This past week, we were in Knoxville, TN for Destination Imagination (DI) Global Finals. DI is a program that teaches creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and public performance to children.
On Friday night, they were premiering James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge 3-D documentary out in an open field. They were targeting the right group of people. The place was packed. It was an interesting opportunity to observe human behavior, particularly when it comes to crowds.
We arrived about 30 minutes early to see a line disappearing out of sight. We had come from a different direction and paused, wondering whether to walk to the end of that thick line or not. We weren’t sure there was a safe place to stand as the line snaked down to a busy street. We decided that maybe we’d just stand there and wait, not in line at all.
Plenty of other people were doing the same and still more were coming from the same direction as us. Before long, a new line had branched off in the direction we had come from. The leaders of this new line were sort of de facto merged into the existing line. With the sheer number of people present, I didn’t find this to be a problem. The new line was nearly as long as the original and there simply wasn’t room for all those people to trek past the first line to find its end.
A man in the original line, near the point of the merge, found it quite objectionable. I caught his raised voice berating the family near him: “The line goes back there! You need to go back there. Fine. Go ahead. What a great example you are setting.”
I looked at the family, intrigued. They weren’t moving to follow his orders and didn’t look particularly put out or embarrassed by his rant. They just stood there. On the one hand, he was technically right. It wasn’t fair that they were closer to the gate than all those people farther back in the line. On the other hand, there were already at least a hundred people lined up behind them. For them to move would not resolve the man’s problem; it’d just change which people were benefiting from the split line.
When the gate finally opened, a woman started handing out pins to the kids. As he walked by, he asked for one, actually, sort of demanded one. She remarked with a wry, humorous rebuke, “Wow, you must be one of the University participants. Your voice sure is low.” He indignantly muttered he planned to give it away. I couldn’t help but think that her non-confrontational rebuke of him had been considerably more effective than his attempted guilt trip of the others. And also illustrated that any time we get up on our high horse, we are quite likely to be knocked off it.
We merged with the two lines shortly behind him but made it to the viewing area first, since he realized he had left his family behind and had to look for them. We quickly grabbed seats on the edge of the front row of seats while people with blankets filled up the area in front of us. It was a madhouse. There had to be thousands of people there.
At first, there was a thin walkway between the ground sitters and us. People walked through constantly. The woman next to me began to get agitated. “If they are going to do this through the entire movie, I’m going to have to move. I can’t handle this,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll stop when the movie starts,” I said. I was frustrated too but her attitude was oddly calming to me. She was being ridiculous and I didn’t need to join her.
She pulled her chair forward and crossed her legs, thinking it would discourage the traffic. It did not. Eventually, she gave up and joined her party on a blanket nearby. Soon, a family with a towel plopped down in front of us. (The number of hotel towels and blankets present was amusing). People still walked by. Then a group of girls sat down on a trash bag. People still walked by. Eventually, as I predicted, the traffic stopped as the movie started. Some people still moved about but it was not particularly bothersome.
Before that, though, I saw a young boy, maybe 11 years old, plop down a chair next to ours. He commented to us, gesturing toward the back, “I was all the way back there and couldn’t see a thing!” He settled into his chair, pleased with himself.
I pointed to the large crowd of blanket sitters that he was now in front of. “It’s going to be hard for them to see,” I said. He looked back, disconcerted, and then moved his chair a little closer to ours. Not my concern, I decided.
A woman and group of boys found themselves trapped in front of us and she asked if the vacated chair next to me was available. I indicated it was. She cried success and plopped two of the boys in it and then she and the other two inexplicably found space between us and the towel family.
After some introductory remarks and loud music, with everyone on their feet dancing and cheering, and a huge group selfie moment, we prepared to settle down for the movie. A young girl was standing slightly in front of me, turning about. She was looking increasingly worried as it became clear that the lights were about to go out and she was alone. I could see in her face that coherent thought was gone, replaced rapidly with panic.
I reached for her arm to draw her toward me. “Do you need some help?” I asked. She nodded, apparently only needing that level of interaction to snap her back to reality. She began moving toward the edge of the crowd where I saw a woman waving her arms over her head. I pointed to the woman and the girl nodded. Crisis averted.
The movie was loud. I mean, extremely loud. I watched much of it with my fingers in my ears. I had seen how far back the crowd went though and resigned myself. After all, if you sit in the front, you’ll see well but it’s going to have to be loud in order for the people in the back to hear at all.
A group off to the right was not so relaxed about it. I eventually heard a hubbub over the movie volume. People were standing and chanting “TOO LOUD! TOO LOUD!” in an attempt to get it turned down. I smiled at the attempt to mob control their problem. I also smiled at the fact that they were thinking only of their own ears and not of those in the back. I couldn’t help but think they should move if they didn’t like the volume.
Then the chair dragging child on our left started shouting at them to sit down. This nearly had me laughing out loud. Not only did he fail to see that one young boy could not possibly be heard over both the crowd’s chanting and the movie, nor that they were not directly impacting him at all, he primarily failed to see the irony of him trying to help the viewing angle of the people behind the standers while wholly unconcerned about the viewing of the people behind him.
As we approached the end of the movie, I wondered if some people would attempt to sneak out early to beat the traffic. They did. Not many but some. The ones that cracked me up were the ones that stood, waiting for their group, blocking the view in the meantime before awkwardly squatting back down as they realized their group wasn’t ready.
All in all, it was an enjoyable movie. And an enjoyable opportunity to sit back and watch people in a crowd. My conclusion was that many people are inclined to get indignant when other people’s action negatively impact them while failing to notice neither 1) how their own actions impact others nor 2) how those people aren’t trying to be a bother. For the most part, we are a remarkably self-centered lot, we are.