I’m under the assumption that I simply wasn’t home when the government delivered the letter announcing “Social tactfulness is now obsolete.” Lately I’ve been visiting the local Border’s bookstore in Beverly Hills, the destination for middle to high-income poor who cannot afford their own personal libraries, and which provides a rather large and pretentious café offering Seattle’s Best Coffee and various delicious delicacies for those inclined towards a future of dentures and diabetes. The cafe shop crowd is replete with magazine readers, book browsers, tea and coffee sippers and a host of executives and school kids plodding quietly away on their laptops. Aside from the intermittent Barista shout of grande mochafrappelattecino for (insert name here), the acoustically sound café filled with leather chairs and carpeted flooring remains relatively silent, an obvious homage to our childhood training which commands serenity and silence when surrounded by copious reading material. And then, like a stone thrust into a placid lake, things change abruptly.
The form is irrelevant – a teenager with ridiculously loud headphones and a penchant for drumming his feet and practicing his American Sign Language upon some aerial chalkboard, a woman whose recent trip to the shoe store was apparently a newsworthy event and must be shouted to another Soccer Mom and every patron within three miles of the bookstore via her cell phone, which is on speaker function, an apparent courtesy such that everyone in the place is privileged to hear the Soccer Mom’s retaliatory exclamations as she attempts to watch The View while listening to this woman’s narrative on versatile footwear, the rather heavyset gentleman whose breathing is quite like a hibernating bear and who, in addition to the rather ubiquitous sweat currently staining his shirt, seems to feel the demolition of a chocolate croissant should certainly be accompanied by a sharp slurping and “aahh” of completion upon draining his hot chocolate, or perhaps, and this is likely the most common offender, it is a couple, whose concept of reality is limited to their four foot spatial dynamic and therefore the overly emotional meanderings and decibel-shattering conversational demeanor are merely further evidence of society’s obliviousness to social tact.
As the offenders continue to offend, the lake stirs, the ripples causing eyebrows to lift, myriad head shakes, pursed lips, muffled but suggestive throat clearings and various other subtle insinuations that the offenders should easily recognize as signals that they are pissing people off. The result of this aggressive barrage of implication, however, is the unbridled laughter of resounding irresponsibility and ignorance. As the offending couple chortles away, their chuckles and cackles now causing a near din of acoustical pain upon those endeavoring towards more intellectual pursuits, the rippling converges upon itself, the crowd exchanging knowing glances, the silent camaraderie of an expressive nod and mutually empathetic smile. One can almost hear the unspoken words “These idiots, have they no courtesy?”
But this is America, the inalienable right to freedom of speech a consequence of lost lives, and as such, the crowd is destined to suffer the interminable blather of these two uncivilized apes whose conversational content now includes a treatise on The Enquirer’s latest sensationalistic headlines and a recounting of the latest episode of Desperate Housewives, the upshot of which leaves everyone annoyed at the idiocy of the exchange, but also overwhelmingly curious to the outcome of both topics because the morbid curiosity of intellectual pursuitists is, sadly, not limited to mere educational material, and so they eavesdrop, snooping and annoyed, but further annoyed that they are snooping on something so stupid.
In some far corner of the café there is a law student studying for the bar now pondering whether the freedom of speech currently finding its way through the aromatic blend of coffee beans and bakery goods is reaching a level of disturbance high enough to incite a riot, and thus, questioning the legality of this conversation.
Over time, the battle between the First Amendment and devastatingly distressing inability to confront loud talkers ends in favor of conversational freedom and several patrons begin to depart, leaving the boisterous and clamorous offenders to boister and clamor to a lesser audience. And it occurs to me, in this moment of great tension when people succumb to moral outrage and exit meekly rather than confronting the offenders, that social tact is truly dead, a victim of the smallest type of ethnocentrism, that of the individual.
Several people remain, however, irritated by the offenders but struggling through the earsplitting racket and waiting for that Neil Armstrong of societal protection, that giant leaper of civilized life, to take the small step to tell the offenders to “shut the hell up.” No one does and I head off to the restroom for a moment of silence. Using my car key, I enter a stall and on the bathroom door, I inscribe “Social tactfulness is now obsolete,” then leave, laughing loudly.