annoyed I am by the time I reach my destination. Same goes for subway preachers, SHOWTIME dancers, and loud tourist gaggles.
People make noise. It’s not the end of the world.