Confrontation is an uncomfortable experience for all concerned. Particularly – it seems – on a train.
I was once confronted with the feedback that I “avoided confrontation”. This was presented to me as a vice, whereas I had naively thought that the altruistic desire not to upset other people, coupled with the reasonable desire for self-preservation, had made this a virtue. Many a domestic fight or international war would be prevented if only a few more people had “avoided confrontation”.
Nevertheless, there is, it seems a time to confront. A time for war and a time for peace. A time to be silent and a time to speak. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. If we tolerate this, then our children will be next. <Insert your own quote>.
I had booked my ticket in advance, deliberately choosing an aisle table seat in the quiet coach. When I got on the train at Derby, there was a professional woman sitting in my seat, tapping away on her laptop and talking unremittingly to the woman sat opposite. And so, I avoided confrontation. I considered and dismissed the proverbial “excuse me, I think you are sitting in my seat” routine. She would have had to move all of her kit and be separated from her friend. I rationalised that I would have more room sitting in the empty aisle seat just across the corridor. I suppressed my indignant irritation. She had successfully occupied my seat and I had meekly conceded. And she didn’t even know it. Or was that a glint of victory in her eye?
As the two of them continued to chat, my irritation blossomed into rankle and ballooned into seething annoyance. They were neither loud nor unruly. I could hear them, but not hear what they were saying. Like sitting next to the guy with the headphones when all you can hear is the rat-a-tat but no word and no tune. How dare she sit in my seat and talk at such an aggravating pitch, with no consideration of how I felt and not even allowing me to hear what she was saying? It was almost as if she were doing it on purpose. I was fuming.
The protocol in the quiet coach is – you will be unsurprised to know – to be quiet. Talking to a phone is banned, but talking to someone sat opposite is not. Probably on the grounds to do so would be impractical if not illegal. So whilst incessant conversation is not in the spirit of the Quiet coach – one might say it is an unspoken rule – I had no legal grounds on .which to confront her. So, naturally, I didn’t.
Then, as we approached Oxford, I was became aware that someone was stood in the corridor talking to the two women. I looked up and saw a tall grey-haired gentleman in a suit and long-coat – a true university-type. He was lecturing and rebuking the two women about their incessant chatter. He was eloquently pointing out that they had not stopped talking for the last hour, disturbing him and other people who had booked tickets specifically for the quiet coach. He stood like a spokesman of the secret quiet coach community.
The two women – now poignantly silent – sat meekly like two naughty schoolgirls being told off in front of the whole class.
I cringed, feeling their embarrassment, hardly daring to look, lest I catch their eye. One of the girls muttered something – we are sorry, we didn’t realise, we won’t do it again. Why didn’t you mention it earlier?
After his cameo performance, our hero-villain exited train door-left. There was no applause. The quiet coach was pregnantly quiet, and yet bursting with unspoken words and emotions. Everyone wanted the women to speak. To hear what they had to say. I was tempted to get up and ask them, like some intrusive reporter;.”Tell me, how do you feel now?”.
But of course, the two women could not speak. Inside they would be furious at such a public dressing down, whilst also guilty that there were others still in the carriage who had been equally offended. How many of the crowd were with them, how many were against them? Nobody was saying. One of the women typed furiously on her phone and showed it to the other. Like schoolgirls in detention passing secret notes to each other about the horrible teacher.
It reminded me of a time many years ago when MRs B and I were sat in no less a prestigious location than the John Lewis Restaurant, in the days when it was a proper restaurant. It was Armistice Day and it was just 11am. We all checked our watches and on a signal began our two minutes of silence. An elderly woman with a loud voice continued talking to her friend. We could all hear her, and we all projected our annoyance/embarrassment silently towards her. I wish to this day I had stood up after 5 seconds and kindly reminded her to stop talking.
And of course, this is the man on the train should have done. What I should have done. If we are going to confront, we must confront early and decisively. We may have to suffer an awkward interaction but, if we remain calm and reasonable, there is a good chance of our differences being resolved, without any loss of face. The longer we wait, the longer our anger will simmer and boil and spit. And then the situation will escalate into a major drama, with little chance of anything being solved and every chance of everybody being very embarrassed.
Our other choice is to choose to accept – logically and emotionally – and not to silently seethe. So it is with so many human interactions. If we allow people to irritate us or annoy us, without saying anything, the only person who suffers is me.