April 26, 2006 -- There's a delicate moment at the beginning of every airline flight, especially when the cabin is full. It's a moment when all the overheads have been stuffed full and somehow closed, the cell phones have been deactivated, the occupants of the aisle and middle seats have stood aside to let the window seat rider in, and everyone has settled down to the task of buckling seat belts and making their nest for the airborne hours ahead.
It's that seminal moment in which you find yourself glancing around to the passenger beside you and making unexpected eye contact -- a split second in which your fellow traveler makes the instinctive choice to either smile back silently or speak.
"Hello. Hey, I think this is your buckle."
"Thanks a lot."
Followed by blessed silence.
But that moment can also trigger one of the worst sins in commercial aviation: the launch of an unwanted verbal soliloquy from the next seat that in some cases can continue unabated for hours, ending only when the cabin door opens at the other end and a frantic escape to uncommunicative bliss can be achieved.
After some 78 years of commercial airline flying, you'd think that someone would have published by now a guide to the fine etiquette of airborne verbal exchanges, highlighting the good, the bad and the crashing bore. But, in fact, few have ever really given it much thought, and what we learned in kindergarten about basic courtesy was probably enough for most of us.
Most of us. For the rest, please read on.
Arm Yourself With Headphones, Books
First, even though you may be the world's most interesting conversationalist and an all-around great person, your seatmate may be in no mood to converse, listen or act as a surrogate psychologist to your troubles. How can you discern this? The presence of earplugs is a giveaway, as is a large noise-canceling headset.
If your seatmate has to politely pull out earplugs or yank off a headset three times in a row to respond to your questions, it's a pretty fair bet it would be impolite to keep talking.
Try the aisle seat occupant instead.
But, whoops, when the fellow or gal in the aisle seat has opened a book after elaborately placing reading glasses on the old nose bridge, that's another fairly typical indication that three to five hours of nonstop discussion of anything while winging your way to Cleveland will be decidedly unwelcome.
Sometimes even the most overt hints (such as handheld signs reading "Do not talk to me!") may not be enough, and the unwilling listener may need to take drastic action.
Of course, most of us tend to be polite by nature, smiling and nodding easily when not wanting to offend someone who (for instance) may be trying to hide their paralytic fear of flying behind the facade of a monologue. But even the wide-eyed victim in 34D needs to know that it's not a breach of good manners to declare, after several minutes of unwanted babble, "I'm really sorry, but I'd really rather stay quiet during the flight. I have some things I need to think about."
If, after several clever versions of such a statement, you're still hearing about the trials and tribulations of 34E, feigning sleep by placing a blanket over your head is also not considered rude. Shrieking, fleeing to the restroom when the seat belt signs are on, or punching out 34E are not acceptable forms of self-help, even if marginally justified.
Navigating the Distractions
The problem doesn't stop with a Chatty Kathy in 34E or a Buford-the-Boring in 13A. The frontal assault on solitude can also come from several rows away and often long after the closing doors signal the end of cellular phone use.
There is, of course, the "cell yell" syndrome of people treating their phones as if they were Dixie cups on strings responsive only to 150 decibels and above. But there's also the resident "foghorn," a passenger whose voice is loud and penetrating enough to warn large ships away from rocks.
Interestingly, passengers who qualify for foghorn status are usually abysmally unaware of it and equally unaware that facts and intimate details they would never even put in an e-mail are being literally broadcast throughout the cabin! That fact might be voyeuristically fun if it amounted to a few funny tidbits of personal trivia, but the foghorn often ends up enlightening most of the coach cabin to every nuance of his or her life, and strangely enough, it's usually not worth the price of admission.
There are more in the rogues' gallery of obnoxious airborne voices, however, including the two behind you speaking in what they may think are whispers but with a clarity and volume that would thoroughly startle any guide at the Mormon Tabernacle. In some cases it's a young woman with "s's" sharp enough to cut steel at 40 paces. In other instances, it's someone whose voice just happens to occupy a frequency range used by no other living creature or jet engine. Every word is audible, and sometimes even earplugs don't help.
Finally, there's the amorous get-a-room couple just in front of you whose antics beneath that tiny blanket you could ignore if it wasn't for the Playboy Channel exchange. If you're accompanying minors, that can get really uncomfortable.
"Mommy, what's a (fill in the blank)?"
The point here is just this. Airliner cabins are not noise canceling to the extent you might think, and all of us need to be careful about what joyful noises we make while packed together like sardines. Although it may seem like a great idea to some folks to give everyone within earshot the benefit of their opinions, experiences and dislikes, it isn't necessarily a good idea in the mind of the inadvertent recipient -- some poor person who has enough misfortunes of his own to contemplate without adding yours to the list.
Common airborne courtesy, in other words, pretty well dictates that passengers, like children, should largely be seen and not heard -- especially in high-flying public places.