Strangers on a Plane

By Caroline Horwitz

’m sitting in my airplane seat, phone turned off, book in my lap, stick of gum in my hand to combat ear pressure during takeoff. My row isn’t full yet and passengers are still finding their seats, some helping others hoist their large bags in the overhead compartment.

I hear a piercing laugh from several people down the line. It’s a woman’s voice, and as the line moves forward, I catch a glimpse of her. The explosion of pink and yellow neon in her clothing isn’t what concerns me—it’s the phone she’s braying into. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a talker.

Please don’t let her sit in my row, I implore. Please don’t let her sit in my row.

She sits in the seat next to me.

“I know. I knooooooowww!” she draws out, into the phone. “Ugh, that is just ridiculous.”

I hear the announcement to please turn off all phones for the flight. She either does not hear it or has chosen to ignore it, and continues to gab with the probably like-minded person on the other end of her call. Before we start taxiing, a flight attendant leans over our seats and asks her personally to hang up and turn off the phone. My row mate scoffs, rolls her eyes and claims she “was just hanging up right now.” Instead of saying a swift goodbye into the phone, she tries to conclude the conversation and tell her friend what time she will be available to talk again.

The flight attendant turns back around, narrows her gaze. “Ma’am. Now.”

“Okay, okay!” she shrieks. “It’s off!” Now that she’s had her technological appendage amputated, she turns to me. I’ve been elected as her single-serving friend for the evening. I imagine her thinking, “You’re my bitch now.”

And I was, until I could finally de-board at our destination and get away from the woman who insisted on telling me all about her trip, her friends, her kids’ extracurricular activities, and her pets.

“Single-serving friends” is the term the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club applies to whomever one is randomly seated next to during a flight. Two people who have never met before will sit beside each other and presumably converse for the duration of the flight. Formal introductions may or may not be made during this time, but in all likelihood, the two will never communicate or lay eyes on each other again.

But why must we be friends at all? What if I don’t want a two-hour friendship? Suppose I’d prefer to read, sleep, write, or listen to music than make small talk with someone I’m never going to see again?

This is more often than not the case. I am not and—despite my best wishes—will never be an extrovert. I’d like to think that I’m polite and agreeable to be around, but those who know me well can tell you I’m not warm and fuzzy or overtly talkative. I’m bad at phone conversations. I’ve never voluntarily asked to hold a baby. I don’t feel the need to share every thought or emotion I have. I like quiet time to myself.

This tends not to matter to extreme talkers traveling alone, as it did not with the woman who sat next to me. They’re going to chat away with the passenger seated next to them, and they won’t take no for an answer. Deprived of their phones and social networking devices, they will, in a sense, socially kidnap those within the closest proximity. You’re theirs until the plane lands, and there’s no negotiation in the matter.

Until I graduated college, I didn’t see any way but to accommodate them. No, I didn’t feel like talking, but they weren’t giving up and I didn’t want to be rude.

The plane talkers have eaten away at my sweetness over time. Now, if the situation calls for it, I have no problem being rude. I figure, it’s my time, why should this schmuck commandeer it? Plus, if the flight has a grim future in store, I’d rather die reading the book I’m excited about, or dreaming of not being crammed in a metal box with someone’s headrest in my face, rather than humoring some talk-aholic yammering away at me.

What, exactly, entitles them to my life story, and me to theirs? Why do we need to share every detail about ourselves short of our blood types? Although, come to think of it, I’ve even heard that brought up on a flight.

As I write this, I realize that I’ve never actually told one of these talkers point-blank that I’m not interested in conversation. Perhaps this makes me passive aggressive, but I’ve found indirect tactics that serve me well enough and can wholeheartedly recommend them. First, limit eye contact. Even if they don’t consciously comprehend it, they will register your lack of interest on some level. Next, monosyllabic answers to questions you’re asked. Don’t go into too much detail. Finally, occupy yourself with another activity. Reading a book usually isn’t enough of a hint for the talker, but an iPod (or other musical device) will drive the point home. You don’t even need to turn on the music if you don’t want to—once the ear buds are in, they’re now inaudible as far as they can tell. If all this fails and said chatterer keeps talking through these obvious preoccupations, simply feign deafness.

One might ask me, if a person won’t talk to strangers, how can they ever meet new people? While it’s true that I may not thrive on social discourse as much as the average person, I do enjoy meeting new people, provided it’s under circumstances that feel genuine. Meaning, I’m likely to interact with the person again and I don’t feel shackled to them as we converse. I met some of my best friends in the hallway of my freshman dormitory and met my husband at a party we both happened to attend. No one introduced us, and when we first spotted each other, we shook hands and exchanged names.

This is a different world compared to most airplane interactions. Very few people who’ve felt at liberty to talk at me without pause have ever so much as offered me their first names, in spite of the fact that they want to exchange every other detail imaginable.

I suppose if I thought these people were truly lonely and yearning for even short-lived companionship, I might be more inclined to become their temporary friend. But over time, I’ve learned that that’s rarely the case. These people just feel that they cannot go even a few hours without verbally engaging with someone. They look prostrate and bored if they can’t speak for the entire flight. I find this more than a little pathetic, this rejection of any time for private thought and contemplation, and refuse to serve as their emotional tampon.

Sounds harsh, right? Perhaps it is, but no harsher than some of the characters I’ve had to endure.

Once, before I learned the tricks of avoiding plane talkers, I sat in the window seat of a row toward the back of the plane. The girl seated beside me in the middle seat was an overweight teenager wearing dark clothes and makeup that could only be described as Goth. As I attempted to sleep with my head leaning on the window shade, she poked my shoulder in an attempt to start a conversation. I gave her the shortest, politest response I could muster, and then resumed my napping position. She did it again, and again and again. She wanted to tell me about her school, her friends, and her favorite movies. She wanted to know where I lived and where I was going. I lied about the former—I was too afraid she’d find me, and then either my shoulder would be forever bruised or I would commit my first murder.

About a year ago, I sat next to a middle-aged man who glanced down at the ring on my left hand.

“You’re married?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“What’s your husband do?”

“Air Force pilot.”

“You work?”

“Yes. Corporate communications.”

“How much you both make?”

He was quite shocked when I refused to tell him—almost as shocked as I was that he’d asked in the first place.

On another flight, the woman in my row did not attempt to engage me in conversation until mid-flight when she asked, out of nowhere, if she could pray for me.

“I just get the sense that you aren’t following the right path for your life, honey,” she said.

How or why she sensed this, I have no idea. I was reading at the time—and it wasn’t porn, either. I laughed out loud. I had hit my limit.

“If you can do it without talking, knock yourself out,” I replied.

She raised her eyebrows and assured me she would include me in her prayers later.

Who knows, maybe she was right—whatever my path was, it had somehow led me to the undesirable position of sitting next to her.

This misplaced sense of familiarity sometimes transcends physical boundaries too. A leech—er, man—seated next to me on an international flight talked nonstop for the first hour and a half. I excused myself to the restroom in order to get away from him, even for a few minutes. As I shimmied past his seat, he placed his hands on my hips and buttocks in a mock effort to help me maintain my balance.

“I gotcha there,” he said, as though he were being helpful. There was no turbulence and I was maintaining my equilibrium just fine.

“No, I’m good,” I said. “I’m fine!”

My protests didn’t deter him from doing the same when I returned to my seat.

You’re not always safe even when accompanied by a traveling partner. If the third person in your row is an endless talker traveling by him or herself, it doesn’t matter. You’re still fucked. On my most recent flight, my husband and I were accosted by the woman in our row. If either of us turned our heads to the right for whatever reason, she always attempted to catch our eyes and start a conversation. She made pointless remarks to which she expected responses, such as, “Boy, they keep these airplanes cold,” or “I hate when the plane lands; that’s the worst part.” It just drove the point home that she didn’t much care what was discussed. It was talking in general she wanted.

I feel awful writing this because she was a perfectly nice, friendly person. But it was plain that being silent was almost painful for her. Maybe it was selfish of me and my husband to talk to each other about our recent trip, read our books, and watch a movie on our laptop rather than humor her, but we were determined not to fold.

Yes, if necessary, I will make my disinterest quite palpable. The more they persist, the more I ignore. I don’t like being icy to people, but sometimes I feel like I have little choice. Is it any ruder than pestering a person every moment, demanding attention from a total stranger?

All I really know is the immeasurable relief I feel when the person who sits beside me has a novel attached to their hand rather than a phone.

A kindred spirit, I think contentedly as I settle back in my tiny seat.



Caroline Horwitz is a second-year creative nonfiction MFA candidate in Chatham University’s low-residency program. Her work has appeared in The Summerset Review. She recently relocated to Las Vegas.

Comments are closed.