John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The chattering classes

A holiday weekend bonus post: People need to shut up.

Last night Kathleen and I went to Oregon Ridge Park for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert and fireworks display.* No one would expect people sitting on folding chairs or lying on blankets on a hillside to observe the same decorum as in a concert hall, but still. . . .

There was the woman who conducted a conversation on her cell phone throughout the performance of Charles Ives’s variations on “America.” (She also continued to smoke after the announcement requesting the audience not to.)

There was this penetrating exchange directly behind us:

Voice 1: “I didn’t know you liked popcorn.”

Voice 2: “Love it.”

Voice 3: “You didn’t know that?”

I’m not certain, but it seems likely that Voice 3 was also the source of some impressive percussive effects with chewing gum.**

Of course, people are conducting banal conversations in the concert hall, at the movies, loudly, over cell phones, in the street. And at church.

There used to be a convention that people entering a church before a service would sit down quietly, to pray, to listen to an organ prelude, or simply to settle themselves calmly. No more. I’ve attended services in recent years in Episcopal churches that were noisier than hotel lobbies. And it is by no means the heedless young who are chattering away; the heedless young don’t go to church.

The prospect that someday someone in authority will authorize the use of cell phones on airplane flights leaves me sweaty with fear.

The social and cultural changes that have produced this incessant chin-wagging are probably irreversible, and certainly not by the comments of a lone blogger.

But still, you few who read this, give it a rest. Sit quietly. Listen to the music. Follow the progression of your thoughts inside your own head for a while. Declare your independence from the noisy.

*And on Friday night we had dinner with friends. After spending most Friday and Saturday nights since 1980 producing newspapers, I’m becoming a gadabout.

**I’m aware that the musical content of these concerts is negligible. There were some nice touches: a thirteen-year-old delivering a stunning rendition of the national anthem, the Ives, a couple of Sousa marches. Apart from that, a medley from Carousel, a schlocky arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” and the “1812 Overture” — a work despised by its composer that commemorates the defeat of a totalitarian despotism (Napoleonic France) by a monarchical despotism (czarist Russia) and which has become an American holiday favorite simply because it was written to be accompanied by explosions.

Actually, we enjoyed the concert. I even managed the struggle to get off the grassy field where we and thousands of others parked with greater equanimity and less swearing than you would expect.


  1. My theory is that all the mindless loquaciousness today is a result of the rise of cell phone and the decline of cigarette addictions. People can't shut up because they talk all day long about nothing to people who aren't even listening. At least when everybody smoked cigarettes part of the time they had to shut up to light and smoke; smoking was a relatively silent, contemplative activity. Cell phone use is garrulous and noisy.

  2. With regard to the "1812," I don't understand why orchestras don't play instead Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," which was also meant to be accompanied by gunpowder explosions. Yeah, it was written to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, concluding the War of Austrian Succession -- one of those incessant European balance-of-power squabbles. But the Battle of Borodino doesn't have anything to do with our independence either.

  3. "The prospect that someday someone in authority will authorize the use of cell phones on airplane flights leaves me sweaty with fear."

    I would welcome cell phone conversations over the sound effects of a recent flight. 8 year old (and mom) seated behind me kicking my seat, yelling for hours (no hyperbole); two 20-something women in front of me sharing sexual exploits with loud voices; two rows of folk to my right with their i-pods turned up full blast, earphones on their chests so that we could all hear the endless stream of hip-hop; flight attendants whistling and humming as they came slowly up the aisle.

    I'm not positive, but I could swear there were a couple of chickens running loose in the back of the plane...

  4. I've got to say, I have yet to be on an airplane that was quiet. I really can't see how cell phones will make it any worse. At least if my seatmate is talking on his phone, he won't be trying to talk to me.

  5. Well said.

    I am the kind of individual who will turn to those people and kindly request that they stop disturbing me. Most folks are so shocked into silence that someone actually spoke up that they will cooperate.

  6. My mother is a church organist who has complained for years that no one can shut up long enough to listen to the prelude that she spent the week preparing. She keeps threatening to play "Jingle Bells" for the prelude one Sunday just to see if anybody notices. Oh how I wish she'd really go ahead and do it!

  7. So good to know that my church isn't the only one in which there's as much chatter during the prelude as during the coffee hour.

    I have long desired separate seating for the contemplative introverts.