You might not even know the name of the guy sitting at your elbow, but still: You know his choice of reading material; what he drinks with his meal; the way his face, erased of its usual composure, slackens when he nods off after lunch. Every once in a while, your thighs touch, or you get a whiff of his cologne, and it's all at once completely normal and yet weird: Here we are, two people randomly seated together. We begin the journey as strangers and then, a number of hours later, part knowing more about each other than many of our more casual acquaintances. We're not friends, exactly, but we're something in between.
Six hours is also a long time to maintain a conversation with a stranger. That is, if you are the type that attempts that sort of thing. I've been thinking about this lately, because in the business flights I've recently taken, I've noticed that the world doesn't come down to, as some psychologists will tell you, Introverts and Extroverts, or Amulets and Capulets, or Sharks and Jets, or Shirts and Skins, or to-may-to and to-mah-to, or whatever.
Instead, the world comes down to exactly two types of people: Those who chit-chat on airplanes, and those who don't.
Here I'll reveal that I fall into the No Chat category. It's not that I'm not friendly – because I am – but it's just that after the initial hellos, and introductions, and explanations of what you are doing on this flight and where you are going, I run out of things to say, which make me self-conscious and embarrassed for the duration of the flight. The silence carries with it, for me, a heavy mantle of social failure, of being somehow neutered of any conversational skills. And at the same time, it suggests that I think my seatmate is equally boring and useless. The effect is a double-whammy of being both uninteresting and uninterested.
I suppose this is what gives me somewhat of an unforgiving approach on airplanes, which is what makes me easily riled and annoyed at those seated near me. Seat me with a snoring traveler, an antsy baby, even a screeching toddler – a regular pint-sized Maria Callas – and I don't mind a whit. But chit-chatters? No, thank you.
And here are 10 more things I hate about my neighbors, airplane edition:
1. Eating smelly food. I have two words for this one: Fast food. I hate it in the confines of a car post drive-through, and I hate it seated next to me, too.
2. Excessive cell phone use just prior to take-off. Especially: When someone finds it necessary to annotate the play-by-play during a runway delay. "OK, so the pilot just came on and it seems like there's a problem with the wing jibbet, so we'll be here a while, he says maybe 20 minutes or so. So what's going on…? What are you guys doing now?"
4. Playing an iPod loud enough for others to hear through the headphones.
5. Playing an iPod *just* loud enough, so it presents as a persistent, tinny sound, like a mosquito loitering near your ear.
6. Not keeping cell phones on vibrate, particularly when it's the "Baby Got Back" ringtone.
7. Hovering over your seat, shouting conversation over the seat-back.
8. Asking the flight attendant to repeat meals options, when they've already been relayed once, and when they are also listed inside the in-flight magazine.
9. Yes, I do mind if we keep the arm rest up.
10. Chatting. Have we covered that yet…?