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Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do, and sometimes it isn’t. The other night I had a flight to Atlanta and was lucky to get upgraded to business class. It was late, I was tired, and lights were low. People were reading, checking their phones, watching their tablets. I leaned back and drifted into half-slumber until a voice exclaimed, “Oh man, that’s f _ _ _ in’ awesome.”

It was startling, and I wasn’t sure who said it or even whether it happened on the plane or in my head. I looked around and spotted two men across the aisle one row back. They looked thirty years old, but wore the standard youth costume: caps, jeans, and nylon jackets. Both of them focused on a small screen and laughed and jostled. The talking continued, most of it commentary on the action, whatever it was unfolding in front of them, and nobody seemed to notice the profanity sixty seconds before.

I let it go and shut my eyes once more, but couldn’t help overhearing the conversation. Everyone was quiet but them, and they didn’t appear conscious that every word they said bounced throughout the cabin. Minutes passed and their banter faded to background noise. It didn’t take long, though, for another f-bomb to fall.

It was certain to happen. People who blurt the word in the middle of an airplane ride have no awareness of its impropriety. Really—the knowledge that you just don’t talk that way in a crowded space . . . they don’t have it. Nobody has told them straight out that we still have remnants of decorum here and there, and that for all its popularity on the ball field, in the bar, movies, and Jon Stewart commentaries, the f-word remains an indignity now and again. They have to be told.

I jumped up, climbed over my neighbor, stepped across the aisle, leaned over and said, “Gentlemen, let’s ease up on the f-word.” They turned their heads and stared. I stared back.

One mumbled, quietly, “You don’t like that?”

I nodded and replied, “Just don’t want to hear it.”

They said nothing more and I returned to my seat. They continued talking, but kept it clean. I’m sure they thought of me as an uptight scold, but I suspect that they knew something was wrong with their language. They just needed to be reminded of it.

In fact, the frustrating thing about the episode wasn’t its commonplace character (who hasn’t undergone the same thing?). No, it was the passivity of the other passengers, people sitting closer to the pair and choosing to let the f-words slide. Perhaps they didn’t care, or maybe they didn’t savor a confrontation (neither did I). But I take the fact that the two men complied for the rest of the flight as a sign of something more than a stranger’s objection. They ceased not because I told them to, but because an outside voice activated an inside one, their conscience, which ordered them not to react or flout.

When we hear obscenities in closed public places, we should recognize conscience as an ally against degradation. It lies fallow in the speakers, but the right prompting, not aggressive, just firm and polite, can incite it. 

More on: Curses

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