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Was this Case of Public Shaming Warranted or Worse than the Crime?

There’s an art to stealing moments for yourself. I enjoy my work, but it often feels I'm in the air more than I'm on the ground. And, as you've likely experienced, airports rarely provide anything close to a meditative experience. But occasionally, I find a little time before a flight to take a pass on the grab-n-go salad coolers and sit down for a proper meal. This was the case recently when I arrived at the San Francisco airport early enough to find a seat at a full-service restaurant.

Hey, You’re Not on Mute!

As I took my seat, I immediately noticed a woman a few tables over. In addition to eating with her mouth wide open she was gesticulating wildly and talking so loudly that all eyes were on her. I quickly realized she was holding court on a conference call. Quite unfortunately, she was completely unaware of the fact that she had forced all of us in the restaurant to be on the call with her. As I looked around, anyone within ear shot was staring at her with disdain, I couldn't figure out how she hadn't noticed. Yet, somehow she continued her call completely oblivious. Two men sat near me, and as I took my seat, one leaned over to me and said–in a very colorful Boston accent–“Yeah, this has been going on for 20 minutes.”

Because we could all hear her discussion so clearly, it seems she accomplished a great deal during her 20 plus minute call. She also managed to have a great number of people very frustrated with her - there was very little positive energy in the room by the time she ended her call. When she finally finished, one of the Boston guys picked up his own phone and without dialing pretended to make his own call. He held his phone to his ear and in a loud voice said, “Honey, don’t worry! STDs are treatable these days. We can take care of this!” As if struck by lightning, our protagonist looked up and realized he was mocking her.

“Was I that loud?” she asked. “Yes,” he shot back. “You’ve ruined everyone’s lunch with your call today.”

She apologized, quickly paid her bill and stood to leave. As she walked through the row of tables, nearby diners broke into a round of applause at her departure. Unsurprisingly, her face turned scarlet red as she ran out.

Now, there’s a certain level of humor in this whole episode, and I must admit to laughing when the diner from Boston made his racy, fake phone call. Maybe the woman on the call had it coming to her. She ruined a perfectly peaceful moment for dozens of travelers because she was so unaware of how her behavior had impacted us all. Still, I couldn't shake a really uncomfortable feeling the episode had left in my stomach.

Is Public Shaming the Best Tactic?

On my flight home I replayed the scene in my mind and a grim fact emerged. Public shaming had been used to teach a lesson to someone who seemed truly unaware versus aware and uncaring. I wondered if that was really the best, most effective approach.

Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, argued in a blog post for Psychology Today that “there are no winners” in public shaming. She continues, “Being an activist is admirable. You don’t have to be a bully—be constructive with your behavior, not combative. There is never a reason to…mock people.” If you do a quick search of the term “public shaming,” you’ll be quickly reminded of the viral news stories over the past few years of people who first made poor decisions and then were shamed online, the modern equivalent to the Old World practice of locking someone in stocks in the public square.

Yes, that act of calling out the woman on the conference call was probably effective. It’s likely she won’t soon forget her embarrassment, and she’ll be more conscientious the next time she’s making a call in a public place. But I just keep thinking that no one really wants to be on either end of that scenario, right? Even though “justice was served” it didn’t leave me with a good feeling. What do you think? What would you have done?


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