A few weeks ago, I and my iPad were at the centre of an incident at my local public library that, anywhere but in Vancouver, would be considered odd–extremely odd.  Even long-time Vancouverites are likely to find the incident amusing, but I doubt that most Vancouverites would find it odd–indeed, extremely odd–as would those who have spent considerable time living in other places, including even just other Canadian cities.

I was using my iPad at the library, that has free WiFi for its patrons, to watch an episode of the TV show “Smash”, the show that debuted this season about the making of a Broadway musical, with singing and dancing throughout.  I’ve never invested in any of the various other systems that are now available for watching TV shows at irregular times and, since I now have an iPad, I’ve started to use it for that purpose–especially when I miss an episode of “Smash”.  The show is my weekly private indulgence–or it was private, until that incident in the library.

After watching a full, hour-long, episode of the show on my iPad, while sitting at a table in the library on a busy Saturday morning, I was putting away my iPad when I realized I hadn’t plugged in the headset properly.  I asked the young man who was sitting across the table from me using a laptop if he had been able to hear the show, and he confirmed that this was the case.  This was a tech-savvy young guy who was sitting right across from me so he would have been able to see I was wearing a headset, who should have been able to readily deduce that I hadn’t intended for him to hear the show, and that the problem was simply that I hadn’t properly plugged in the headset.  Yet he didn’t say anything through the duration of the show, nor did he seem at all annoyed with me when I was speaking with him afterwards.  I figured maybe he also was a secret musical theatre fan–even though he didn’t particularly look the part.

At first, I assumed it was just this young man, sitting at the same table as me, who had overheard my private indulgence–including, that week, a raucous, full-orchestra, full-chorus, finale number.  But as I was getting up to leave, I turned to face a young woman who was shelving books about fifteen feet away from the table, and she told me she had heard it all as well.  She laughed it off, telling me the music made her shelving duties more enjoyable.

If she had heard the show, too, it meant that the audio had to have been quite loud. I then realized that I, myself, had been listening to the show not through the headset but, rather, through the air, with earbuds in my ears, so the audio had to have been VERY LOUD–loud enough that everyone in the section of the library where I had been sitting could have heard the show loud and clear, assuming they weren’t completely deaf.  At least a couple of dozen people had been in that section of the library during the period that I was watching “Smash” on my iPad, several for the full duration, sitting at the library’s computers nearby, yet nobody, not even an employee of the library, had even asked me to turn down the volume a tad.  Perhaps I should point out here that I’m neither physically intimidating nor sufficiently pathetic-looking that I merit special forbearance.  (To be fair to the other employees of this library, the library is constructed basically in the shape of a ‘U’, and I had been situated around the bend from where the other librarians, including the more senior librarians, were situated, so they probably didn’t hear the show–or at least not at full-volume.)

My initial interpretation of this strange incident was that more Vancouverites, especially more Vancouver public-library patrons, must like the show “Smash” than its ratings would suggest.  I imagined a video testimonial for the show, to help save it from possible cancellation (this was before it was announced last week the show has been renewed for half of next season), that would be essentially the opposite of the library scene in the musical, “The Music Man”: instead of Marion, the Librarian, hushing everyone, the librarians, and everyone else in the library, could be singing and dancing to music from “Smash”.  But surely it wasn’t just a question of them liking the show.  Even if all the people in the library that morning actually did like the show, and liked listening to the audio portion of the show while they were at the library on a Saturday morning, at least some of them must have realized that this was an embarrassing situation for me–this was “Smash”, after all–and, as a basic courtesy to me, should have let me know what was happening.  These people weren’t speaking up when–at least as I see it–they should have spoken up.

One of my sisters, a long-time Toronto resident, is now visiting from Toronto, where I myself lived for about ten years, and I told her about this incident.  She immediately interpreted the incident as being something that could have happened only in Vancouver.  Although this isn’t originally how I interpreted it, after having given the subject some thought, I now tend to agree.  As I’ve known for a long time, although at first I didn’t make the connection with this particular incident, Vancouver is unique among Canada’s major cities in how strangers in public spaces relate to each other. 

The more obvious sign of Vancouver’s uniqueness in this area is too much talking.  In Vancouver, strangers in public spaces commonly talk to each other, or at each other, without having first determined, through non-verbal communication or through the use of standard verbal cues such as “Excuse me, but ….” that they have the attention of the person to whom they are talking.  This happens all the time here, including in situations when one really does need one’s full attention–such as when one is preparing to cross a busy street, and one is attending to traffic lights and traffic: out of the blue, with no advance indication, a complete stranger may start talking to you about some trivial matter completely unrelated to crossing the street, or to whatever else you are thinking about.  All kinds of people in Vancouver do this, including young and old alike, from all walks of life–and not just lonely elderly people or crazy street people.  As someone who is originally from Vancouver, but who has lived in other Canadian cities, especially Toronto and Montreal, for at least as much of my adult life as I’ve lived in Vancouver, this drives me crazy.

In Montreal, people interacting with strangers in public spaces also are relatively talkative–or at least those Montrealers who are bilingual and who aren’t overly worried about possible language barriers when talking with strangers are relatively talkative.  But Montrealers, unlike many Vancouverites, almost invariably look before they leap into a conversation, relying heavily on non-verbal cues, especially eye-contact, before they engage someone else in conversation.

When I was living in Montreal attending McGill, the first time I had been away from Vancouver for an extended period of time, it was pointed out to me by a close friend, a native Montrealer, that I myself often engaged people in conversation without first getting their attention.  One incident in particular stands out in my mind.  She and I were walking along a sidewalk on a street where some heavy street construction was underway and, after observing a driver of a big truck involved in the construction do a particularly complex manoeuver with the truck, without first having the driver’s attention, I shouted out to him, en anglais bien sûr, some sort of compliment, like “Great driving!!  You should get a prize for that.”  (When I was travelling in England only a couple of years before that, I’d attended a “truckers’ rodeo” in Banbury-Cross, the city from the nursery rhyme, which probably inspired that comment.)  I thought he would have appreciated the compliment; but, as my friend pointed out, when I shouted out to him he was still involved in manipulating the rig, and my comment, out of the blue, in a language he may not have understood, could have resulted in him having an accident with the truck.  I didn’t really realize until I returned to Vancouver after being away for several years where my early tendency to speak to, or even to shout out to, strangers in public spaces without first getting their attention, had come from–and how annoying, and sometimes even dangerous, this could actually be.

In Toronto, there is relatively little talk among strangers in public spaces–but I don’t think of this as a sign of coldness.  I’ve generally found the Torontonians I’ve got to know well warm and open, and the relative lack of chat among strangers in public spaces in Toronto seems to be more out of respect for others–and for themselves–than because Torontonians generally are cold, uncommunicative, people.

It may be difficult at first to see a relationship between chatty, often intrusive, Vancouverites on Vancouver sidewalks, and on Vancouver busses, and in Vancouver malls, and so on, and the silent library patrons that Saturday morning that I was watching “Smash” with my iPad at full-volume, effectively without a headset; but I think these two phenomena may actually be two sides of the same coin.

Generally speaking, Vancouverites don’t seem to be as “self-empowered” (I mean this in a specific sense, which I’ll provide shortly) as Canadians from Canada’s other major cities, especially Toronto and Montreal with which I have the most familiarity.  To be more specific, long-time Vancouverities in general, especially those who haven’t spent much time away from Vancouver, don’t seem to recognize, at least to the same degree as those from other cities, that their private thoughts and mental meanderings are important, and that they have a right to not have their thoughts interrupted by random voices, and random show tunes, as they go about their daily routines.  Regarding Vancouver’s many chatterboxes, I would suggest there aren’t sufficient people in Vancouver who are sufficiently self-empowered to tell the chatterboxes that they don’t wish to be spoken at when their attention is elsewhere, so that the chatterboxes get the message loud and clear, and desist.  Also, if the chatty Vancouverites that drive me crazy were more self-empowered themselves, they probably would recognize to a greater extent the value of the inner thoughts of others, and wouldn’t impose themselves on others the way that they do.   

When I was away from Vancouver for many years, I seem to have become more “self-empowered” myself, in the particular sense I am using this term here, even without being aware of it, to the extent that, now, not only do I commonly tell strangers off when they are interrupting me (assuming they have nothing important to say) but also I consider it the responsibility of my fellow Vancouverites to tell me to quieten down if I am interrupting them–especially if I’m interrupting them with full-volume “Smash”.  (“Shut the hell up!” would seem to be entirely appropriate in this instance.)














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