Event Etiquette

by Ben Rubenstein

1 September 2008

Enthusiasm at sporting events and concerts is great. But when your spirited dancing turns into a one-man mosh pit, it's a damned annoying distraction.

Beer and gimlets. Game-worn jerseys and three-piece suits. Sticky plastic seats and white-clothed tables.

Baseball games and jazz concerts may both be American pastimes, but that’s just about the only thing the two have in common. The contrast was all too clear to me a few weeks ago, as I followed up an evening at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field (where my Red Sox routed the White Sox) with an impromptu stop at the new location of the famed Jazz Showcase, where legendary saxophonist Lou Donaldson was playing a set with his band.

Event Etiquette

The moment I walked into the club, not more than an hour after leaving my upper-deck perch at the game, I felt out of place among the dim lights and hushed tones. Fortunately, I hadn’t gone overboard in my choice of wardrobe that night; a bright red T-shirt was all that could signify where I’d just come from. Still, it didn’t seem like I had any business sitting in the front row, which was where my friend Brian, who’d escaped the stadium earlier than I, had secured a table. Really, my anxiety was unfounded: due to a decrease in demand over the years, most classic jazz clubs have become far more accepting places; where once the gatekeepers might scowl at a ruffian like me attempting to gain entry into their sophisticated world, now they put on a polite smile and are thankful I’m willing to pay the cover charge.

Still, I wasn’t truly able to relax until the show began (and, yeah, I had some Bombay Sapphire in my system). I settled in to savor the music, but something kept me from full enjoyment. Further down the row, an older gentleman sat with his wife. He was clearly a regular, and was also clearly enjoying himself. How could I tell? Throughout each song, the man could be heard voicing his pleasure—each blow of the horn, each guitar chord, each drum fill and organ trill was met with an exuberant “Yeah! Yeah! That’s it!” After a few minutes, I had all too good a picture of what this guy’s wife may have been hearing for the past 30 years in the bedroom.

As I tried to ignore his throes and focus on the sounds I’d paid $20 to hear, I realized that I’d essentially tried to do the same thing at the baseball game a few hours earlier, when a very-pleased-with-himself White Sox fan persisted in heckling Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz by calling him “Big Poopy” (as opposed to the slugger’s more common nickname, Big Papi). And it hit me: the game and the concert—heck, any game and any concert—were not so different after all. Both involve gatherings of people who might not otherwise interact, and thus, both require a certain amount of trust that those around you will follow the rules. I’m not talking about the posted rules at the respective venues, like not running onto the field of play or crashing the stage, and not pelting the performers/athletes with batteries (these rules don’t apply in Philly, of course). I’m talking about some tacit rules of etiquette that all game-goers and concert-goers rely on. Stuff like…

Not making yourself the center of attention. Jazz orgasm guy, I’m talking to you. Hey, enthusiasm is great (and being a veteran of indie rock shows, I appreciate any change from standing quietly for an hour and a half). But there are limits to how enthusiastic you should get. When you start singing along a bit too loud to a quiet ballad, or when your spirited dancing turns into a one-man mosh pit, it begins to be a distraction.

Similarly, there’s no problem with sports fans showing their allegiance to their team. You want to paint your face, bring along a (witty) sign or creatively heckle opposing players/fans, that’s fine. Some of my fondest sports-related memories involve exactly that kind of behavior; a friend of my brother’s once came to an early ‘90s Celtics-Hawks game with my family, wearing a Santa Claus outfit and toting a sign saying “Hey, ‘Nique: Go Ho-Ho-Home!” You can bet I was excited when we were all shown on TV.

The problem is the people who embrace this activity over the real action, like the guy who gets a response from a one-liner and continues to repeat it over and over, like a five-year-old telling the one joke he knows. Unless you’re Dave Chappelle, or you’re at a Pirates-Nationals game, your incessant chatter is probably not the most entertaining thing around.

Paying attention to the event. Some people buy tickets to a sporting event or a concert, enter said event, and promptly forget what they came for, preferring to act as if they were guests at any old social function. I like to call this the Wrigley syndrome, in homage to the field that some Chicagoans—OK, White Sox fans—refer to as “the world’s largest beer garden/singles bar”. These are the people who look up every so often from comparing baby pictures or bank accounts to ask what the score is (when the scoreboard is right there). But they’re also the people who discuss their favorite obscure albums and debate the merits of Robert Christgau’s opinions instead of enjoying the band on stage. You don’t have to be monitoring the pitch count or memorizing the set list, but you should at least know what’s going on.

Not getting too drunk. Sporting events and concerts would not be nearly as popular as they are if they didn’t revolve around imbibing large quantities of alcohol. Part of the experience of going to the ballpark, at least once you’re of age, is having a beer along with your hot dog, sausage, or peanuts (or, nowadays, sushi, pulled pork, and ice cream of the future). The ultimate social lubricant enhances musical enjoyment, too. But as Joe Namath and Amy Winehouse will tell you, moderation is best. How much is too much? When you’re spilling on the people sitting in front of you (or doing impromptu “trust falls” every few seconds into the people standing behind), giving menacing looks to the little girl in an opposing team’s jersey, or wondering why the Red Sox retired number 99, you’ve probably reached your limit. Before you end up passed out in a disgusting bathroom (or worse, in Sheryl Crow’s tour bus), put down the plastic cup—even if it did cost you $8.

Being aware of others around you. Picture this: you’re at a work meeting, and your boss is showing a PowerPoint presentation detailing quarterly earnings. It’s not amazingly interesting, but he could start talking about your department soon, and those are numbers you’ll need to know. All of a sudden, the guy in the seat in front of you stands up and stays standing for the remainder of the meeting. This sounds annoying, right? It’s just as annoying when someone stands up in front of you at a baseball game, even if there’s not any particularly crucial action going on. There are certain times throughout a game when it makes sense to stand: a 3-2 count with two outs and runners on base, for example. The people who complain about others standing in front of them during those times are probably also the people who don’t know what the score is. But this does not give fans license to stand for the entire game, or even for an entire inning. If the general desire of the people behind you is to sit, you should probably sit (unless you’re at a Marlins game; the other three fans can just move to the thousands of available seats).

This rule also applies at concerts, but there’s usually another, more pressing issue. Because many shows have no assigned seating, movement through a crowd is more difficult than at other types of events. When you’re walking on a street and people need to get past you to get somewhere, you let them go past. At a concert, you should probably do the same (this doesn’t apply to those just trying to push their way to the front, bit by bit). A couple months ago, I attempted to watch Stevie Wonder at the uber-crowded Taste of Chicago. Though I was so far back that actually seeing anything was not an option, I was still amazed at how protective the people around me were of their small patches of grass, and how angry they would get if someone stepped on their ratty blankets. One woman, sitting in front of us, even positioned her generous frame directly in the path of people trying to find their way through the massive crowd, refusing to budge or even to look at the trespassers. This would not go over so well on a bus, I’d guess.

Anyone who goes to a large event expecting everyone to behave properly is fooling himself (and any fan who thinks he always behaves is even more deluded). Rules were meant to be broken, especially by Red Sox fans. What’s amazing is how infrequently the rule-breakers are allowed to disrupt things in any substantial way. Like cars pulling over to the side of the road for an ambulance to pass, most fans abide by—and, at times, enforce—the contract of the crowd, perhaps recognizing that chaos is no good for anyone.

And when things do fall apart, that can be kind of fun, too. On a slow day at the ballpark, I’m rooting for punches to be thrown in the stands as much as the next guy. Especially if the receiver of those punches is a fan who’s been having loud, curveball-induced orgasms for the past hour.

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