It’s called The Quiet Zone. Introduced this month by AirAsia X, a budget airline based in Malaysia, this eight-row oasis offers soft lighting and a promise: No children younger than 12 allowed. The cost of keeping them out? An extra $11 to $36 a ticket.
The notion of segregating children on planes has long inspired debate, even satire. On April Fools’ Day, Canadian airline WestJet joked that it was creating child-free cabins by putting kids in a “special VIP" area of the plane. An accompanying video showed children scooting along a luggage belt and being stored in a plane’s cargo hold.
But there is a deeper story here, one that underlies the hullabaloo over children’s areas. It’s about silence, and how different cultures value or don’t value it — a nuance that becomes obvious when we travel.
Music blaring from headphones, booming cellphone conversations and garrulous passengers are as much a part of travel today as removing your shoes at the airport.
And the din has plenty of people “annoyed, stressed, oppressed," as Mike Goldsmith, the former head of the acoustics group at the National Physical Laboratory in England and author of “Discord: The Story of Noise," put it to me.
“The hearing system evolved in part as a warning system, so there is a natural tendency to classify noise as threat," he said. “But, more importantly, noise is an intrusion, a challenge to our rights over our immediate environment."
In the travel milieu, noise has become so commonplace that it’s increasingly being managed with rules, like cellphone bans on buses and quiet cars on trains. The new AirAsia X Quiet Zone says it all: Pay for silence, or prepare for cacophony.
A Buddhist approach
My own survival strategies involve noise-canceling headphones, nasty looks and sleeping pills (not necessarily in that order). But they make me feel at best anti-social and, at worst, mean. I needed help. So I turned to some people who know a thing or two about silence, from a Buddhist monk to an anthropologist who specializes in public space and culture. Given how easily my thoughts are shattered by noise, I knew I needed to start my quest for quiet with someone who has the discipline of, well, a monk.
And so I began with Andy Puddicombe, who was ordained at a monastery in Tibet and a decade later returned to London to teach meditation to the wider world. Technically that makes him a former monk, but one could argue that it takes more mental stoicism to find peace in London than in the Himalayas. I expected him to suggest that travelers block out unwelcome noise by closing their eyes and breathing deeply. To my surprise and delight, he didn’t.
“Denial of what’s going on just doesn’t work," said Puddicombe, who discusses the benefits of meditation in his book “Get Some Headspace" and on his website, Headspace.com. Attempting to ignore the loudmouth next to you by breathing deeply is what Puddicombe calls a classic meditation-related mistake — and one that’s likely to frustrate you even more as you struggle to focus on your breath instead of the noise. Besides, there’s not much you can do about a plane or train buzzing with sounds. What you can change, of course, is how you respond.
“The sound — that in itself isn’t the problem," Puddicombe said. “The problem is the resistance in our mind." In other words, don’t sit there fuming about the shouting child and his ineffectual parents. Puddicombe said your discomfort is not the shouting, it’s the gap between reality (the noisy child) and what you want the situation to be (quiet). What Puddicombe calls “mindfulness meditation" (essentially being in the present moment) can help bridge the space between reality and desire.
“It’s letting go of what we want it to be," he said, “and moving closer to acceptance of what is happening right now." (Hint: This can also be applied to matters of work, health, love.)
How wonderfully sane. But how to do it?
First, simply acknowledge that you’re frustrated (in your head, not by lobbing a shoe).
“When you look at resistance, it starts to lose its intensity," Puddicombe said.
Then, listen to the sound. Don’t blame the noisemakers. Just listen to the sound.
“If you give that your full attention," Puddicombe said, “eventually the mind will get bored of it."
He gave as an example being on an hourlong train ride next to someone with iPod music loud enough for you to hear. Your mind simply won’t stay focused on the music for an hour, Puddicombe said.
When listening to a noise, aim for “gentle acceptance." Don’t worry about deep breathing.
“Let go of the breath," Puddicombe said. “We’re not talking about some sort of escapist trick of the mind."
Beginners and skeptics may want to try his free daily meditation app, Headspace (on-the-go). It’s brief and includes instruction so you’re not alone with your subconscious and a didgeridoo.
A question of culture
If you do find yourself on a noisy plane, it may be calming to remember that if you have an expectation of silence, it’s because you consider it to be a social norm. Not everyone has the same social norms, though. Nor should they.
“The culture is changing on the airplane from a very polite space to one that’s much more culturally diverse," said Setha Low, a professor of anthropology and psychology and the director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. “And there’s a lot of difference between the norms."
Those differences can lead to conflicts, especially on planes where people from all over the globe converge. Some cultures, Spain’s, for example, are more gregarious than others, like Scandinavia’s. Low is even seeing clashes bubble up on — gasp! — the Hampton Jitney, the bus between Manhattan and the Hamptons, those beach towns on the eastern end of Long Island. Low has a home in the Hamptons and commutes to the city, making her something of an expert on the ethnography of the Jitney. As the clientele has become more diverse, there are some passengers who think the bus should be like a library and others who think it should be the party before the beach party.
“In this case upper-middle-class norms are being challenged in many complicated ways," Low said.
One method of dealing with these sorts of conflicts has been to create a separate and pricier bus line, the Hampton Ambassador, on which conversation must be kept to a whisper lest you are shushed and shamed by fellow passengers or the onboard attendant. What we’re seeing, Low said, is the proliferation of new “external rules" — rules that used to be unspoken or internalized because they were understood but now need to be spelled out.
“That’s a big shift," she said.
And it can feel exclusionary.
“More and more people are trying to make sanitized public space, and the question is: Where is this going to lead us?" Low said.
We don’t yet know. In the meantime, I’m pressing play on my Headspace app, and Puddicombe is instructing me to notice the sounds around me.
“So there might be sounds in the room where you are," his voice coos through my iPhone, “in the next room, or even outside of the building. Just taking 10 seconds or so just to allow those sounds to come and go, in and out of your awareness."
I’m setting aside a few minutes each day to let Puddicombe whisper in my ear with the hope that on my next flight, I’ll be able to lean back, sip my club soda and gently accept whatever racket may come.