Bus to Boston

—Illustration by Kate Feiffer

Nicole-GallandBemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Dear Nicole:

I was recently on the bus to Boston, and the people in the seats in front of me were talking about the private lives of a certain couple on the Vineyard. I didn’t want to hear it, and I felt like they should show more discretion, so I asked them to lower their voices. They did, but they continued to gossip. I know this because I could still hear them, even sotto voce. Should I have interrupted them for a second time?

Anonymously yours,

Dear Passenger:
Sounds like you had two discrete issues with your fellow travelers: first, that they were speaking audibly; second, that they were gossiping. Their speaking audibly has an impact on your immediate environment and comfort, so asking them to lower their voices was perfectly reasonable. You — or anyone — might have made this request even if they were simply talking about something of public knowledge, like the inferiority of the Yankees or the need to storm the SSA offices in protest of rate hikes.

But once you know somebody is talking about something you don’t think they should be talking about, of course you’re going to be acutely tuned in to whatever they’re talking about. So I suspect you would have “heard them” even if they were communicating in sign language. While it doesn’t speak well of them to be gossiping, you do not have control over other people’s actions, only your own responses to them. If you don’t want to hear what they are saying — if you truly, really, absolutely don’t want to hear what they are saying — then don’t listen. Move to a different seat, or hum to yourself, or put on a set of headphones and listen to James Taylor or Willy Mason or somebody who’ll made you feel warm and cozy about the Vineyard, and wrest your attention from how gossipy and backbiting the Vineyard population can sometimes be in winter.

Now, maybe — just maybe — you don’t want them talking because you’re actually burning with an unacknowledged desire to hear what it is that they are saying. You wish them to stop talking because you suffer from an overwhelming urge to listen in. In that case, be your best self and wrestle your own base impulses: Move to a different seat, or hum to yourself, or put on a set of headphones and listen to James Taylor or Willy Mason, etc. (Or, admit to yourself that you want to hear the gossip and listen in. I hope you won’t do that, but at least it’s more honest than just passing judgement on them.)

There are two details you left out in your question, the inclusion of which could change my answer. Do you know the gossips? Do you know the people they are gossiping about? If either of these is the case, that’s a different story. If you know them, feel free to be as critical on this topic as you would on anything else that might come up between you in a disagreeable manner: the Yankees, the SSA, etc. And of course, if you know the subjects of the gossip, and the gossip is in any way demeaning, you have every right to speak up protectively on your friends’ behalf. But don’t expect the gossip to stop just because you request it. At the end of the day, you may just have to move to a different seat, or hum to yourself, or put on a set of headphones and listen to James Taylor or Willy Mason, etc.
That’s my take.