Etiquette Addendum: What is polite and Impolite in backed up intersections, movie theaters, and restaurants with cafe-style seating

I’d like to challenge two seemingly common notions of what is polite and impolite. Then I’d like to tackle seating culture in cafe-style restaurants for extra credit.

It is polite to tell someone to turn off his cell phone during a movie.

It is not polite to let a driver from a parking lot or secondary-street into traffic ahead of you when you have the green light.

Let’s start with the movie theater issue, as I believe it is the more trivial of the two.

It is polite to tell someone to turn off his cell phone during a movie

The scenario:

You are seated in a darkened movie theater. The previews or the movie itself is showing on screen. The person in front of you or to your side has the lit display of a cell phone on, casting its glow into the theater.

What feels polite:

It feels polite not to talk to that person. We’ve been taught not to talk to a stranger in a darkened movie theater, particularly a stranger who can’t see us, like the person seated in front of us.

Why it is polite to ask that person to stop:

Look, it is rude to light up a cell phone in a darkened movie theater. If you are noticing it, so are the people to your left and right, and the people seated behind you. In other words, the person with the lit up cell phone is likely disturbing multiple guests with his or her cell phone usage. You are effectively being “impolite” to one paying customer [the cell phone user] to help out the many other paying customers [the people affected by the cell phone use]. The math adds up. This isn’t the cell phone user’s living room. This is a movie theater where everyone paid for a ticket.

A caveat:

If the cell phone user looks like he or she could be threatening, excuse yourself to find an usher. Talk to the theater management afterwards. Try to get theaters to police this themselves, like Alamo famously does.

A random question:

Why do millennials get such a bad rap about cell phone usage and entitlement when 9/10 people I’ve seen doing this are boomers? Why do boomers think it is okay to monitor their text messages in theaters?

Here’s the other situation, a trickier one for an ethicist, until it is examined from a Utilitarian perspective at an abstract level.

It is not polite to let a driver from a parking lot or secondary-street into traffic ahead of you when you have the green light.

The scenario:

You’ve been creeping along for a while in a traffic jam ending in a traffic light. Every time the light turns green, you think you might finally get through the traffic light only to stop car-lengths behind it. You get a green light. Suddenly, to your right, someone from a parking lot edges forward, trying to get into the lane in front of you. You see the anguished look on their face turn to relief when you stop, motion them in, and watch them get into line ahead of you.

What feels polite:

Seeing that person wave a thank you while maneuvering in line in front of you sure feels good.

Why it is polite not to let that person in:

What you are not seeing are the hands of the drivers behind you grip the steering wheel with frustration when you let the parking lot driver into traffic ahead of them. They’ve been waiting in line for a long time, and you’re making them wait longer. To help one person, you are impacting everyone in line behind you, as well as yourself. Unless you are the only person in line, just don’t do it.

A caveat:

This is for if you have the green light only. If you are blocking the parking lot when you have the red light, what you are doing is wrong. It can be tricky, but think about it this way: when the light is turning yellow, treat the parking lot entrance to the main road as the inside of an intersection and don’t enter it. When the light turns green, treat the parking lot entrance to the main road as the inside of an intersection and enter it, so long as you anticipate clearing it by the time the green light turns to red. The main thing is: when a light turns green and you can move forward, do so, don’t stop to let someone in. This would be unacceptable at a 4-way stop light, and should be here, too.

A random question:

Why is it so easy to be impolite to the dozens of drivers who you can’t see behind you in order to be polite to the one driver you are letting in front of you during a green light?

Seating Culture in Cafe-Style Restaurants

I came from a place where seating culture in cafe-style restaurants was simple:

In Boston, I was rudely awakened to a different seating culture in cafe-style restaurants:

On face value, the two approaches sure seem similar. A patron with food gets seated.

However, there is a key difference between the two:

In the first approach people with food get preference for tables and seats. In the second approach articles of clothing and personal effects get preference for seats.

Let me rewind and replay.

When a Bostonian places his or her clothing down on a chair or table, he or she is effectively blocking a person emptying the food queue from sitting down with food. In the first approach, the one where you only consume a seat or table when you have food, the people with food get preference for seating, and seats get consumed for less time on average, allowing for more seat usage by people with food.

It just makes sense.

An additional request:

If you are in a crowded restaurant and you have paid your bill, there is a polite amount of time you can continue to sit in your seat before leaving. Pay attention to it.

An important caveat

I think we take it for granted that coffee shops are filled with freelancers, students, and folks who just want to sit around using their laptops. I certainly do. While I don’t do it myself, I understand that’s going to happen: coffee houses are for used for meeting folks, doing work, and meeting people [or at least hoping to] over a laptop emblazoned with stickers.

I’d merely suggest here to give up your seat if it is clear there are no other seats available and you are done consuming beverages [or it will be a long time before you consume beverages]. Not doing so shouldn’t be a crime, however, unless the establishment makes it a policy to call the cops on all folks, no matter the skin color, sitting around without an order. I’d strongly suggest boycotting Starbucks or, in a surprising twist, organizing folks with message tee-shirts on to sit at Starbucks without ordering.

They deserve it for their unsatisfactory response and response time.

Resident of Frogpondia.

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