How to and how not to ask people to turn their music down

Three times in the past week I’ve asked people to keep their music down. Before that was a debacle one too-early Sunday morning where I nearly spontaneously combusted with rage. Walked onto a Central Line carriage with Matt which was empty apart from one man with his phone on. I heard it as soon as I got on and I know he saw me looking pissed off – why not? I didn’t bother sitting down, I walked up to him and asked him if he had headphones, to which he replied that he didn’t, to which I replied could he please turn it off. He made a lot of flimsy arguments why he shouldn’t which I was able to respond to fairly calmly until this: “You didn’t even sit down and get comfortable, you walked up to me because you were looking for a fight”. For several moments after that I was screaming like a banshee. I make a polite and reasonable request, he says no, I persist and suddenly I’m looking for a fight? I think he was taken aback by how violently I was spitting feathers, and although he did start to sound quite hurt there was no way he was going to back down. Matt told him to shut up and leave it, and told me we had to change carriages.

On the way back from Birmingham I stuck my fingers in my ears to avoid getting upset about two twittering teenagers in the seats behind me. It was the quiet carriage of a Virgin Pendolino but they were giggling together and I didn’t have the heart (after all, I do have a heart). But when the student next to me put on his ipod loud enough for me to hear the words I plastered on a smile, gestured to the Quiet Carriage window sticker with my pencil (for helping me interact with One Dimensional Man) and asked if he could turn it down, which he did without complaint.

The next time I did it was last Friday coming home early for my D&A appointment (another debacle). Two rather imposing men got onto my carriage where I was trying to read and understand One Dimensional Man, and their phone was on. They sat down opposite me and I asked them nicely. The one holding the phone was poised between doing it and not, so I said (always works for me), “This is a respectful request”, and he turned it off. His friend who was older was very pissed off with me. They were both black, English and bedreaded and the debate we had turned a bit political and I was accused of being somebody who wanted to control them. Stupid fuck made all kinds of irrelevant points like how I could put up with the sound of the train (it rattles like shit) but not the less-loud sound of his music. And he asked me why I was reading on the train – I actually had to spell it out that some people spend a large part of their life unavoidably riding tube trains and that they should be able to do so as peacefully as possible. I tried to explain that it was a matter of what noise needs to happen on tubes – like the noise of the train, or people having a conversation (which may or may not annoy me but which I would always stand up for their right to do) – and the noise that doesn’t – like people imposing their music on other people (or praying to themselves, or drumming and tapping, but I didn’t mention those because I know I’m a bit hypersensitive). The other one was smiling the whole while very amused and indulgent. Until he found out I wasn’t a student at which point all my arguments he’d accepted before went out of the window. They got off at Redbridge – his parting shot was “You’re reading for personal gain. I’m playing my stereo for personal gain”. Idiot. Incomparable.

The third time was last night on our way to see Township Stories. Same scenario as the first time. My speech was:

Me: “I don’t want to listen to your music – do you have any headphones you could use?”

Him: Blank stare down the carriage

Me: The carriage was empty before but now you’re sharing it. I don’t want to listen to your music. Would you mind either using your headphones or turning it off?

Him: I don’t have any headphones.

Me: Well then could you turn it off?

Him: No, I can turn it down.

Me: Look, I don’t want to hear it and I don’t think I should have to hear it. I can’t make you turn it off, but I’m asking you as nicely as I know how to turn it off. Up to you.

And I went back to my book and he turned it down so low I couldn’t hear it any more. I looked in his direction about a stop later and he had it pressed up to his ear and was looking at me. I mouthed “Thank you” and hope he saw it.

I don’t know why some people think it’s OK to pollute the environment other people are forced to share with them – whether that be with their food wrappers, their nailclippings and nosepickings, or their noise. I wish I could let it wash over me but instead I get waves of upset and indignation which can only be alleviated by confronting them.

Update May 2013: these days the main problem is leaky earphones, in which case I tap people on the arm and say, ‘That’s too loud for me’, and 4 our of 5 times they turn it down. I also ask people to turn off their system sounds if they have them on – many tend to be cowed by the technical term ‘system sounds’. I think it should be unacceptable to have your ringer or alerts on in public places, let alone your keystrokes. A more recent phenomenon is parents giving their children their phone to play with an app with the sound on, which is completely out of order. It’s just a matter of time before I stop putting up with this aggravation. I want Transport for London to take this whole issue of avoidable noise pollution forward.

Update August 2019: this basically is not a problem any more. Today hyper-sensitivity is recognised and better accommodated. Headphones are designed not to leak, and most people turn their system sounds off. Because it seems almost everyone finds this stuff to some extent annoying. There’s also some evidence that the degree of annoyance is age-related, with older people more affected. Current problem is far, far worse though. . I give it another year before knuckle cracking rightly becomes viewed as a horrible thing to inflict on the vicinity.


3 thoughts on “How to and how not to ask people to turn their music down

  1. That’s the thing though. I do wear earplugs. The noise these people leak it’s like farting when you could hold it in, or stinking when you could wash, or like littering. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it pollutes the area for everyone else.

    And by the way, in the time that’s past, earphones got better. And because most people feel the same way as I do about these unwanted sounds, most people switch them off. And now the problem’s basically gone away.

    So what I’d like to know is why are you letting selfish, inconsiderate people who don’t give a shit about the people around them off the hook. Are you one of them?

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