is it rude to read in the car on work trips?

A reader writes:

For my job, I often travel five to eight hours in a car to get to a destination. I have been a field scientist and now work for a five-state program so I have hundreds of hours of experience of driving with coworkers.

An unspoken rule seems to be you talk to each other or drive in silence (weirdly … maybe this is just a government thing?). A coworker or I have turned on the radio on less than 10% of trips (often this occurs when we have known shared music tastes or it’s clear NPR is a safe bet). Sometimes this isn’t a problem! Conversation flows easy or the silence is comfortable. Other times, it is very awkward or I can’t hear/follow the conversation of people sitting in front.

When I am sitting in the backseat, would it be rude to read a book? I wouldn’t feel odd about working on my phone or reading work materials, but for some reason, reading a book for my own enjoyment seems anti-social. But would it be? Would it be different if I were in the front seat? I share driving responsibilities and I would never ignore a coworker to read a book.

I think you can read a book if you’re in the backseat (and thus someone else is up in the passenger seat and can entertain the driver if they want to talk). Think of it this way: the potential rudeness would be from seeming to ignore other people — rejecting their attempts at convivial conversation and blocking them out with a book. So if they’re up there riding in silence, you can certainly read a book in the backseat; there’s no conversation happening that you’d be rejecting. But if they’re talking with each other and you’re having trouble hearing/participating from the back, the politest thing would be to say, “I’m having trouble hearing from back here, so I’m going to be reading — shout out if you need me.” (Frankly, you could say that even if you weren’t having trouble hearing; it’s polite cover and now you get to read your book.)

In the interest of thoroughness, there are also groups where you wouldn’t even need to say that; you could just pull out your book and no one would care. But if you’re concerned about how to handle it, this is the politest way to do it.

For what it’s worth: driving in silence for five to eight hours sounds kind of awful! I’m curious what would happen if you suggested turning on music. Yes, people have different tastes, but in most cases there’s probably something you could both agree to have on, or people could take turns controlling the selection.

Also, I’m jealous that you can read in the car without getting carsick.

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