Quiet, Please

Dear Social Grace,

I have an apartment that's right next door to the apartment manager's office, and the acoustics of my building are a little weird (I've heard people having sex three floors away). I've never had any complaints about noise until recently, when the building's new apartment manager told me to turn down the ringer on my phone. He said he was confusing his office phone with my phone. I turned down the ringer, but he told me yesterday that it was still too loud. I told him that the ringer was as low as it could go without being turned off, but he implied that there must be some way for me to get it even quieter.

So now I'm really irritated. I'm home a great deal during the day, when he's in the office, and I feel as though I must play only barely audible music, keep my windows and doors shut when I'm on the phone, answer the phone on the first ring, and whisper when I have to speak. If he were just a neighbor, I might not worry about it too much, but I'm sick of getting chastised like I'm some young hooligan. It's especially annoying because the former manager, and the other manager who works in that office, have not had a problem with my “noise” level.

If he says something to me again, should I say no one else seems to be bothered by my phone and music? Or do I have to live my life cloistered in a tiny, soundproof apartment?

Wanting Some Peace and Privacy

Dear Peaceful Madam or Sir,

Living in close proximity to others, as many San Franciscans do, requires us to pay attention to the noise we make. I'll assume you were disturbed by the amorous audio of a couple in an apartment far from yours. Many people have had similar experiences: What sounds like an audition for Stomp in the apartment upstairs turns out to be nothing more than a large, rambunctious cat.

So we'll agree that a neighbor's reasonable request should be met with a good-faith attempt to lessen noise, if only to ensure friendly feelings. (Someday you may need to borrow that neighbor's margarita mix.) You've done that, though, and your neighbor's requests have moved beyond the realm of reasonable.

It's another fact of apartment living that certain daytime noises from neighbors' abodes are unavoidable: One Life to Live played at normal audio, a conversation held at a normal level, and a ringing phone, for example. You've tried to lessen the noise, and now that you can do no more you may say so, politely, if the subject comes up again. Apologize, mention your building's strange acoustics, and smilingly explain that you don't know what else you can do. If he persists, you might make your case with the building's other manager or perhaps the managers' boss. If a neighbor or a building employee is harassing you, you needn't stand for it. However, a couple of requests for a turned-down telephone ringer are only a bit odd; they aren't cause for an altered lifestyle or complaints to the powers that be.

Dear Social Grace,

There is a scene in Dancer in the Dark where Björk's character, who is blind, attends a movie with Catherine Deneuve's character. Catherine Deneuve has to describe the movie for Björk, which irritates others in the theater. Of course, in the movie, you're supposed to sympathize with Björk, and the person who asks them to be quiet is portrayed as an asshole. Now, I was recently in this situation in real life. At the movies, I was seated near a couple, and one of them seemed to be unable to see. The other gave a nonstop, loudly whispered running commentary of what was happening on screen: “The woman looks angry. Now she's leaving the room in a huff. Now she's in the hall. Now she's on the street, and she's hailing a cab. A cab is stopping to pick her up. Now she's in the cab. Now the cab is driving away.” And so on.

When I saw Dancer in the Dark, I was on Björk's side. But I have to say that my moviegoing experience was pretty much ruined by these people, and I was very annoyed. If it had been any other kind of conversation, I would've asked them to be quiet. Would it have been impolite to do so here? The movie was so crowded that I couldn't move my seat. I'm interested in what you might say to this.

Sincerely,
Annoyed in the Dark

Dear Annoyed Madam or Sir,

I knew when I began writing this column that sooner or later I'd be called on to explain Björk's behavior. I'm surprised only that the call I've finally received concerns her behavior as a fictional character.

It is obvious that people with visual and other disabilities are deserving of the same degree of respect and courtesy as anyone else. To ensure this, special accommodations for them must sometimes be made, but fundamentally, they should be treated just like anyone else. This may seem to go without saying, but in many areas of society it's a shockingly new concept.

Conversely, they are bound by the same rules of courtesy as anyone else, insofar as they are able to meet them. Speaking during a film is behavior that can be controlled and is obviously inconsiderate of others; in short, it's just not nice, no matter who's doing it. If you and I were to attend an unsubtitled French-language film, for example, we would be quite out of line to expect others to put up with a running sotto voce translation because I do not speak French. (“He says the goat is dead. She asks him to make passionate love to her.” And so on.) This is not to say that blindness and inability to speak French are the same, but it's a fact that not everyone can enjoy all activities in the same way.

It would not have been wrong for you to ask politely for quiet, though looking for another seat (if the theater isn't too crowded) might be preferable to risking the wrath of Catherine Deneuve. (The moviegoer in the film was a boor because of the way he asked, not because he asked.) I might then question the theater manager about plans to install headsets that offer descriptive-audio narration for visually impaired moviegoers (some IMAX theaters and other movie houses already have this technology). Someday, they may benefit you.

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