Groupthink, groupdo

Let’s try a little experiment. First up, picture any of the following scenarios.

  1. Standing in the queue at the supermarket.
  2. Travelling in a train carriage.
  3. Buckled into a translatlantic flight (you choose the class)
  4. Sitting in the cinema, popcorn on your lap
  5. Driving along the A1

Everyone got their scenario chosen? Splendid. Then we can begin.

In every single one of these scenarios, we can probably agree that there are certain modes of behaviour that we might expect those around us to follow – and indeed that we might strive to adhere to ourselves. This is Britain, land of queuing, so if you chose the supermarket, you wouldn’t expect anyone to shove in front of you (and you’d probably be pretty annoyed if they did, and might even, despite your British reticence, say so). Those in transit you might expect to have a ticket, to be sitting relatively peaceably. We’d mostly roll our eyes at the person listening to loud videos on their mobiles without the use of headphones in scenarios 1 to 3. In scenario 4, we’d probably ask them to stop it or leave. In scenario 5, if they’re the driver, they can do as they please. You’d most likely expect all the folks you saw in all five scenarios to be fully clothed, though what they wore might vary. In the cinema, we mostly prefer it to be quiet and for people to keep their phone screens dark so we can enjoy the film. In the quiet carriage on the train, we might reasonably suppose that folks would put their phones to mute or move their hyperactively loud kids to another carriage if they seemed to be disturbing others. And so on.

However, in the majority of cases, these five scenarios also present scenes in which some tolerance – indeed, some expectation that not everyone will behave according to the unspoken agreements – will be necessary. Drivers who don’t indicate. People whose phones ring in the cinema. That loud guy in the quiet coach. The thoughtless person in the queue in front of you who is rude to the cashier or squishes your egg box as they’re stacking the conveyor belt. The thing about other people is that they are independent agents of their own, and when we are put in a space with them, the chances are that deliberately or otherwise, we will have different ideas about acceptable behaviour, even within general guidelines of what we ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do.

Other spaces have even more specific rules: the British Library reading rooms, for instance. No food, drink, pens, sharp objects, etc., no noise, no talking (low voices or whispering only to the staff), no taking the books out, no coming in without a card. All these things are clearly detailed on signs in and around the library. And guess what? Some people bring in pens anyway, talk, forget to turn their phones onto silent, try to leave with a book in their bag. People check to make sure these things are kept to a minimum and anyone being wilfully disruptive or flagrant with the rules is asked to leave.

Girl at a bench with a camera, making sign to be quiet

These sorts of social contracts differentiate our shared spaces and experiences, and they are important and set up a precedent for respecting communal desires about certain buildings or activities. They’re important, and they are in some cases (depending upon the level of respect and care between rule setter and members of the group in each space) reinforced not only by security guards or gatekeepers, but by other members of the community: the person who tries to stick up for you when that irritating person pushes ahead of you in the supermarket queue; the two or three people who try to work as a team to get the cinema goer with their phone out to switch it off, and so on.

And then there are classical music performances. In the last few weeks, we’ve had yet more inevitable chat about applause between movements at the Proms and what we ‘should’ do. I also spotted a tweet from a leading pianist recently complaining about audience members who cough.

I mean… I get it. I get that it’s annoying if you’re one of the people who wishes for silence between movements and you don’t experience that. I get that if you’re in front of a crowd trying to do something which requires serious care, attention, focus on sound, that people coughing can be disruptive. However, in both cases, the scenario involves multiple people and a shared contract. In the case of the hacking audience members, coughs are largely going to be involuntary and berating people for not remaining entirely silent seems faintly ridiculous – I doubt the average concert-goer shows up thinking ‘today I shall cough just at the crucial moment in the third movement’. Sometimes we cough. And indeed, there has been some intriguing research undertaken into why people cough more in concert scenarios than in other day to day activities. In the case of clapping between movements, it seems that the social contract is up for debate and needs discussing and potentially changing. If everyone agreed, the number of people diverging from the norm would be tiny and probably shamed fairly quickly into behaving as others do. They aren’t, so presumably they don’t. Discussion, rather than condemnation, is probably likely to be a useful way forward.

We are social creatures. We do things in groups. We have erected buildings, for thousands of years, to enable us to do so. We hang around other humans all the time. So it shouldn’t be entirely shocking, then, when some of those other humans don’t do things the way we do. The level of our outrage and our tolerance for the inevitable outliers to a social norm should be set reasonably, I would suggest, in all circumstances. And frankly, if you’re after the ultimate concert experience in which all applause is perfectly contained and set according to your wishes, all coughs are restrained in the proper fashion, no one is late, no one rattles sweet papers, no one forgets to put their phone on silent and everybody behaves to perfection, I can only suggest one solution. Stay at home, buy some noise cancelling headphones, and listen to a studio recording. Alone.

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