In Search of a Moment of Silence

In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, many of us often find ourselves running ragged attending or hosting holiday parties and various other end of year social gatherings.  Some of us might fly or travel to visit friends and family.  It’s not only a festive season, but the holiday season can be one of the most stressful, busiest and hectic times of the year for many of us.

And for those who decide to fly during the holidays, one of the few remaining moments of relative quiet you currently are granted (with the unfortunate exception of sitting next to an overly-social, chatty stranger, or a screaming, inconsolable baby) is ironically sitting in an airplane.

But even this moment of relative calm and quiet may soon disappear.  In its place, you might find yourself listening in on a never-ending phone conversation your neighbor might be having on his or her mobile phone.  And it could potentially go on throughout the entire flight.


Last month the FCC announced that it was considering lifting the ban on cell phone calls midflight.  This was just a few weeks after the FAA’s announcement that Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) would be allowed during all phases of flight, with restrictions to cellular data usage and calls/texts.

While unlimited PED usage would still ensure there would be some semblance of decorum and quiet on the plane, unbridled use of voice calls on mobile phones is something else all together.

Yesterday, the FCC went one step further in approving the initial proposal to allow passengers on U.S. flights to use their cellphones for voice calls.  Here’s NPR’s summary of the latest update from the FCC’s open meeting yesterday.  (It’s also worth noting that the new Chairman of the FCC was formerly a lobbyist for the cellular telephone industry.)

While the full approval process might take up to a year, if the proposed changes move forward, it would likely be up to individual airlines to decide if they would allow passengers to use phones for voice calls during flights.  Certain European carriers already allow for mobile data (but not voice) on flights already.

Allowing unlimited phone calls in tight public spaces (like airplane cabins) sounds like a truly terrible idea to me.  Now in addition to rolling the dice when you get onto the plane (please let my neighbors be normal-sized passengers, and not be carrying a screaming baby in their lap….) Now we’ll all be required to carry our own set of noise cancelling headphones in order to retain any shred of sanity and peace while we fly.

Why don’t we value silence, time away from our shiny electronic devices, and relative peace and quiet as a pubic good, like we do clean air?  Perhaps a natural extension of the analogy would be to equate noise pollution to air pollution in a public space.

I suppose it’s similar to the different social rules about talking on the phone in public in different countries.  In some places, it’s considered extremely rude to chat endlessly on the phone (say on the train or subway in Japan,) whereas in other places like in China and Hong Kong, it’s perfectly acceptable to chat away, either quietly or quite loudly on public transportation.

A friend told me about a book that puts forth a thought-provoking idea: that the concept and mere existence of silence is actually going extinct, much like our natural forest habitats and reserves.  There is a book called One Square Inch of Silence as well as a website that talks about this phenomena, and the disappearance of true silence along with the ecological effects to our vanishing natural world.

One could easily argue that the din of everyday noise (especially the annoying chatter of someone yaking away on their cell phone ad naseum for 2 hours) is like a type of noise pollution.  Like the jackhammer on the sidewalk, or the construction project going on across the street, it’s an annoyance, but we all simply just get on with it and try to avoid the deafening or annoying noise whenever possible.

But is it up to the rest of us to constantly have a pair of giant noise-cancelling headphones whenever we go out in public, or hop on a flight?

I suppose if you were to take the noise/air pollution analogy to an extreme, if you happen to live in a city like Beijing with an AQI that’s fast approaching 500 on bad days (anything over 50 is considered unhealthy) air purifiers in your home and constantly carrying a set of air masks whenever you venture outside is probably considered normal behavior and no big deal.  But if you stop to think about it, it’s pretty jacked up.

The smog is so bad you can actually clearly see it from space.  Just like the Great Wall (though perhaps the smog obscures the wall now…)

And Chinese officials are now also demanding that all flights in and out of Beijing Capital Airport must be qualified to land in low visibility since the airport is notorious for flight delays because of weather and often, poor visibility due to smog.

But this seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it?  I know the noise level on an airplane can’t compare to the smog levels in China, but you get my point.

I also take comfort in the fact that my government isn’t trying to sell or brainwash me about the Top Five Benefits of Smog, like the Chinese government is:

And in case you were curious, here are five good things about the smog, courtesy of China Central Television’s website.  (It was later taken down.)

1. It unifies the Chinese people.

2. It makes China more equal.

3. It raises citizen awareness of the cost of China’s economic development.

4. It makes people funnier.

5. It makes people more knowledgeable (of things like meteorology and the English word “haze”).

Fresh clean breathable air should be a right of every human being.  As should the right to sit in peace on an airplane with out being subjected to a two-hour mind-numbing phone conversation between your neighbor with the voice of Janice Litman (Chandler’s ex-girlfriend on Friends):

So during this hectic season, may I encourage you to take a moment of silence for yourself and to unplug, quiet down and to reflect—even if it means donning a pair of noise cancelling headphones.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!