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Expectations Unmet

On the first leg of today’s journey, I was happy to catch a seat on one of the quiet cars. As I was planning to work, I looked forward to a few hours of uninterrupted peace.

It was not meant to be. Quiet cars do not have a long tradition in Austria, let alone are the behavior rules enforced.  While it is highly offensive to produce any kind of sound on a quiet car in Scandinavia, Austrians seem to be oblivious to the meaning of the concept.

In most cases, we interpret signs as recommendations much more than as regulations. Speeding, smoking in non-smoking areas, taking shortcuts via private property, all of these are considered minor transgressions not even worth mentioning most of the time. So it is not surprising that a quiet car would be full of people talking loudly on the phone, a beer-drinking party playing cards, kids playing and running up and down the aisle, and someone watching a football game on his phone with his speakers at maximum output.

I hope there was no Scandinavian on that train!

One might ask why we have quiet cars in the first place, if they don’t seem to work in the intended way. The current situation is merely a source of frustration, both for the noise-makers and the ones looking for a quiet zone.

This is a perfect example for the limitations of behavior regulations. The rules must be known to all users of a space, and they must be adhered to. Both aspects relate to communication. The signs defining such quiet zones must be visible and serve as markers of territorial borders. In addition, the rules that apply to this space have to be made known to the users. Pictograms aim to serve both purposes, with limited success. The last part is enforcement: Behavior rules are bound to be ignored if no-one cares whether they are broken or not. Here is where the owners and the users of space both share responsibility. Information campaigns serve to establish a general knowledge, and operators can contribute to the enforcement. As long as breaking rules remains socially acceptable, these formal methods are bound to fail. What made me stop whispering (!) on a Swedish train was not the fear of the conductor, but a couple of raised eyebrows.

Should we do away with quiet cars entirely? If we don’t change the way we ignore rules and regulations, maybe we should.

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