Yesterday I went to a concert with my other half. It started about 4pm.
Five minutes after we arrived the row in front, behind and to our left filled up with young people who looked like they’d been imported in from The Only Way Is Essex – all hair extensions, checked shirts and screechy vowels.
They were of indeterminate late teen age (my guess would be lower sixth form) and not being a pain on purpose but, by dint of their being twenty in number, and them being over-excited and chatty, it was pretty difficult to hear the band we’d paid sixty quid to hear.
That familiar sense of dread began. And the thoughts start flying: Do I say something? What do I say? Will they get worse if I say something just so they can prove how hard they are?
The same feeling arises faced with strangers acting inconsiderately in any public place – especially on transport. Too many people become paralysed by the panicked thoughts and feelings, and so never actually do anything.
But I have a formula.
It’s based on the time I spent as a sixth form manager and works particularly well with 16-19 year olds, but it can be used with just about anyone.
The main trick is to stay super calm and speak from a place of genuine concern. Then you use the formula to decide what to say.
The formula is this: CALMLY DESCRIBE THE IMPACT OF THE BEHAVIOUR + GIVE A CHOICE
Back at the o2 arena, with nerves fraying, I took a moment to think about the actual issue I was having.
I turned to the group sat behind and motioned for them to lean in.
“I can’t hear the band over you all talking. It’s no big deal, but can you either bring the volume down or – if you want to chat – go and stand in the bars downstairs – there’s plenty of seats there which could accommodate you all,” I said.
The same formula works in tons of situations.
“Your phone playing that music is really disturbing my reading – do you have head phones to put on or can you switch it off?”
“Sorry to interrupt, but the smell of that food is making me ill – could you put it away in a bag or would you mind stepping outside?”
Note: no one is saying they have to do anything. In school, if you’re a teacher, you don’t need to hedge. Just tell the kid they have to do x or y – and that’s it. But in the real world, the slightly softer approach is better, if only because most people are a little affronted that you’ve approached them and so their heckles rise. If they think you are concerned and asking for help, rather than angry, they tend to get over the rising panic more quickly.
You will get a variety of reactions to your interjection. The most common is:
A mass of apologies – “sorry, sorry, sorry”. This is tricky as it can just be an embarrassment reflector and really means “we are just saying sorry so you will go away”. So confirm they are sorry: ‘That’s okay, I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it. Does that mean you’re going to quiet down, or will you go downstairs?”
More aggressive responses also happen and can be just as easily dealt with:
You can’t tell me what to do: This is where your hedging works. You didn’t tell them what to do. Calmly (and still with a tone of concern) point it out: “I didn’t tell you what to do, and I appreciate it’s your concert/train journey/cinema ticket too. But your volume is a problem and I’ve asked what you’re going to do, be quiet or step outside. Which is going to be better?”
We weren’t doing nuffin’: Again, you didn’t say they were. You concentrated on consequences and so can (extremely politely) deny this. “I know you weren’t trying to do anything wrong, I understand. I’m just pointing out that I can’t hear the concert and asking you to help me out. Can you be quiet or go downstairs, which is better?”
In either case, the point to focus on is that you have described a problem and asked them to help you solve it. That’s it. You haven’t yelled at anyone, or implied any wrong doing. You’re simply relying on the fact that most people aren’t sociopaths, they don’t want to be idiots, and that when they’ve done something wrong they need an opportunity to save face which you are very politely offering.
Because of that, and if you can manage to stay calm and act like a human who needs help (rather than a person who is angry), then you should get a decent outcome about 90% of the time.
In the other 10% of time you will unfortunately be facing a sociopath or a group with a high need to look tough. In that case your choices are up the ante (“if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask someone to come and remove you”), change seats/trains, or stick it out quietly fuming.
Back at the concert the young people went for the multiple sorry approach and said they would quiet down. As we were speaking the ones from the front row started shouting up and teasing so I went and said the same thing to them. More multiple sorries – and shortly after they moved downstairs for a bit.
When they came back they moved out of our way into some nearby empty seats and weren’t wonderfully quiet (always difficult to achieve in a big group) but at least they were no longer obnoxious or ruining the concert.
I’m counting it as another win for human decency.