I've been unable to find any controlled, laboratory studies testing these ideas so what follows is just a guess. When people occupy a common space -- say, in a restaurant, an elevator, a waiting room -- they also share a common fate. What happens in that space happens to all -- people hear, see, and experience common things -- background music, for instance. We naturally monitor those in the room at both conscious and nonconscious levels. Cell phone conversations wreck that formula. There is a presence on the end of the cell phone that shares a separate fate -- one that is out of our control. The extra discomfort we feel in response to cell phone conversations (as opposed to face-to-face conversations) may have to do with the fact that the new technology psychologically insulates the pair on the phone from the common fate individuals in the shared territory suffer or enjoy.
Leslie from Gulfport, Miss., asked, "My son has autism and was just diagnosed a few months ago. We have always taken him out to eat with us and have always gotten stares and little comments about my son's outbursts. It even went as far as a woman telling me, 'You need to control your child.' I feel that he should be able to go out to eat just like anyone else. I know that a loud child can be annoying to some, but what should parents with special little ones do?"
Keating: You do indeed have a very special little boy; there is a lot the rest of us could learn from him.
I would suggest a response like this:
"Yes, I am sorry we are a little loud today. Let me introduce you to my son …"
This response should help smooth over the social disruption. Why? Apologies work -- they are powerful social glues. And introducing your son to the irate patron will help that person connect with your son and see him as a unique human being who is trying his best to control his behavior.
You may also want to check with a behavioral therapist for some training techniques that would be specific to reinforcing good restaurant behavior. These techniques can work quite well with developmentally challenged children.
Tarrah from Liberty, Mo., asked, "There are a group of four girls who are in one of my law classes, and they are constantly bickering and complaining. They talk 'crap' on some people and even the teacher. It is starting to affect my grade and my willingness to go to that class. What should I say to them, or should I even say anything at all?"
Keating: What's interesting about your comment is that the group of four bother you so much. Their negativity seems to be having a pretty big impact on your mood. And you've got a real dilemma here -- you don't have much control over this situation and that alone is probably hard on you.
Here's what I'd do. First, decide what your goal is.
If your goal is to create a better atmosphere in the class for you, try this:
Sit far away from the group of four (greater distance gives them less impact). Bring something to class that makes you happy -- a photo, a special coffee mug, a letter that makes you feel good about you … anything like that. When the girls start talking "crap," do your best to focus your attention on the special item you have brought (don't look at the negativity on their faces and try not to listen to them).