Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Miss Manners II: Background Music

[The second excerpt from Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin, edited by betty.]

The adage "Silence is golden" has never been more true, in Miss Manners' opinion. Its value is rising astonishingly every day, and it is getting correspondingly harder for most people to have any.

By silence, Miss Manners means something you can hear a bird tweet in. As if the hum of the mechanical world and the blather of the human world were not enough, individuals and industries have combined to produce a constant stream of nasty noise masquerading everywhere under the inappropriate name of music. Restaurants, hotel lobbies and shops are wired for sound. Hand-carried radios take care of the streets and buses. In private houses, the choice is usually between the informal, or lower-class, sound of unattended television sets or the fancy sound of mild classical music used as a "background."

(It has been objected that many fine pieces of music were written for the purpose of providing a background for the activities of patron-hosts and their guests. If Mr. Handel does not mind making Water Music while your guests are slurping their [chocolate shakes], Miss Manners will reluctantly permit it.)

Miss Manners is not even going to tell you what the medical consequences probably are to steadily assaulted ears. The fact is that all this noise is rude. It is rude to the captured audience of half-listeners, and what is more, it is rude to the music.

Music worth listening to is worth listening to, which is why symphony concerts provide the world's dullest "visuals," a huddle of people in black and white, sawing and blowing away. If you want something to look at while you listen, you can go to the opera and watch people stab one another, or go to a rock concert and watch them stab themselves with their instruments.

What you cannot do is put conversation or thought in the foreground and music in the background. Noise-producing industries have studies to prove that "background music" soothes (as on airplanes before takeoff or other antics) and stimulates (as in factories and hen houses). Whichever it is, it is an impertinence for public services or private hosts to attempt to manipulate the feelings of their customers or friends.

If you really want to soothe and stimulate a guest, what is wrong with [ice cream]? The chief results of piped-in noise, as far as Miss Manners can see, are self-absorbed salesclerks who don't attend to their customers and half-shouted conversations that ought to be nearly whispered. We have gotten so used to it that silence has come to be considered somewhat frightening--an admission of social failure, or the world's being empty. It is now possible to make anyone confess anything--not by torture, but by looking at them in silence for so long that they will tell all, just to break it.

Here are some suggestions of other things to throw into silences while you are (please) tapering off noise:

A naughty smile.

A satisfied look around the room, pausing at each face.

A thoughtful expression.

An appreciation of the sound of ice clinking in glasses, crackling fireplaces or rustling leaves.

Words, produced by a mind that has had the quiet in which to think.


schmath said...

My students think it is awkward when the class is silent. There's no hope. We're raising a whole generation of loudmouths.

elegyrl said...

I told you yesterday.. I enjoyed the quietness of your house because I am so used to constant noise at mine... On Sat it was a rare occasion where pretty much nobody was home (those who were otehr than myself were sleeping) and so I took advantage and turned the TV off and practiced piano... badly but it was nice and quiet otherwise :)