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Group Dynamics

March 25, 2016 | by


I’m currently observing a real-time courtesy lapse so blatant and so amazing that I must give voice to my electrified horror. The scene: a coffee shop, late morning. The players: assorted people drinking hot beverages and working on their computers, and a pair of German-speaking tourists in (I would wager) their midtwenties. 

Since the German couple came in, one of them, a woman, has been on a FaceTime call at top volume, with a shouting man. When it started, everyone looked up in irritation; it did not occur to anyone that it could go on very long. After five minutes of yelling, people started to look up pointedly, or resorted to the always-effective tactic of pursing their lips and raising their eyebrows. After ten minutes, the same people began to meet one another’s eyes and shake their heads gravely. 

It can’t go on, we all thought. And yet, it did go on. And on. The conversation was a strange combination of lackadaisical—clearly no crucial information was still being imparted—and deafening. The breach in courtesy was so obvious, the rudeness so clear, that we all seemed to shift as one from the annoyance of shared expectations, to confusion, to the fear of the truly alien. Did this woman not understand that she was shouting on a FaceTime call in a quiet cafe? Did she just not care? Did she despise us, or give us credit for an unthinkable level of benevolence? 

Things were reaching a sort of fever pitch; you could feel the energy shift. I know as well as if I could read their minds that everyone in the joint wished an employee would speak to her. Who would it be? Where were all the cracks when you needed them? It only takes one good man being silent, et cetera. After it had become clear that no one else was going to do anything, and there’d been a burst of particularly loud shouting from the screen, I cleared my throat and said, pathetically, “Um, could you keep it down, please?” When she looked blank, I lowered my hand in the universal music-teacher sign for diminished volume. “Of course,” she replied with dignity. And then resumed the call at the same volume. 

Now we were really in a quandary. Any benefit of the doubt had been stripped away: this was insolence, pure and simple. The rule book was useless; it was frightening. I was exhilarated. I felt the joy of real camaraderie. 

Finally a man looking at spreadsheets stood up and shouted, “JUST HAVE SOME CONSIDERATION! SOME CONSIDERATION!” 

In a huff, the common enemy stormed out. It was deflating. Everyone returned to work. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.