Something special happens from time to time in a Galway pub. It begins with a few taps of a pint glass; then a chorus of “shhhhhhhhh” builds; then an eerie silence; then, from the corner of the bar someone – usually an older gentleman or lady, but often a young person as well – begins to sing.

The choice of songs range – I’ve heard everything from Danny Boy to Proud Mary. The quality ranges as well. But each time nearly everyone chooses to listen in silent reflection.

The most interesting thing about this phenomenon for me is not the particular songs that are sung or their entertainment value, but the informal rules that govern the process.

It seems quite difficult to compel people to do just about anything in a pub. Drinking, by nature, releases inhibitions and makes people particularly unruly – and loud. So, to compel complete strangers, most of whom are inebriated, to sit in silence for several minutes would seem to require a great deal of force. Clearly, it would seem, we would need to declare a rule to this effect and back it up with the requisite enforcement capability.

But, exactly the opposite is true. There is no posted rule telling us to be quiet when someone sings. And there is no one threatening to compel us to follow the rule if we choose to be deviant. Instead, time after time, it just works.

Granted, the explanation for this could just be that people are conformers. If we see most people do something, then we’ll just follow along. Another explanation could just be our desire to be respectful. If someone asks for our attention, whatever the reason, we feel compelled to give it. But I think there is more at play than a mere desire to conform or be respectful. If people tried to quiet the room to express something of less meaning – to make a fart sound or tell a tasteless joke – I think people would be far less compelled to remain silent…our need to conform or pay respect would not be as strong. In these cases, we would need a rule and perhaps some enforcement to remain silent.

I think what keeps everyone quiet is the recognition that something authentically and deeply felt is being expressed. We see that the person has something of meaning to share, and as a result, we feel compelled to pay homage. In this way it becomes wrong to prevent someone from expressing this deeply valued feeling. This explains why it feels wrong when someone in the bar continues to talk during a solo. You can see it in people’s eyes…they sense injustice.

Thus, there seems to be something right about expressing ourselves deeply, honestly…vulnerably. It seems to be something we need to, and should, do as humans. And, when we see someone else make the choice to do so, it seems right to pay our respects, if only because witnessing such an act  stirs something deep within us as well.

Or maybe that’s just the Guinness talking.

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