The Stress of the Quiet Car: Social Norms in Action

So here I am on the Accela heading to NYC. Station stop Newark.

I am going to from DC to NYC, spending a bit of time there and heading to Boston, seeing the family, and heading back. And I am doing all this the weekend before Christmas.

Now I have traveled up and down the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak. I know when to travel on it and when not too. This is not an ideal time. Thus the reserved ticket and seat on Accela as supposed to an unreserved cattle-car ticket on a regular train. The plan was to get a seat in the Quiet Car, watch a few movies, and chill.

The Quiet Car (QC) is one car behind the first class car. Cell phones, loud electronics and conversations are forbidden. It’s a great place to catch some z’s and get your sanity back.

There are three kinds of people who are in the QC. The first, I’ll called the Herd. The Herd just wants to sit and relax. They are non-confrontational. They want to get some work done, read a book, what have you. The next group of people I’ll call the Gulls. Gulls make noise. It’s in their nature. They have to talk on the phone. They have to make noise. They cannot help it. The third and final group are the Grumps. Grumps follow rules. Grumps enforce rules. They live by social norms. Grumps do not, as a rule, chill. They can be quiet. They can be loud. They are self-stressed.

Grumps and the Herd usual coexist peacefully. The Herd is mostly quiet and the Grumps stay to themselves. But, you add a few Gulls into the mix and the fun begins. The Herd will generally ignore the Gulls. The Herd might scowl at Gulls, but they rarely take action. Egregious Gull behavior will get a word from the Herd. Grumps, however, cannot stand rules being broken. They cannot stand a Gull breaking the social contract of the QC. They just cannot handle it. So they take action. They will raise a fuss. They will get the conductor. They cannot just let this go. The Gulls have broken the Grumps pristine peace of the QC. They must be punished.

So there I sat amidst the usual Gull – Grump warfare. Typical. Sad, but typical. After a time, things settled down. First, Gulls do not often realize they are Gulls. The nature of the QC isn’t obvious. To get the gist of the QC, you need to take cues from your surrounding. In this age of exploding Assberger’s Syndrome populations, taking social cues is less and less likely. Second, enough Grump prodding quiets down Gulls… unless they are assholes and must be dealt with accordingly.

But then… a wild-card was thrown down. It started as a commotion. At a station stop, a new rider entered the train with a Red Cap carrying his bag. The new rider was very upset that someone else was carrying his bag. He wanted it back. He needed it back. And we all heard him loudly protest. Once the Red Cap placed the bag in front of the new rider, things quieted down for a moment. And then he start talking. Loudly. To anyone. To everyone.

I glanced back and saw that the new rider was youngish, maybe early twenties. His eyes were small and an intense blue I had never seen before. But there was something not quite right about him. His features were Mongoloid. His behavior revealed some sort of mental retardation.

So into the QC where a recent Gull – Grump détente was reach, entered the new rider. He, who had no awareness of the QC rules. He, who only the most craven Gull would chastise. Here he sat. Talking. Loudly. To anyone. To everyone.

Two things were happening here revolving around social norms. One, the new rider was unaware of the social norms of the QC. He was, seemingly, unable to pick up on the cues of the QC. He did not hear the announcements about the QC, or at least did not think that the QC rules applied to him. Two, social norms quietly dictate that you (be you Herd, Gull, or Grump) do not chastise, confront, or yell at a mentally handicapped person. This drove some Grumps to the point of complete insanity, but they held their tongues.

The rest of the journey was a mixture of the new rider yell-talking, the frustrated sighs of the Grumps, and the usual train noises. All in all, it was a pleasant rider. It provided me time to write, watch a movie, and get a quick peak at social norms in action.