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Radical Civility: Let the Sharing Begin

RadicalCivility.jpgIn my column today I announce the start of the Radical Civility movement. This is in response to the growing perception that people are getting ruder and things are going to hell.

We can let that happen, or we can act. There are many places where we can practice Radical Civility--both being polite ourselves and requesting it of others--but I've chosen to start in one area: movie theaters, specifically: trying to end the practice of texting during films. It isn't quite as ingrained as some other behaviors. Maybe we can dispatch it before it hardens into place.

We will track the progress of the campaign here in "John Kelly's Commons." I invite you to add your observations, experiences and suggestions in the comments section below. You may also e-mail me: While the focus is on texting, I welcome all stories of impolite behavior. Call it "Random Acts of Rudeness."

Here are some responses I received after earlier columns on the topic. Howard Kaplan of North Chevy Chase had this to say:

I applaud your attempt to pull together all of us who are fighting our lonely guerilla war against rampant rudeness. Sometimes, I have, with moderate success, gotten the offender to stop twittering in concert halls or carrying on loud cellphone conversations 2 feet from my ear in restaurants, by politely asking. At other times I’ve stopped them by leaning over and reading their messages or joining in on their cellphone conversations. (As all this is taking place in a public venue, they have no right to expect or demand privacy.

But while my efforts may satisfy me, they have no affect on the behavior of the mob, so what you’re proposing seems definitely worth pursuing. One suggestion: Solicit the names of establishments that have been alerted to rude behaviors and periodically list those that have responded as well as those which have not. You might also compile a list of establishments having, and enforcing, pro-civility policies.

Good idea. Can people recommend such establishments? Add in the comments below or send me an e-mail.

Hyattsville's Linda Keenan wrote: "I hereby join the Radical Civility movement. As soon as you hear of an entertainment venue where 'ushers actually enforce the tenets of civility,' let me know!"

Welcome aboard, Linda!

Richard Rohde of Hamilton, Va., said he has been offered free tickets when he's complained to movie theater managers about disruptive behavior, "but that doesn’t compensate me for my time and aggravation." He added:

While I applaud your vigilantism, I don’t see it as a long-term solution. Patrons need to be forceful. Subscribers to the Kennedy Center can make their voices heard easily by threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Moviegoers have less leverage. I can think of two long term solutions:

I suggest calling up your local movie theater and asking them to institute a policy that anyone talking or using a cell phone during the movie will be subject to ejection without compensation. If they resist and it is a multiplex, perhaps they would consider designating one or two screens to this policy. If they still refuse, organize a boycott. Tell the theater manager you will not attend movies at his or her theater until they change the policy.

The other solution is to scout the audience for the toughest looking person. Right before the lights go down point to this person and announce that if you notice anyone using their cell phone during the movie you will have your friend Bruno take the phone and throw it against the wall.

I like the idea of rewarding theaters that support Radical Civility. I wish all ushers were like "Bruno." If you're a movie usher or theater manager, I'd love to hear about your experiences and whether we expect too much of you.

Lois Lacey is a musician. She's noticed more people in concert audiences ignoring the request to turn off their cell phones.

But what if the offender is a member of the orchestra, band or choir? I play the violin, so I cannot get away with this behavior (not that I would), but those who play in the back, and do not play as often (brass and percussion players come to mind) are not only hidden, but as I said, do not play all the time. I cannot tell you the number of times I have noticed one of these players, and during a performance no less, texting (or reading, eating, dozing). Or choir members (those in the back of course) doing the same. Can we not wait until the concert is over? Maybe it is time to employ monetary fines to these people.

That's what James Brown would have done. He was famous for fining his band members for various infractions.

We will close today's episode with Carol Ruth Axelrod of McLean, who said she was certain her bad movie theater behavior story would top anyone else’s:

I avidly looked forward to seeing “The Queen” a couple of years ago, and went to the recently opened AMC Theatres at Tysons Corner on opening day. I bought some popcorn and went in and found a seat.

The theater was pretty full. Lo and behold, a bare foot comes up over the empty seat adjacent to me, and there it remained, roughly 12” from my mouth and the popcorn. I asked the woman to remove it. She did, but a few minutes later, back came the bare foot. Again, I asked her to please remove it, and she did.

I turned to take a look at who was attached to the offending foot, as I couldn’t believe anyone would do this. The woman was older and nicely dressed, as was the man with her. I tried not to feel annoyed, as it can be so hard to shake that feeling off and enjoy the movie.

I was pretty successful at putting it out of my mind until ..... back came the bare foot again! I turned and said, “Lady, please! I expect the foot to be down on the floor for the duration, and not keep coming back again and again!” After a few minutes, the man tapped on my shoulder and I turned to hear what he had to say.

He said his wife had a bad infection on her foot, that the doctor told her to keep re-applying prescription antibiotic ointment as often as she could, and to keep the foot elevated. Exasperated, he said that was why they went to the movies in the first place, so she could sit for two hours with her foot elevated and rub ointment into the infection. This, inches from my face as I ate popcorn. I did leave and I did complain, and like your other complainants, was given a free ticket to come again, but the foot infection people were not even spoken to.

Yes, Ms. Axelrod. I would say you're the winner.

By John Kelly  |  June 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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Next: Radical Civility: Some Additional Reading


I certainly can't top the infected foot story so I won't even try. What bothers me are people who are on their cell phone as they check out of a store. Is is so difficult to be civil to a clerk for 2 minutes? They aren't paying attention to anything that goes on - holding their phone between their ear and shoulder, yakking about something totally inane, while rummaging thru their wallet or purse to find money or a credit card. I am not saying that you need to have a huge conversation with the clerk but a please and thank you would seem civilly appropriate. I usually secretly hope that they get short changed and don't notice.

Posted by: jackdmom | June 22, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

I am a college professor and I've noticed over the past 3 years or so that my students have been displaying more and more of this behavior. In college, there is a specific term for it - "Incivility in the Classroom." This semester, for the first time, I've noticed students actively texting during class even after I've specifically asked them to stop. And, they're perpetually late. Not 5 minutes late, but 15-20 minutes late regularly. Other than asking them to arrive on time and not text, I'm not sure what else to do. The things I would like to do would probably hurt my teaching evaluations, which come from my rude students. If I had tenure, I would not tolerate this behavior.

Posted by: campbell373 | June 22, 2009 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Can I post a story of a stranger who was unusually thoughtful and courteous? I had my bike on the metro and transferred at Fort Totten from the Red line to the Green line. As I approached the elevator, I saw in front of me a woman with a large heavy wheeled bag, and an older woman with a cane accompanied by a younger woman. As I got closer, I heard the younger woman say to her companion, "I'll meet you down there." As the elevator arrived, the two remaining women boarded and insisted that there was room for me and my bike. (There was, and it wasn't that tight of a squeeze.) The woman with the cane said, "My daughter took the escalator so that we would have room for you." And I caught a green line train I might have missed if I'd waited for the next elevator.

Posted by: hleathers | June 22, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I want to follow up with another story of civiity in action. I was at the grocery store and I only had a few items to buy. All of the checkout lines were long. My face must have shown my discouragement because a nice man with an overflowing cart turned to me and said, "you go on ahead of me, you only have a few things and it's going to take a while to get me checked out." Since then, I have made and effort to emulate this man's mindfulness and kindness. A positive example is a powerful thing.

Posted by: n_mcguire | June 22, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

To the professor with the late arriving students: I suggest making class attendance and on-time arrival and other civility issues a known part of the grading policy. Then enforce it. Incredible as it seems, my experience is that many students don't know it's rude and distracting (to the faculty member or to their fellow students) to arrive late (or to text message in class, pass notes, talk to a neighbor, etc.). If your university is like many others, the students have to submit evaluations before they see their grades, so there is not an opportunity for them to strike back on evals.

Posted by: jfw9 | June 22, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

It's unlikely that any movie theater or concert venue is going to enforce rules of civility unless the culprits are really out of control. Managers don't want to risk confrontations, and they don't want to lose customers, no matter how rude they are. And in movie theaters where most of the ushers are high school students, it's unlikely you're going to get one of them to do too much rule enforcement. The best thing theaters can do is to set ground rules at the start of a performance -- no talking, no cell phone use, no text messaging, no crunching of cellophane, etc. -- and then let the patrons police each other.

Posted by: jfw9 | June 22, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the comments.

@jackdmon: I think texting has become like a security blanket or pacifier to some people. Or like heroin. They literally get the shakes when they can't hold their iPhone or Blackberry and text every few minutes. They seem unable to go cold turkey in the checkout line--or at the movies.

@campbell373 & jfw9: What matters more to getting tenure: in-house, pre-grade evaluations or those RateMyProfessor web sites? I've seen some pretty nasty stuff on the latter.

@hleathers & n_mcguire: Yes, we will accept tales of civility here as well as incivility. Especially if it encourages a change in peoples' behavior.

Policing each other? That's what I'm hoping the Radical Civility movement will help us do.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | June 22, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Can I add another thing that is so unbelievably rude? I am amazed that people will cut you off in traffic, nearly run you off the road and when you honk at them to let them know they have acted this way, they give you the bird and start screaming at you. I have unfortunately been the one once to cut someone off. When I was 19, I was returning home from dropping my brother off at school. In morning traffic, it was impossible to get out so I took an opening and went to the left lane. Apparently I cut a woman off. I apologized, but she screeched into the intersection in front of my car, screaming obscenities. She even got out of the car and I was afraid I was about to be shot. Then she got back in and said she wanted to know where I lived and then followed me after I turned left. After I turned into my neighborhood, she continued on her way but I really thought she was going to follow me all the way. If that was her plan, I was going to turn around and drive to the police station. I don't know what else I could have done to apologize. I was polite and very sorry for cutting her off. That was a day I'll never forget.

Posted by: lafilleverte | June 22, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Just wanted to commend another example of civilized behavior I witnessed. I was on a Red Line train during rush hour. I was seated near the front doors, so not in a seat that's specifically reserved for handicapped or senior citizen, but I do try to keep a look out for someone who might need a seat & will offer mine if needed.

It was crowded & thus, from a seated position, I had limited visibility & didn't see an older, vision impaired gentleman who was also sporting a neck brace get on. A young (30ish) man did see him, however, and after checking with himif he would like a seat, the young man took it upon himself to politely ask me & the person seated next to me if one of us would mind giving up our seat to the gentleman. I gladly did.

I applaud the younger man who saw the need & decided to help out. In also applaud the manner in which he did so; it would have been difficult to turn him down even if I had been so inclined.

I remember thinking that you'd never see that happen in rush hour on the NYC subway!

Posted by: lindy47 | June 22, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I'll never forget being at a movie theater and a man was on his cell phone DURING the notice about not using cell phones during the movie! Frankly, I can't understand why people who aren't working at the time need to communicate with someone else outside of an emergency or calling home because they had a question about a grocery list, for example. When I'm out, I'm enjoying the weather, the people around me and my surroundings. If I want to talk to someone or e-mail someone that badly, I'll stay home! When I'm out, I'm out!

Posted by: stwasm | June 22, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Hey Campbell -- how about a nice quiz during the first 5 minutes of class? A routine quiz focused on whatever the reading was supposed to be? Announce it, note that there is a permanent change to the syllabus and just something that they provide a brief response to. One of those "you either know if or you don't" or some application of what they've been learning to something int eh real world (depending on your class subject).

Posted by: capecodner424 | June 22, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to Amtrak for enforcing the "quiet car" policy. I was coming back from Boston in the quiet car and overheard a conductor inform a fellow passenger that if he continued to use his cell phone in that car, he would be put off the train.

Posted by: kithope | June 22, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

To the distraught professor: You have to be hard with the students on these issues and have to ignore the bad evals they will produce (they should not hurt tenure chances). Call them out on being late. Ask them questions as they walk in the door. Single them out in front of the class everytime. The same goes with texters and "twits." If you see them typing on their phone ask them a question about the lecture. Do not be afraid to embarrass them in front of the class. Even go so far as to stop lecturing and request that repeat offenders give you their phone until the end of class. It is a waste of their time and your own for these knuckleheads to do this in your class.
As a graduate student, I TA for one professor who will find out offenders names and get their cell numbers off of the university website and will text them in the middle of class telling them to stop and pay attention (with a prepaid phone and not his personal phone mind you). It gets the point across rather well.

Posted by: ThatGuy1 | June 22, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

@kithope: Yes, Amtrak's quiet car is a brilliant and perfectly-executed concept. I often wonder why airlines can't have a quiet section.

@JohnFKelly: The "rate my professor" websites are largely for students' consumption when it comes time to select courses. If a faculty member's tenure is getting influenced by what students write on some website, the faculty member should probably think about teaching elsewhere. Professors are paid to TEACH in the classroom, and in almost all cases, students will reward them for doing so; an important component of this involves maintaining a classroom atmosphere that's conducive to learning and teaching, and by definition that means a classroom atmosphere that's free from un-civil behaviors like texting or coming in late.

And one other thought: one un-civil environment that really needs to be addressed is the public library. In my local branch, librarians go on the attack if a cell phone so much as beeps in the library, but then the librarians in question will promptly return to their desks in the middle of the reading room and strike up full-volume conversations with patrons or people on landline telephones.

Posted by: jfw9 | June 22, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I know most of the commenters are in the DC area, but if anyone wants to attend a lovely movie theater in Wichita, Kansas, with an absolute zero-tolerance policy for cell phones, come visit the Warren here in Wichita. They do enforce the policy and we don't seem to have problems with people using cell phones in the theater now.

Posted by: webgrandma1 | June 22, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree completely. I stare at the offender before the movie. When the movie starts and the texting starts, I walk out to get an usher. That simple gesture is enough.

Posted by: fredyk | June 22, 2009 7:15 PM | Report abuse

It's about time someone address the rudeness that has become so prevalent in our society. Do people REALLY need to be on their cellphones while grocery shopping or at the checkout line? Unfortunately, it seems to stem from this idea that "I am more important than anyone else". I've spoken to numerous cashiers who all vehemently dislike it when someone is talking on their phone while they're at the register. Maybe it's time stores implement a policy where they won't deal with you until you put your cellphone away.

Then there's the people who feel the need to bring really young children into movie theaters for PG or PG13 or even R movies. The kids are bouncing off the wall for 2 hours, disrupting the viewing experience for everyone, not to mention that much of the material may not be appropriate for them. When my kids were young, my husband and I simply did not go to the movies, unless we could get a babysitter. The idea to take an infant or toddler to a theater never even crossed our minds.

What about people who are talking on their cellphones WHILE they're backing out of a parking space or pulling into one? Can't you simply finish your conversation before you decide to back out?

We go out of our way to be extremely civil to people, hoping to "pay it forward" but it seems like a losing battle.

Posted by: nikah | June 23, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were attending a Sunday matinee concert at the Kennedy Center. We were on the last row, one seat in. A few minutes before the concert started, the person on the aisle arrived, and immediately started fiddling with his crackberry. I whispered to him "turn it off and put it away." He started babbling, saying "I was just turning it off." Yeah, he was young, and was probably "on call" from whatever flunky job he had. But I had put such a fear of God into him, that he did not come back after intermission.

Posted by: EAHarrison | June 23, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Your article in today’s Post really hit home. Last week I went to a matinee movie of “The Hangover” at Regal Potomac Yard in Alexandria, VA. A woman sitting one seat over from me started texting before the movie started and continued through about ¾ of the movie. These are big theaters and you very seldom see an usher – I saw one but he was on the other side of the theater. This texting woman was with three or four other people and they did not look like the type of people you want to approach.

I just put my hand up and tried to block the light.

A friend of mine told me that you can request a beeper from the box office at Regal Cinema(s) and quietly beep the usher crew to alert them to misconduct in the audience. I wasn’t aware such a device existed….I plan to ask for it next time. This ‘beeper’ sounds like a good idea to me – that way you don’t get involved with the ‘texter’ or cell phone user.

New subject: About 3 weeks ago I was Arena Stage for the matinee performance of “Looped.” Two cell phones went off during the performance and the woman sitting next to me zipped and unzipped her purse at least 5 times during the first act looking for candy or whatever. I changed seats during the intermission - this is not always possible, however. I believe that Valerie Harper (star of Looped) should have left the stage after the first cell phone went off – she should have also made a comment as to why she was leaving the theater and that she would be back when everyone in the audience had checked their cell phones and turned them off.

Tickets to the movies or live theater are just too expensive to put up with rude behavior.

Thanks for this column –

Posted by: BarbaraBear42 | June 23, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Three cheers for Radical Civility!!!

To the theater patrons: Politely and firmly ask the offender to stop talking/texting. If that doesn't work, get an usher or complain to the management.

If someone is selfish enough to bring a small child to a movie (especially an evening show) don't bother confronting them. If they are stupid enough to bring a child into the theater they aren't going to care that you are bothered by their ill-bred screaching. Get the manager and have them removed.

It's a shame that we actually have to resort to missing part of a movie/performance because these cretins are too selfish to consider those around them but if we don't speak up about their boorish behavior they will continue to behave badly.

I am hoping that, in the not to distant future, theaters will be able to install cellphone signal blockers so that electronic devices cannot be used inside the building.

To the Professor: My favorite English Professor in college would actually lock the door when class started and would not open it until class ended. She said that people coming in late were disruptive and a waste of class time and she would not tolerate it. She made class attendance and participation a large part of our grades so students quickly learned to be on time and have their work completed so they could discuss it.

I also like the idea of a quiz at the beginning of class, although I wouldn't even bother announcing it. Once their grade point average starts to suffer they will learn to be on time. These students are 18, legally adults and therefore responsible for their actions. If they can't learn to be on time, then they should suffer the consequences.

I am also in favor of classrooms having signal blocking technology that a professor can turn on if needed to alleviate texting during class.

Posted by: wmayhan1 | June 23, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the helpful suggestions~I've really been frustrated lately with this rude behavior. My strategy for the fall will be to make attendance a small part of the grade and to shut the door to the classroom and announce that students are not to enter the classroom late. Quizzes are too much - 55 students in a class x 3 classes means over 150 quizzes to grade a week. More work for me is not the answer, since I already give substantive quizzes, exams and papers! And no university I've heard of uses rate my professor sites as an evaluation of teaching effectiveness - I don't bother reading it as it's not helpful, just ranting and raving. I'll let you know how it goes!

Posted by: campbell373 | June 23, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

@ nikah: Just follow John Kelly's lovely wife's example, when confronted with discourteous adolescents in England last year: "F@#K OFF!"

Posted by: iremembrmama | June 24, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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