UNPOPULAR OPINION: Shut The F Up On The Amtrak Quiet Car (And All The Other Places Where No One Else Is Talking)

Apparently this really is an unpopular position to hold, if my recent experiences are anything to go by.
Publish date:
May 21, 2014
unpopular opinion, travel, shut up, trains, m-rated, M

The day I discovered the Amtrak Quiet Car was a revelation. I’d taken the train to New York from Boston and back again a handful of times when I first overheard someone mention that they were going to the “quiet car.” It was as though a need I hadn’t realized I was feeling had suddenly been filled. I did a bit of research and discovered that Amtrak’s Quiet Car tends to be found between the first-class carriage and the rest of the coach sections, and that in this magical domain any use of laptop speakers was shunned, cell phone conversations were entirely disallowed, and even comments passed between other humans were to be managed no louder than a whisper.

It is also home to a strict self-appointed police force. My first Quiet Car experience was everything I could have hoped; when one young man played a video with sound on his laptop -- a momentary misstep that was likely an honest mistake -- the woman in front of him was on her feet within seconds of the first sound breaching the fastidious silence, pointing toward one of the small placards hanging at regular intervals from the car’s roof, each of which bore the universal symbol for shut the hell up, a finger pressed to a pair of lips. She pointed to it as sternly as I have ever seen anyone point at anything and snarled, “QUIET CAR.”

I was in love.

My subsequent years of Quiet Car allegiance have seen many such confrontations, and these arguments are mesmerizing to the extent that the Quiet Car is known almost as much for its pitched battles for silence as for anything else. A 2012 New York Times editorial on the subject remains one of the best descriptions of Quiet Car devotion and etiquette that I know, in which the writer, also a loyal Quiet Car subject, tells the story of the time he was asked by a nearby passenger to type less loudly, but what might have been an absurd argument is headed off by a workable compromise between the two committed Quiet Car stalwarts, and concludes -- in all sincerity -- on an Ayn Rand quote, because, he says, “We really talk like this in the Quiet Car; we’re readers.”

There is a certain flavor of camaraderie amongst those who seek out the Quiet Car on purpose. Or at least, as much camaraderie as can be shared between individuals who don’t want to talk to one another. I've heard it described as Library Rules -- that is, you are quiet because others are quiet, and you are all expressing a deep mutual respect for one another’s work, or even simply one another’s preference for quiet. I prefer to think of the Quiet Car as a contemporary rolling version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Diogenes Club, the club for individuals who only enjoy the society of other people who don’t want to speak to one another under any circumstances -- a league of (un)friendly (anti)social misanthropes.

It is for similar reasons that I adore working from the Boston Public Library’s cavernous and hushed Reading Room; I am rarely so pleased to be surrounded by strangers as when I can be reliably certain that we have all committed ourselves to a solemn oath of making no more noise than absolutely necessary. I am not a misanthrope, exactly -- well, I am a bit -- it’s just that I have little patience for people shoving their sounds in my ears when I’m trying to concentrate. In most of the world, this can’t be avoided, and understandably so, as the world is not about being quiet for me or anyone else, nor should it be.

But I do treasure the precious spaces in which silence is the rule, because they are so rare and because they are becoming rarer all the time. More and more, there are people who seem to think that silence has no merit of its own, is just empty nothingness they are free to fill with their own voice. Occasionally a tourist will stomp into the Reading Room talking in a normal tone, and if there was any justice in the world the death stares from the people working there would vaporize them on the spot. I keep running into people in movie theaters who will chat in full voices while the film is playing, as though it’s never occurred to them that they are in a shared public space with other paying customers who are there to see the movie, and not to hear strangers comment on it. Is it me, or is this sort of behavior getting worse?

This is all to say: I am worried about the Quiet Car.

On my last several trips, the Quiet Car has been less Quiet than ever. It’s true that people occasionally wander in and sit down without realizing where they are, and I understand that not everyone on a train is familiar with the concept of a Quiet Car in the first place. I even understand that some people can manage to sit in a Quiet Car for literal hours and somehow fail to notice the multitude of aforementioned placards announcing “QUIET CAR” hanging from the ceiling every few feet, or to absorb the fact that the conductor has verbally announced at least three times that this is the Quiet Car, where cell phone conversations are prohibited and any talking should be kept to a minimum, and in hushed tones when it does happen. I understand these things because I get wrapped up inside my own head, too, sometimes, and it can be easy to be oblivious to our surroundings in our modern world. Plus, "Quiet Car" is a bit of a misnomer, as there are many unavoidable noises made by the train itself.

But even without the signs and announcements, I think people should know enough to be quiet here. I think -- and this may be the unpopular bit -- that when you enter a space that is full of other people who are being quiet and talking only when necessary, you ought to amend your behavior accordingly, and respect the atmosphere others have created. If your voice is the only one you can hear in a space filled with dozens of other individuals, then you are talking too loud. You are not special. You are not more interesting than anyone else, and the silence is not there because nobody has anything to say. It’s there because the majority of the people maintaining that silence want it that way. If you don’t like it, leave, as there are far more options with no noise restrictions to choose from.

On my most recent Quiet Car excursion, a young woman seated behind me received a phone call within minutes of our leaving South Station. While I’m not one to pick fights with random strangers, I’ve also learned that when you do say something, the rest of the Quiet Car usually has your back, so I caught her attention and pointed meaningfully at the Quiet Car sign that reads, “Please refrain from using cell phones or loud talking in this car.” She looked at me, and looked at the sign, and, somewhat befuddled, stepped a few feet further back down the aisle, but did not actually go into the space between cars where a conversation could take place without disturbing anyone.

Moments later, a man a few rows ahead of me answered a ringing phone of his own, and within an instant the man seated in front of him was on his feet, saying, “QUIET CAR,” in a fierce whisper. Readers notwithstanding, this is really how we talk on the Quiet Car -- all we ever say is “QUIET CAR” with all the force of our righteous entitlement to silence, or at least an absence of human voices. If you try to make noise in the one place where it is explicitly discouraged, those of us chasing peace and quiet are going to smack you down with all the force of our accumulated frustration from spending the majority of our lives in places where we can’t turn down the volume.

Meanwhile, the woman behind me kept talking. She talked about the mansions in Newport, and vacationing with her grandparents, and her friend who did something interesting, and blah blah blah, and I put on my headphones to drown her out at last, as she had either failed to understand the sign I had already drawn her attention to, or she just didn’t care. Her seatmate seemed more conscientious, answering her in terse whispers. When finally, after a particularly lengthy ramble about nothing, she inquired “Where are we, anyway?” so loudly it seemed as though she was asking someone several rows away, it was a struggle not to turn around, lunge over the back of my own seat and shout at her noise-making face, “WHERE ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE? WE’RE IN THE GODDAMN QUIET CAR, ASSHOLE.”

Eventually a passing conductor heard her continuous one-sided conversation and gave her an official reprimand. “You can’t talk like that in here!” he snapped at her sharply, cutting her off mid-ramble.

“I can’t?” she said.

“No! This is the Quiet Car! If you can’t follow the rules, you can’t sit in here!”

She finally piped down after that. Maybe she just needed it to be spelled out for her. It would have been gratifying if she hadn't already been talking for nearly two hours.

Ignorance is one thing; I don’t expect every train passenger to fully research train travel and etiquette before they board, although it would be nice if they did. I also realize that sometimes people sit in the Quiet Car before realizing what they've done. But I think it’s a good rule for life in general that if you find yourself in a space where all the other people present are being quiet, you should respect the damn silence. I don’t care if you’re on a train or in a museum or seeing an opening-night movie or at your great aunt’s funeral service: being loud in a space where everyone else is making efforts to keep their voices down is rude and insensitive and just makes you come across like a lousy self-centered jerk.

And if you can’t do that, then please, just shut up on the Quiet Car. It may be the last truly quiet communal place we have left.