I often find myself in audience settings—such as a theater, concert, class or worship service—with chatty neighbors whose whispered (or loud) conversations disturb the peace of everyone around them. Occasionally I have the option to move to another seat, but not always. I have tried writing notes or attempting a polite reminder, but these usually don’t work and only create tension—offenders may talk less but the chatting continues, and I am left fuming and racking my brain for a solution. I would love to address the chattering in a way that doesn’t offend. I think my reminders don’t produce the desired result precisely because people feel offended. I would sincerely appreciate your advice.
Dear Gag Order,
Tell me about it.
Years back in a church meeting I heard a distinct clicking sound behind me. Clack-clack. Clack-clack-clack. Clackity-clackity-clackity-clack. It went on and on. By the time I turned to get a sly look at the source, my irritation had festered into disgust. A guy behind me had a new electronic device on one leg and what appeared to be a contact list on the other. He was transferring information about a few hundred of his closest friends into the device. His every keystroke was confirmed by an electronic click set at maximum volume. The meeting was just getting rolling so I anticipated another forty-five minutes of sermon from the front and percussion from behind. That wasn’t going to happen.
I feel your pain. And I learned a lot about myself in that meeting. Here are some of my reflections for your benefit.
The Longer You Wait, the Worse it Will Get
My rising irritation had less to do with the unwelcome noises and more to do with the smoldering disgust I was nursing while listening to a sermon on patience or charity or some other related topic. If my emotional reaction corresponded only with the clicking, it would have stayed at the same volume from click one to click 8,620. But note in my story above that it didn’t. It grew exponentially with each click, then shot to white hot rage when I sought out visual confirmation of my judgements.
If you want to have a Crucial Conversation with another person, it’s best to do it at the advent of your concern, not when you’ve given yourself time to birth a monstrous animosity. Your escalating emotions are the result of your failure to speak up when you believed you should have. We all know when we should advocate for ourselves. We have two choices to deal with the guilt we feel when we fail to do so: Own it, or shift it. If you don’t admit that you’re selling out your own needs, you begin alchemizing your guilt into blame. You look for a blameworthy target to push it onto. I found mine in the guy with the contact list.
It’s About Your Story, Not the Sounds
My emotions were grossly out of proportion to the provocation. All I needed to do to confront myself was look at the majority of other worshippers seated similarly close to him. Most seemed rapt in the spiritual message. Ninety percent of what was going on inside of me was about me, not the typist. My first thought was to try to do what you suggested—move to another spot. There wasn’t one. I realized that the services for me were going to be a workshop, not a lecture. I’d have to find a way to practice what the woman at the front of the room was preaching. I verbalized the story I was telling myself that fueled my contempt. “He’s a self-centered jerk. A narcissist. Furthermore, he’s probably fully aware he is irritating others and doesn’t care.” Then I challenged it. I conjured three or four memories of times I had put my own needs ahead of others’. It wasn’t hard to do. I came to see him as a human being who needed some feedback. Perhaps he is under pressure to get this done. Maybe he doesn’t know you can turn off key click sounds. My view of the Prodigal softened.
Make it Short and Sweet
As my story changed I discovered my emotional din had shrunk to a distraction. I felt bothered but not furious. I realized I could probably manage 45 minutes of focused attention on my primary purpose. But I also thought, “He might not know how he is affecting others. Perhaps I can help!” I turned around fully and tried to make eye contact. He was riveted on his device so I tapped his knee. He looked up, startled, and I whispered, “The clicking sounds are a bit distracting to me. I can show you how to disable them if you’d like.” Once you’re at peace, you’re ready to speak. Don’t beat around the bush. Make eye contact, smile comfortably, and share your concern unapologetically and succinctly.
Let Them Do Them, but Offer a Little Help
As you suggested, others will often take offense. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. But remember why. They’re feeling guilt. And they get to decide what they do with their guilt: Own it, or shift it. If they choose to shift it, you’re the most likely target available.
My guy was no exception. He huffed dramatically and snapped his contact book shut. Now, here’s the most important thing I want to share: the essence of emotional maturity is learning to care about others’ feelings without taking responsibility for them.
You asked me how to get chattering to stop without offending others. You cannot control others’ chattering. And you cannot control whether others take offense. And the instant you define your mission in this way, you hand control of your well-being over to those who are least likely to tend to it. Your job is to advocate for your own needs, not control the behavior or emotions of others. And when others don’t meet your needs, it is your job to tend to your own needs as best you can under the circumstances. That means, at times, learning to live with things you cannot change. The world isn’t responsible for giving you everything you want. When you find yourself fuming with resentment, it is often because you’ve turned irritants into entitlements. The path to peace is to confront your own entitlement, accept things you can’t change, and be sure the story you’re telling yourself is proportionate to the situation.
My guy huffed and sighed a couple more times. After a moment I turned around again and said, “I hope I didn’t say that rudely. And if it’s important for you to finish that, please do.”
I wish I could say that we ended up chums. We didn’t. But I felt satisfied that I had expressed my needs in a way that gave him every opportunity to respond maturely. From the tone of your inquiry, I suspect you do the same. And if so, what you now need to work on is not perfecting your message, but surrendering responsibility for others’ reactions.