Dear Dr. Boli: What is the proper etiquette for televisions in public places? I was in a waiting room this morning with at least thirty people. Twenty-eight of those people were trying to read, or attempting conversations, or staring out the window. Two of them were watching the enormous television, which was blaring some obnoxious program about the pressing problem of teenage girls who run drugs for their abusive first cousins or some such nonsense. Now, it was clear that twenty-eight out of thirty people would rather have had the television off. But no one dared to touch it. What is the etiquette in that situation? —Sincerely, A Teenage Girl Running Drugs for Her Abusive First Cousin (no relation).

Dear Miss: Etiquette is the body of unwritten opinion embodying the common sense of a given culture as to what is proper and what is not. By that standard, the answer to your question is this: current etiquette holds that, in such a situation as you describe, the two who wish to watch the television take priority over the twenty-eight who do not. You may easily prove Dr. Boli’s statement by standing up and turning the television off: a receptionist or other very minor authority figure will instantaneously appear and take you to task after the manner of a Marine drill sergeant. And no one will stand in the way, because everyone knows that televisions in public places must be left to babble to themselves, even when no one wants to watch them.

This is the answer to the question you asked; but it is not a very satisfactory one, is it? That is because etiquette, while usually a very good guide, occasionally slips a cog. There was a time in Roman history when it was proper etiquette—which is to say, the thing any good member of proper society would do—to turn Christians over to the authorities to be thrown to the beasts. There was a time in American history when it was proper etiquette in certain states to lynch citizens of African descent who tried to vote. There was a time in German history when it was proper etiquette to throw bricks through the windows of Jewish shops. These things were wicked, but proper. And, while Dr. Boli does not wish to compare the prevalence of televisions in public places to lynch law or the Holocaust, he does believe that we have here another case where the machinery of etiquette has ground its gears and is no longer functioning reliably.

What can be done? The noble thing, doubtless, would be to take a public stand, even at the cost of martyrdom. But perhaps it is not necessary to go to such extremes. Most of these televisions are controlled remotely by infrared signals, and surely you must have noticed that “universal” remote controls have filtered down even into the dollar stores. It would cost very little money to slip a small remote control into one’s pocket, and it would not take very long to learn to adjust the thing for the most common brands of televisions. The rest Dr. Boli, who does not wish to be perceived as inciting disorderly conduct, leaves up to your imagination.


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