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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Did People Become Selfish and Individualistic Post-Pandemic?

A Personal Perspective: A packet of crisps at a classical concert.

Many months ago, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was about to start its performance. The conductor bounded onto the stage to great applause and people eagerly anticipated the first note. The violinists and cellists were ready, and then some of them started their gentle performance. Just then, a man in the front row took out a packet of crisps (chips in America) and tore it open then started eating it. That would not normally be a problem in theatres, but when we are talking about a quiet concerto, noisy crisp packets don’t sound great. In fact, they sound very loud and conspicuous.

At many points, classical music concerts get so quiet that even someone coughing can turn heads, much less someone eating a packet of crisps (even though they are understandably delicious). People want to hear the harpist gently playing, or the guy with the triangle at the back jingling it once or twice when the violins, cellos, flutes, or trumpets go quiet. There is sometimes hilarious awkwardness in classical concerts if a noise is out of turn. I remember when I was a music student in primary school and a group of us played recorders that sounded absolutely awful, or when we sang the otherwise wonderful Handel's Messiah with no accompanying instruments, and the high notes sounded like screeches.

The people in the orchestra glared at the man and started looking cross (understandably) and one cellist looked amused. The audience started turning to check who kept scrunching up a noisy crisp packet, and it was funny how the crisp-packet man continued making a lot of noise. Before that, the man had been filming the orchestra with his mobile until a theatre steward asked him to stop because of their rules. It made me wonder why anyone would bother attending a performance only to spend the time looking at it through their screen. I got the impression that he was at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert so that he could boast about it on social media (with the filming as proof) rather than actually caring about classical music.

It got me wondering about news reports that there is an increase in anti-social behaviour at theatres and concerts, with some audience members disrupting performances. Various performances have been cancelled because of that. I wondered whether that would have happened before the coronavirus pandemic and whether social isolation made some people more individualistic, and less worried about social disapproval. Usually, in British culture, politeness is highly valued, and tourists are often bemused by social etiquette, therefore antisocial behaviour stands out. People would have expected the crisp-packet man to feel mortified and embarrassed, but he continued eating and probably annoyed people even more because he seemed so smug. I found it funny because it reminded me of classic social psychology experiments replicated in natural settings where people do not respond as expected given the context and social norms.

Perhaps in that context, the crisp-packet man’s individual identity was more salient than his social identity or his sense of belonging to a community of people at the concert. Perhaps the crisps were super delicious. Or perhaps people engage in such antisocial behaviour just because they can. It might be why people throw litter in the street—because they can. Perhaps the pandemic has made some people think about what they want in social settings more than what is for the greater good. However, it is important for people to reflect on the fact that social settings exist not just for them but for everyone else as well. People who talk in cinemas or concerts or make excessive noise disrupting others need to think about whether they would enjoy others doing the same.

As for the crisp-packet man, he disappeared from the concert at half-time, which was roundly welcomed by the audience.

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