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We Wish You Were On Mute

There’s an art to stealing moments for yourself. I fly a ton for work, and, as you know, airports rarely provide anything close to a meditative experience. But occasionally, the travel itinerary gods give us a little time before flight to take a pass on the grab-n-go salad coolers and sit down for a proper meal.

They were smiling down on me recently at SFO, so I found a small table in a nice, full-service restaurant.

Hey, You’re Not on Mute!

As I took my seat, I immediately noticed a woman a few seats over.  In addition to eating with her mouth wide open (aren’t we taught not to do that as children?) she was gesticulating wildly and talking so loudly that all eyes were on her. I realized she was holding court on her company’s conference call. And she was totally unaware of the fact that she had forced all of us in the restaurant to be on the call with her. As I looked around, anyone within ear shot was staring a hole in her.  Yet, somehow she went on completely oblivious. Two guys sat near me, and one leaned over to me and said–in a very colorful Boston accent–“Yeah, this has been going on for 20 minutes.”

 Maybe she accomplished a lot during her call. Maybe she didn’t. What we do know is that she disrupted lunch for a whole lot of people. When she finally finished, one of the Boston guys pretended to make his own call, and in a loud voice said, “Honey, don’t worry! STDs are treatable these days. We can take care of this!”

 As if struck by lightning, our protagonist looked up and realized he was mocking her.

 “Was I that loud?” she asked.

“Yes,” he shot back. “You’ve ruined everyone’s lunch with your call today.”

 She apologized, quickly paid her bill and stood to leave.  As she walked through the row of tables, nearby diners broke into a sarcastic round of applause. Unsurprisingly, her face turned scarlet red as she ran out.

 Now, there’s a certain level of humor in that whole episode, and I must admit to laughing along, especially when the guy made his racy fake phone call. I thought–and you probably did too–that this woman on the call had it coming to her. She ruined a perfectly peaceful moment for dozens of travelers because she was so unaware of how she was imposing on us. There’s an art to stealing moments for yourself…and it’s really frustrating when others steal those precious moments from us.

 Is Public Shaming the Most Positive Tactic?

However, after thinking about it more, I really started focusing on the grim fact that the disgruntled diners used “public shaming” as a tactic to get her attention and teach her a lesson. I wondered if that was really the best, most effective thing for us to do?

Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, recently argued in a blog post for Psychology Today that “there are no winners” in public shaming. She continues, “Being an activist is admirable. You don’t have to be a bully—be constructive with your behavior, not combative. There is never a reason to…mock people.”

 If you do a quick search of the term “public shaming,” you’ll be quickly reminded of the viral news stories over the past few years of people who first made poor decisions and then were shamed online, the modern equivalent to the Old World practice of someone locked in stocks in the public square. In many of those cases, an argument can be made that the punishment they received was worse than the mistakes they made.

 Yes, that act of calling out the woman on the conference call was probably effective. It’s likely she won’t soon forget her embarrassment, and she’ll be more conscientious the next time she’s dialing in in a public place. But I just keep thinking that no one really wants to be on either end of that scenario, right? Even though “justice was served” it didn’t leave me with a good feeling. What do you think? What if I or someone else had just walked up to her, tapped her on the shoulder and politely asked her to take the call outside? What are other appropriate ways to deal with a situation like this so that everyone wins? What would you have done?

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