Initiating the right relationship with seatmates

There comes a critical moment at the start of each flight—the moment you encounter your seatmate. At that moment, your actions can easily dictate how negotiable the next 2, 5, or 7 hours are going to be. Initiate a positive relationship, and you just might make it to Michigan. Initiate a bad one, and you’re bound for a fight over Phoenix.

That being the case, what can you do to set up the right relationship with your seatmate? Consider the following five research-based suggestions for happy flying:

  1. Be cordial to build trust: It’s the nice and human thing to do. In addition, smiling and saying hello can start a cycle of trust. Flights are long and arduous encounters, and numerous contingencies are likely to arise. Maybe their air will blow right on your face. Maybe their gargantuan bag will encroach on your under-seat space. With the benefit of some pent-up trust, you can probably figure out a solution. Without it, good luck.
  2. Help with their bags: In addition to being the nice and human thing to do, helping to put up their bags (or fetch their pen from an overhead jacket, as I recently did) generates a cycle of reciprocity, whereby they will later feel motivated to help you too. What if you need to get up and use the bathroom four times? Or get the Wi-Fi signal to work just once? A seatmate who you previously helped will probably be eager to reciprocate.
  3. Claim your territory: In addition to these cooperative and integrative overtures, it’s important to start claiming some value in the form of the armrest. We’ve all flown next to the guy—and it usually is—who thinks he owns all three seats in the row. If that norm leaves the ground, all three fliers are in for an extended squishing.
  4. Signal your intentions: Similarly, it’s important to set some expectations as to how you intend to spend the next 2, 5, or 7 hours. If you’d love to the chat the trip away, then start chatting even before the safety demonstration. But if you’d prefer to work, read, or sleep, you’d better set those expectations even earlier. An ambiguous signal—some idle but unenthusiastic chatter, for example—won’t serve anyone well. You’ll both end up chatting the flight away even though both preferred to sleep (something akin to the Abilene Paradox).
  5. Don’t be weird or annoying: If I had a quarter for every time my seatmates acted weird or annoying long before takeoff, thereby generating angst that lasts the whole flight, I’d be able to a buy a plane and avoid the whole situation. From continuously messing with the air vent, to standing up and sitting down ala ants-in-the-pants, to taking a cell phone call loud enough to render the phone superfluous, to pulling out reams upon reams of paper, to shooting visual daggers into the seatback, crazy or annoying maneuvers in the early stages of a flight abound. Other people aren’t going to stop acting weirdly, so you might have to lead by example.

In sum, flights are gliding laboratories for making life negotiable. But they’re applied rather than basic research laboratories, in that your efforts will directly dictate your happiness. Here’s to this amazing opportunity to make life negotiable!

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