“First World” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car


Dear readers, here’s a little “First World” ethical topic for you: Personal behavior while riding in the Amtrak Quiet Car. The Quiet Car has become an interesting laboratory for observing (1) whether seemingly advantaged adults will obey the simplest of rules and (2) what happens when those rules are broken.

The Quiet Car is designated for passengers who want a quiet, library-like atmosphere, with minimal conversations limited to whispers, no cell phone usage, and no loud gadgets or music. At the beginning of the trip, and at each major boarding stop, Amtrak conductors announce this information over the public address system. It can be hilarious to hear the slightly sarcastic inflections in their voices when they give this spiel, reflecting obvious weariness over mediating disputes between passengers who have, shall we say, different understandings of Quiet Car etiquette.

You see, on any given trip, at least a couple of passengers will behave as if the Quiet Car exists to provide them with a quiet place to conduct their cellphone calls or to chat with a traveling companion. Lest anyone assume that the transgressors are over-gadgeted Millennials, let me clarify: In my years of observation, middle-aged adults in business attire are the more likely culprits.

Several weeks ago I was riding in the Quiet Car on a trip from Boston to New York. For the first 20 minutes, a well-dressed couple who appeared to be in their 50s kept up a loud, ongoing conversation in the row right behind me. I could hear them easily even as I listened to music using earbuds. I finally turned around and asked if they could keep it down. While I think that I was fairly restrained, they nevertheless looked at me with annoyance. They didn’t stop their conversation, but they managed to lower it to a whisper.

Over the years I’ve wondered about the people who so breezily ignore these clearly articulated rules of courtesy. True, the violations are minor or trivial in the grand scheme of things. But are the loud ones in the Quiet Car more likely to break the rules (quietly, of course) in business and public life? Do these same folks believe that they’re “special” when it comes to applying more significant ethical and legal standards?

Class, please discuss.

10 responses

  1. I have to say that while this is a small scale example of how self-absorbed and inconsiderate people can be, it is disheartening in that it demonstrates how little we care about basic rules that are intended to make sharing our space (including work spaces) more tolerable for all of us. It is the very mindset that bullies and narcissistic personalities display. They could care less about others – it’s all about ‘me’ in their minds. I actually remember days when people were polite and would offer a friendly smile on occasion – I don’t seem to notice that as much anymore. Is it because everyone is in such a state of constant stress that courtesy is becoming non-existent? There seems to be a rise in the entitlement attitudes – and that is not related to any age-group. I’ve worked with long term employees who believe it is their right to ‘coast’ through the rest of their time and I’ve worked with folks who are relatively new to the workplace, who believe they are entitled to use every sick day available to them, every family leave, and completely abuse the benefits employers provide. But, in closing; I still have hope. Most of us want to do the right thing and most of us understand the rules. I suppose it depends on where we want to focus our energy – if we look for good in people, we will find it – but so too will the not so good surface if that’s what we choose to see.

  2. Maybe this has to do with the US being a culture where there’s a lot of emphasis on the individual.

    In trains in Japan, a much more group oriented culture, no-one talks on the phone. Silent SMS seems to be OK, though.

  3. I similarly requested that a group of women please lower their voices while traveling on a quiet car to NY. The women appeared annoyed but several travelers nodded their thanks. And the car became quieter. I used to be guilty of making verbal exclamations while watching dramatic films in quiet theaters. I was called on it once. As a result, I became more mindful–and the theaters I attended became more quiet! I think we need need each other to speak up and create the environments that are best for the common good AND we need to peacefully bear with one another along the way.

  4. Hi David – we have the same thing with our commuter trains in Toronto, called Go Trains. On the second level of most cars, there are the same rules – there is enormous “peer” pressure amongst the travellers – mostly commuters – to maintain this quiet and peaceful atmosphere. Great for mental health. It works!

  5. In general, I’ve noticed a decrease in courtesy and good manners in all walks of life. Now that I am working in a customer service environment I’m finding that everyone seems to be in a huge rush all the time. Stress is abundant in everyone’s life now and I am finding that the constant drone about the new administration in Washington just wears me down and is depressing and at times irritable as I, like many, many others feel a bit helpless about where our nation is headed.

  6. “Do these same folks believe that they’re “special” when it comes to applying more significant ethical and legal standards?”
    Yes, they believe they are special and above the law. Also, I’m speculating, of course, they want witnesses to their violation to validate their specialness. What I might have done is this if they didn’t pipe down enough for me: Discreetly inform the conductor about the violation and the videotape moment using my cellphone.

  7. This happens to me all the time in the quiet car on the commuter rail in Boston. Regulars choose the quiet car on purpose, for a reason. And there are always people who ignore it–talking on the phone, talking loudly, etc. I have, on occasion, politely reminded people that they’re on the quiet car. Sometimes I take the approach that “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you might not be aware that this is the quiet car.” Sometimes they really don’t know because they’re not regular riders. But on several occasions I’ve been yelled at, ignored, or told that I should move to another car. And all too often the conductor is unwilling to intervene and enforce the rules. Very disheartening.

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