Thursday, 07 March 2013

‘This is a private conversation!’ When we need an official to intervene I'm enchanted to discover that there is such a thing as the National Campaign for Courtesy. I bet they get some spam. Their chair has been praising the actions of a train driver who made an announcement rebuking a noisy mobile phone user. The assumption is that ‘the announcement was made because another passenger complained to a guard’. This was a commuter train, and the first class carriage, so perhaps it was neither the first nor predictably the last occasion when the complainant encountered this individual behaving in this way. Let's pass over the widely-held expectations that people who travel first class either (a) tend to be more civil towards one another than mere plebs, and/or (b) tend to be more assertive about their own importance and rights… It’s more instructive to think about how the story raises a central question in social relations: what is the point at which behaviour perceived as anti-social or uncivil, requires an intermediary? Should the complainant have spoken first to the phone user? (And in the circumstances, would non-verbal communication, ironically, have done the job?) Some people would say they should have done so. I might have tried that myself, with a smile and gestures towards the ears or a finger to pursed lips. In the neighbourhood context, where a comparable disagreement arises over noise, the advice is generally to try to speak to and reason with the offender first. Central and local authority websites, housing association guidance, consumer advice materials (e.g.), they all usually recommend that initially a personal, conciliatory approach should be tried. The story raises a few issues about appropriate behaviour in the public realm and between neighbours. For a start, one-off instances of discourteous behaviour in the public realm are not the same as repeated cases. If you know your journey will soon be over and you are not likely to see the individual again, you may just choose to sit it out. And community space is not the same as public space. If you live next door to someone whose behaviour you find uncivil or antisocial, your response might not be the same as it would be in a public venue, a park or square, or on public transport, or a non-local online forum, from which you can usually escape - whether or not you feel you have a strong sense of co-ownership of that space. What’s more, you can’t always count on your fellow citizens to back you up if you do complain. People may not sympathise with your sense of injustice; or if they do, there may be other reasons why they feel unwilling to express any kind of support, which might leave you, finally, heavily dependent on whatever official intervention society has on offer. At its worst, this diminution of social capital can be exaggerated to the point that it puts enormous pressure on those official roles, until they in turn become defensive and cannot cope: think Northern Ireland, for instance, or even the Amsterdam of...

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