Hello piglet, I’m on a train

Verbal molestation: the light and dark sides of broadcast conversation

There can be little more invasive than unwanted noise. Aeroplanes, trains, even music (pressed to the loudspeaker at a rock concert, the overloud iPod) can bombard and make life unpleasant, and even painful. Well, that is classic noise pollution for which there are laws; but what about unwanted words? Here it is not so much about decibels but what is said, and for those who can hear (some degree of deafness can sometimes be a godsend!) the conversations that are thrust on us in buses or other public places can intrude and dominate our space. Since mobile phones were introduced ‘good practice’ protocols for their usage have found their way into society’s code of politeness. So mobiles are taboo in theatres, cinemas or concert halls for example. If you are in company (say at dinner), and are expecting an important call (someone is ill), it is ‘good manners’ to let those around you know beforehand of a possible call, and then if it arrives to keep conversation quiet and brief, to apologise and possibly to leave the room. In that spirit, a simple and soft ‘Hello dear, I will be arriving in 30 minutes’ on a packed evening train seems acceptable. Compare that to the annoyance factor of the piercing, interminable conversation, full of drivel interspersed with giggles, which all too often one hears trains (often those that are half empty). Somehow there is nowhere to hide as the words bore into one’s brain. One has to assume that those who partake are trying to make a statement – whatever else, they are certainly getting themselves noticed. But the sheer oblivion they show to the interests of others (in this case, me) just worsens the insult.

But however infuriating these voices are, they are trumped by conversations that are clearly personal (arguments, courting, sharing disappointment or worries etc). Here it is difficult to know what we listeners should do. Despite only getting one side of the story (are there times when one can ask what the person down the line has said?), there is involvement and that feels awkward. The question arises as to whether we should leave the room (the train carriage); ‘close’ our ears; listen in and witness as the story unrolls; offer advice (during or after the conversation); or even perhaps provide paper hankies if tears well up. My preferred option is to move away, unless, of course the story is riveting and I have nothing better to do.

But what does one do when moving out of earshot is out of the question? I once had a meal in an overcrowded Indian restaurant with tables that were far too close. On the neighbouring table a middle aged couple (both men) talked overloud and in explicit detail of both their real and (I assume) imagined sexual encounters. Moreover, during an otherwise delicious dinner the stories became more and more unsavoury (sadomasochism is not my bag!). Neither my wife nor I wanted to hear such private sexual business but it was inescapable and, to all intents and purposes, the evening was ruined (we have never gone back there). We could not discuss what to do at the time but in retrospect we decided that we should probably have spoken to our neighbours directly made clear our displeasure and asked them to speak more quietly or change the subject. We never decided whether we should have asked the manager to intervene, or even to have called the police. We thought that we must have had rights for being protected against “verbal molestation”, but outside swearing these have never been defined. Moreover if one were to introduce any law in this regard, who would/could/should decide what constitutes such molestation. Ultimately, the right to freedom of expression is crucial and compromising this right should not be undertaken lightly.

One comment on “Hello piglet, I’m on a train
  1. Birte says:

    Thank you, Joe, for this poignant piece. Your observations sound like the story of my commuting life. I once asked someone on a bus to lower his volume because I wasn’t interested in hearing the details of his day at work – and he was so outraged at my request that he proceeded to share that experience on the phone too – albeit it at a rather lower volume. I don’t think I would do that again – you never know how people may react – but I would follow your rule and move away!

    PS: I love the tag cloud!

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