On Replacing Courtesy and Common Sense with Rigid Policy

I’ve never been a fan of taking basic positive qualities such as courtesy or common sense, and replacing them with heartless policies.

For example, my local commuter train recently implemented a “quiet car” policy – if you sit in the first or last car of the train during rush hour you are required to be quiet, like a kindergarten student being punished during nap time. The problem is, it opens the doorway to the rest of the train being a raucous mess. In truth the rest of the train, generally, is not a raucous mess – because people are basically courteous when you let things happen naturally and you gently discourage anti-social behavior using implicit group social policies. But now that we have a policy about it, I can’t ask a yell-talker to talk more quietly on his cell phone for the hour commute, because he can just tell me to go sit in the quiet car.

Pointing to policy instead of being courteous.

Likewise, for the disturbing trend in many large corporations to hire department managers whose primary responsibility is to reiterate policy. Instead of considering the individual situation when a customer service issue is escalated, many managers nowadays simply entrench themselves in being the final enforcer of the same policy that a customer questioned at the start. Of course, not all companies do this – but the ones that do have lost their way when it comes to providing customer service.

Pointing to policy instead of managing the conflict.

Likewise for my home state, which recently considered legislation that would require all state employees to live within the state. Never mind that my state capital (Trenton, NJ) is connected via a light-rail commuter train that crosses state boundaries with Pennsylvania – obviously someone at some point thought it was a good idea to encourage employees to live in one state and work in the other.

And likewise for something I read recently about the New York Police Department. Some folks are considering legislation which would require that New York City police officers live within the city. Never mind that living within New York City is a great financial hardship for many people.

Here’s the reasoning, from one politician.

If you live in our city, you’re more likely to understand our community.

– Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, Legislation Would Make New Officers Live in City (Matt Flegenheimer)

I just don’t agree.

New York is divided into many communities. Many of them don’t understand each other or ever cross paths in any meaningful way, even if they “see” each other on the subway every day. There’s no reason to think that an officer who lives in the city will be or act any differently from one who lives in the suburbs – except that the city officer might be more haggard from the stress of city living. 😉

But there’s another problem I have with the New Jersey and New York City attempts to hammer civil service employees into living in certain locations: It seems like bullying.

Yes, civil service jobs are important. But so are private sector jobs. If you think that civil servants should live within the locality that they serve, then shouldn’t private employees also?

Shouldn’t you require me, who has worked for private New York City companies for nearly 15 years, to live within New York City so that I better understand the community I am serving?

I’m glad that hasn’t happened. To me, a necessary step at this stage of my life was to move out of the city, where my evenings and mornings could be a little less harried, and my sleep could be filled with fewer sirens and flashing lights.

Meanwhile, I do what I can to ensure I am a person who understands the community I serve at the office as effectively as possible.

Cheers, from your neighboring municipality… 🙂


Nothing Worse than Ear-Phone Racket

There’s nothing worse than ear-phone racket.

I think that’s what she said, although it sort of sounded like:

There’s nothing worse than ear-phone rattle.

Either way, I think today I met the only other person on my five months of NJ Transit train commuting to Manhattan who seems to also care about the (ahem!) “ambient noise”.

It’s a beautiful Spring day. Easter Sunday just passed. On my ride back from Long Island over the weekend I was pleased to hear a simple courtesy announcement from the conductor of an LIRR train. Something along the lines of being courteous about cell phone and headphone use. I have no idea if it actually helped, but it made me feel better knowing that the LIRR was promoting basic courtesy on its trains. If you search their website, you’ll even find a PDF of a fairly draconian flyer – basically saying that you should consider seriously whether that phone call is important before picking it up and yammering away in front of all your neighbors.

It’s a quiet Spring day, the sun is out, I saw two male cardinals fighting on my tree-lined street. The local traffic police was out on Main Street to enforce the new New Jersey law (just in effect this month) which requires drivers to STOP, not just YIELD, when pedestrians are present in the crosswalk. Aside from the fighting cardinals, courtesy seemed abundant today.

But it can be a bit different on a train. It’s a very urban commute, and people feel busier than they actually are. This, along with boredom and occasional discouragement at the occasional train delays, seems to lead a few passengers each day to be somewhat discourteous.

It’s a quiet Spring day, mostly. But there’s a set of headphones somewhere behind me that’s pounding away with some boomy clubby music. And there are cell phones ringing every few minutes. A muttered phone conversation can be heard most of the time, somewhere, and occasionally there is one much louder:

I’m just checking in..

It goes something like that. Most cell phone conversations (triggered by boredom, as I said) tend to be about things like “checking in” or “can you hear me now”.

Someone off in the distance (i.e., about five seats back) has a retro ringtone on their cell phone. I can’t hear them muttering their checking-in conversation now, but I heard loud rings like the ones I grew up with on the rotary phones.

NJ Transit has a policy of courtesy – it’s been in effect for at least several years. But today, it is neither promoted or enforced (encouraged?). It’s just something you know about if you go searching deep into Google’s archives.

It’s a little different on the LIRR. But again, I don’t know if it makes any difference.

So when the woman, who was being somewhat passive aggressive, and seemed to think I might be a friendly ear, said something about the “ear-phone racket”, all I could think to do was to mutter back about how “cell phones are worse”.

And as I end this post, my quietly beautiful Spring day is decorated by another loud boomy clubby music ring tone from just behind, and a guy a few rows up who is arranging details of a conference or something.

Oh well.

Getting Past Gadfly

One of my heroes, Ralph Nader, is clearly a gadfly.

Why would I aspire to be like him? Well, the truth is, I don’t: I aspire to think like him, and to act like him. But to be like him would leave me as the last boy standing at the kickball field after the teams are picked. Nobody seems to like the poor guy (even though he writes exquisite books about wonderful ways to improve our country). 🙂

Sorry – I do admire the guy. Can we leave that part at the door for now?

My wife says I am a curmudgeon. I ask if she is looking forward to me once I reach Grandpa Simpson’s age. She rolls her eyes.

I am, at times, quite a gadfly. At other times, it seems like I can get along with anybody, like everybody just likes me. What’s the problem? How can I bridge the two roles I play?

Continue reading “Getting Past Gadfly”

Cell Phone Courtesy Signs, Announcements, and Other Ways to Sugar-Coat “Shut-Up!”

Hope you don’t take offense from my post title. It’s catchy – post titles are supposed to be catchy, so that the Voyeuristic Google Monster turns its gaze upon your blog and bestows you with Page Rank. Or something like that.

I have worked in various customer service positions, in various fields, with various types of customer, for long enough to say that, in some pretty significant ways, I am an expert.

For example, I know that:

The customer is not always right. (But it rarely makes sense to point that out.)


Arguing with a customer is about as useful as arguing with a cat. (And customers do *not* need you to open their can of food.

Another thing I learned early on is that you can go a long way toward defusing customer service issues, and generally getting your customers to play nicely in your store, by simply making your guidelines, policies, needs, and wants:

  • Clear
  • Obvious
  • and, written on signs, spoken in interactions, printed on receipts

I am not saying that you want to catch-up your customers in the fine print. But being able to point to the sign on a wall that says:

When using cell phones, please be courteous to your fellow passengers.

Well, it simply gives a stubborn or irate customer a chance to back down, become one of the herd again, and not feel too grumpy about it.

When Hard Problems Go Away

I have to say, when I decided (after several months of grinning and bearing the noise from cell phone talkers during my daily commute) to start working (or at least attempting to work) with NJ Transit management to see about some changes to policy, I did not have very high hopes, and I did not know if I would have the time to really help cause any change. I also had no reason to think that enough people believed in the change I was looking for to be able to justify the self-righteousness I was feeling when I wrote that first email and hit “Submit” on the web form. My first “complaint” was filed innocuously under “Request for Information”. This was sure to be a hard problem.

But as it turns out, the hardest problem has already been solved. NJ Transit, according to management, already has a policy regarding cell phone use on trains. The conductors and automated systems are supposed to make periodic announcements. But they don’t. At least not on any of the more than 100 trips I have taken since I started commuting via NJ Transit last year. Not one announcement, at any of various times. Not a peep.

So now the only challenge is to convince management that the policy, which already exists, is one worth implementing. Less daunting.

But still – I am only an ordinary passenger, writing emails and blog posts. Who cares.

My Response to Their Response to My Response to Their Response to..

Here’s my latest. If you agree or disagree, I would really appreciate your feedback in the comments. Noise issues are going to live with us for the rest of our lives – it will help us all if we can come to some agreement about how to handle it (even if I, personally, don’t agree with the outcome).

Would it be possible for me to speak directly with the General Manager of Rail Operations? I believe this is William Duggan, right?

I really would not want to see any of the conductors, who are doing excellent work every day, be reprimanded for what seems pretty clearly to be a management problem. Certainly the conductors cannot be blamed for a lack of courtesy signage or lack of automated announcements. And since the conductors are on the “front line”, it is critical that they have the full support of upper management, or they will never be willing to “duke it out” with the competing interests of passengers who like or don’t like noise.

I would really appreciate it if you could put me in direct contact with NJ Transit’s upper management. My wife and I are currently renting a house as a temporary living situation while we decide where we would like to settle. Quality-of-life issues such as noise are going to play a part in our decision. I would not want us to end up making the wrong decision simply because there are currently deep-rooted miscommunications regarding what you have said are long-standing policies concerning public courtesy on NJ Transit.

Thanks again for all your attention to this issue.

Wish me luck! (Or hindrance, depending on your own personal stance on this issue.) In any event, I am perfectly happy to compromise, once I feel like the debate between the noise and the non-noise has at least moved to a fair playing field.

I certainly don’t want to become a gadfly on this issue, because as everyone knows:

Nobody likes a gadfly.

Phone Blog

Blogs are:

  • Self-interested
  • Too much information,  useless, and poorly thought-out
  • And they get distributed to people who don’t care.

They are like Twitter, all of the tweets and commentary, all stuck together. All of them. Are like that. It stinks.

Except this one. My blog.


So I met my first phone blog today, and it made me think about whether I am being a big ole navel-gazer. About whether I am spending too much time telling too many people about too many things that are just, very simply, most emphatically, just my opinion. And using too many words to do it.
Continue reading “Phone Blog”

Sheesh – How many letters do I have to write?

I know, I know. It takes time to effect change.

Here’s the latest in my series of letters to NJ Transit about the apparent lack of any policy or campaign to enforce or encourage courteous cell phone usage on trains.

Disclaimer: Many passengers whisper into their phones so quietly that I barely notice they are on a call. But there are a few on EVERY train who chat loudly, longly, and blah-blah-blah-ly.

Thank you for your response. I am a little confused by it, since I don’t understand how providing a quiet car would limit seating availability. It is pretty clear that there are only a few disturbing passengers in each car during rush hour. Maybe there would be 30 throughout the whole train – they could easily all fit in a single noisy car, leaving plenty of seating for the other passengers who like to be quiet. Just curious whether this option was considered.

I also wanted to point out that there has not been any indication of any sort of cell phone courtesy campaign on any of the trains I have taken since I started commuting on NJ Transit in November. Not even a single announcement. Whatever campaign there may have been in the past no longer exists, unfortunately. Is there someone I can talk to about this?

Finally, I would appreciate some advice. I would like to start approaching passengers who are disturbing others and asking them (politely, of course) if they would mind moving to the vestibule, or completing their call later. Do you think this is acceptable? I kind of feel like I will just get yelled at, but it certainly seems reasonable for me to ask, no?

Any advice is appreciated. I’ve also started writing about the situation on my blog (in a sort of tongue-in-cheek style). It is a serious issue, and you might enjoy reading my post, which is a little more light-hearted. 🙂

Thanks again.. shannon

Got a complaint of your own? Send it to NJ Transit management.

And, if you disagree with my one-sided view of the situation here, PLEASE let me know in the comments. I want to be fair-minded. I would very much like to hear all sides of this debate.