Reuters

Andrea Bartoli suggests an approach that presumes ignorance on the part of offenders.

Yesterday Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed some trouble he was having on Amtrak's Quiet Car:*

As I write this someone's digital device is going off. The woman apparently can't figure out how to shut it off. She does not want to repair to another car to figure this out. She wants to do it here in the quiet car. She is not alone.

Coates isn't alone either. Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks back, William Power and Brian Hershberg chronicled the rise of quiet cars on local commuter lines across the country, and the rise of passenger conflicts that have come as a result. While conductors occasionally police the cars, more often that job is left to quiet car "vigilantes." (Power and Hershberg nickname quiet cars the "Tension Train.")

Some systems, such as New Jersey Transit, discourage passengers from policing quiet cars themselves, but frequently travelers who care about the code of silence have no other choice. On Amtrak, for instance, the car isn't marked as "quiet" on the outside, with only a few easily missed signs hanging on the car ceiling. Some conductors remind passengers they're in a "library setting" when taking their tickets, but others don't, especially after the train's point of origin.

Andrea Bartoli, dean of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, says he rides Amtrak's Quiet Car between New York (where he lives) and Washington (where he works) just about every week. He's long been fascinated by the interactions that occur there and once made preliminary plans for a research project on human behavior and conflict in the car — though to date nothing has come of them. (George Mason student Roi Ben-Yehuda has documented Bartoli's interest in the subject on his blog.)

"Fundamentally, the Quiet Car is a perfect microcosm, because you have all the elements of a primordial society," Bartoli says. "You're not in a family. You're not in a work environment where someone is more important. You don't have responsibility or power structure. You just have anonymous people sharing the space."

Bartoli calls the Quiet Car a "world of its own" with unique rules of conduct that some people initially fail to recognize. ("It's not just a physical space," he says, "it's a way of being.") Consequently, he's come to expect some sort of Quiet Car violation every trip. At first he was upset by the interruptions, but over time he developed a conflict-resolution protocol. When he hears an offender violate car rules — almost invariably by using a cell phone — he walks over to the person and, without saying a word, points to the Quiet Car sign.

"My assumption there is, people are breaking the rule because they don't know the rule," he says. "I give them the benefit of the doubt. I don't break the rule myself by shouting or yelling. Partially I don't want to escalate the confrontation, and partially because I also want them to realize they're in a different place."

Bartoli estimates that two-thirds of the time, offenders respond to his gesture with an apology. "They can say, I realize I'm in a special place, let me abide the rule of the special place," he says. One-third of the time, however, the person will react with loud indignation — and occasionally even threaten him physically. At that point either a conductor will intervene, or the rest of the Quiet Car community comes to his aid.

"Obviously I control myself fairly well, and I smile," he says. "All the car coalesces with me against this intruder that is clearly in the wrong place doing the wrong things in the wrong way. It's just funny to watch. There is no way that they can win this one."

Though Bartoil recognizes the instrumental role played by conductors in quiet cars, he believe that regular riders also share a responsibility to uphold the sanctity of the place. In fact, he doesn't consider his actions "policing" at all. Rather, he calls his "silent reminder" an invitation into the space that a person can either refuse or accept.

"There is a way to socialize good behavior that's gentle, anonymous, kind," he says. "The chances for behavior to be socialized more easily is when these frequent travelers actually take some proactive role in keeping the place what it's supposed to be."

* Yes, it's capitalized, at least when referring to Amtrak; the name Quiet Car became a registered trademark of America's passenger rail service back in 2002.

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