Is it good manners to talk to your in-flight neighbour?

Is it good manners to talk to your in-flight neighbour? Two frequent flyers disagree over the correct code of behaviour for airline passengers

YES

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 19 September 2004 in The Sunday Telegraph of London

Whenever I board a plane or train, I greet the person who will be sitting beside me for the journey. Or rather, I try to greet the person. Much of the time it’s impossible because my seatmate is doing everything he or she can to avoid acknowledging me.

Obviously I have wondered if there’s something wrong with me. And yet I know I look as normal as the people with whom I am attempting to exchange brief social niceties (and sometimes, quite frankly, a whole lot more so). I don’t dress like a Goth or a Jehovah’s Witness on Saturday morning. I am not covered in “Re-elect Bush” badges nor proudly clutching the Green Party’s manifesto. And I haven’t boarded a plane with a toddler in my arms for years.

In short, I do not resemble a high-risk seatmate. Yet, I have been snubbed time and time again by seatmates who will not deign to reply to a simple “hello”. It’s happened in business class and economy on both long hauls and short commuter hops.
I’ve been ignored by everyone from business types to honeymoon couples (okay, they have more of an excuse) to mothers with babies.

Sure, to a certain extent, this kind of thing also happens on the ground. And, yes, I’ll admit it, I too have averted my eyes when I recognise someone from the gym while shopping in my local supermarket, though I’m not really quite sure why. Am I more afraid they’ll recognise me or that they won’t? Is it shyness or just a case of becoming flustered by the unexpected?

Whatever the reason, and even when I’m the one being ignored, I consider supermarket-type slights to fall within the normal range of non-pathological behaviour. Whereas I don’t believe it’s normal to pretend that someone’s invisible for the entire 13 hours of a Tokyo-to-Toronto flight, as did the young man who sat next to me. No matter what he may have imagined, I had no intention of interrupting his video games. All I expected of him was “hello”, “goodbye” and an acknowledgement of my existence when I climbed over him to get to the lavatory.

While this particular fellow was indeed an extreme example, I estimate that almost half my seatmates are reluctant to say hello. And I’m definitely encountering this phenomenon more frequently. This, in turn, has caused me to think about what’s driving it. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown. Or maybe it’s the mistaken assumption that you’re a sophisticated jet- setter if you don’t acknowledge the presence of fellow passengers. It’s even crossed my mind that the men might interpret a simple salutation as a coded invitation to join the mile-high club.

But whatever lies behind the rudeness, it must be far more serious than the threat of boring conversation. It is, after all, easy to avoid unwanted conversations with fellow passengers simply by plugging in your headset or pulling out a book. True, I once had a persistent French wine connoisseur chat away at me for two entire chapters but eventually even he took the hint. And though I personally do like to chat with seatmates during meal service, I won’t take offence if they prefer otherwise.

I am not, by any means, out to convert people to the joys of getting to know fellow travellers. My campaign here is designed merely to encourage them to be civil.

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