We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the letters informing us that we've won amazing prizes in contests we didn't enter is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on etiquette at outdoor concerts.
Karyl writes via email: "Is it OK to ask incessant loud talkers to stop talking or to talk softly at an outside concert?"
I appreciate the assumption — implied in the wording of your question — that it's OK to politely ask people at indoor shows to pipe down when something's happening on stage. When everyone is confined to an indoor space, conversation in the crowd functions as noise's equivalent of secondhand smoke: The talker's need to be heard is greatly outweighed by everyone else's need to enjoy (and perform) music without disruption. Glad we're on the same page there.
There is nothing wrong with asking a peaceful but disruptive person to please be less disruptive, regardless of the setting. But at outdoor shows, the calculus is more complicated, especially depending on the amount of available space with which you have to work. Yes, a stranger's incessant yapping during a performance can be irksome. But there's also a greater range of options available to you as the aggrieved party, from nonviolent variations on "fight" (shushing, hard staring, issuing polite entreaties to speak more softly, exclaiming phrases the kids nowadays would abbreviate as "STFU") to non-literal variations on "flight" (stepping a few feet away from the conversational blast zone, moving to another area entirely).
Looking over the above menu, the choice that makes the most sense is going to vary wildly depending upon your own spot on the graph where the X axis is marked "tendency to argue" and the Y axis is marked "tendency to avoid conflict." As a relatively conflict-averse sort most of the time, especially where strangers are concerned, I'd be most likely to choose either "moving to another area" or the off-the-menu option of staying put, stewing miserably and composing a passive-aggressive tweet in my head for later.
As for what to say and how to say it, be polite and friendly, stick to "I" statements as much as possible ("I'm having trouble hearing the show..."), and try to be as brief and direct as possible. Speaking a few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice.