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Social Grace 

The Sound of Idiots

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
Dear Social Grace,
My boyfriend and I love live music, but we've run into a recurring problem lately. We buy our tickets in advance, wait eagerly for the night of the concert to come, enjoy a nice meal, and finally settle in to see the show. And then it happens: The people next to us decide that, now that the music has begun, it's time to chat -- and they then raise their voices to compete with the music. It's particularly bad when we're trying to enjoy an acoustic performer, because often their inane chatter drowns the act out entirely. We often politely ask them to be quiet, but the responses are at times unfathomable. The other night we watched another couple "shhh" a clearly starved-for-attention trio of talkers, who took that as a challenge to be as noisy as possible. That same night, my boyfriend asked an equally emotionally neglected indie-rock type if he and his friends could refrain from conversation, and his response was, "You have two choices: leave or buy all the tickets in the place and watch the show alone." Why do people shell out their hard-earned dollars to see a performer and then yak through the performance? My boyfriend thinks people just have no self-control. My feeling is that this is just another example of the "Age of Entitlement" we're currently existing in, where manners and decorum seem to have no place. Help!

Via Internet

Dear Madam or Sir,
You're both right: Some people have no strength left with which to exercise self-control, so heavy is the burden of entitlement they carry. You've done a nice job of illustrating that most people go to concerts to see and hear performers -- not other audience members -- and that talking and making noise during a performance is impolite.

Never has so much entertainment been available to humankind: Music that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for our great-grandparents is readily available to us for $13.99 at Tower Records (or for free elsewhere). Because it comes to us so cheaply, we can treat it as background music. Deadened to nuance by the constant availability of tunes through stereos, Walkmans, MP3 players, and other devices, some folks are unable now to distinguish between special-occasion performances and the $13.99, always-at-our-fingertips kind. The choices given to you by that audience member are flawed. I'd rephrase them thus: If you can't tell the difference between a special event and a CD, stick to CDs -- if you want background music, that's what you should have. (We draw distinctions, of course, between a Metallica concert, where one should expect a little ambient noise from the crowd, and the San Francisco Philharmonic, where audience participation is less integral to the all-around experience.)

At a recent performance of a touring musical production, I had the unpleasant experience of sitting next to a woman who insisted on singing along with the performers. After concerned looks failed, I politely asked her to desist. She ignored me, and her gentleman friend turned to me and said, explanatorily, "Oh, she loves to sing."

"Well," I thought to myself, "how nice for her." I then sought out an usher and asked to be reseated. As that wasn't possible, the usher used her considerable authority to shut the woman up, explaining that "people had been complaining." Dealing with idiots in an audience is part of an usher's job, and when polite requests fail, you should seek one out.

Dear Social Grace,
Is it or is it not polite for a lady to always leave some food on her plate? I was taught this by my mother, but several times recently when I have done this, people have asked me if I didn't like my food. I didn't know what to say.


Dear Mary,
Perhaps your mother and my mother could fight this one out. If I ever left an uneaten morsel on my plate, Mama brought out stories of starving children scattered across the globe who would be "more than happy to eat that creamed corn," so she'd make me eat it all before I left the table.

Your mother may have been taught by her mother that it was more polite for a lady to leave some of her dinner on her plate. In this way, she would not frighten any men in the room with her wanton display of appetite (considered by some to be strictly a masculine sensation). I'd describe this practice as an etiquette fad (never truly a requirement of polite behavior) that has largely -- if not completely -- passed out of fashion, to the good of all concerned. In fact, in many cultures, leaving food on a plate might be considered impolite.

Well-mannered women are not required to leave food on their plates, and there are those who would argue that wastefulness solely for appearance's sake is too decadent and corrupt for words, as those starving children my mother was concerned about still exist in large numbers. If you do choose to leave food on your plate -- for whatever reason (whether to seem to exist on sparkling water and Victorian sighs, or to avoid eating undercooked gnocchi that is altogether too gummy to swallow) -- that's your business. It's rather unseemly to take too much of an interest in what others are eating or not eating; if you are asked again if you didn't like your food, you should simply reply with a smile that you've eaten enough.

Dear Social Grace:
Regarding changing the subject when someone is talking of disgusting matters at the dinner table ["The Art of the Swift Subject Change," Oct. 18]: Great column, as usual, but I have another way to change the subject. How 'bout just blurting out, "Oh, that reminds me of that movie with Nicolas Cage (or any bit movie star you like). You know the one; what was the name of it?"

This is a great opening for another person at the table. He or she can answer, "I don't think I saw it, but I liked him in Leaving Las Vegas." Of course it's rude to cut someone off in normal conversation, but when that person is holding forth on bodily functions, isn't our first duty to interrupt, the sooner the better? I'm thinking that this is an exception to the standard "two wrongs don't make a right" rule. What do you think?

Dave Bolick

Dear Mr. Bolick,
Thank you for your kind compliment; I'm glad you enjoy the column.

It's true that people love to talk about celebrities, and they love to talk about themselves. Your subject-change method is good, and another is to remind your friend of a story that involves him and a movie star (if you know of one), instead of bodily functions: "Oh, Ethan, that reminds me of the time you rode in an elevator with Stockard Channing. Tell that story again."

I don't think that changing the subject when a friend is talking about something disgusting falls into the "two wrongs" category at all. "Ethan" accidentally stumbled onto the subject of maggot-infested sores right as the server set down the risotto; as his friend, you can and should help him correct his blunder.

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