There are many horrors associated with flying economy, especially long-haul. The lack of space, the food, the queues. But surely the worst is the proximity to strangers. To endure 12 hours mere inches away from a garrulous airhead, a weepy drunk, a mewling and puking infant. The nightmare of one of those middle seats is having unknown people on either side.

The generous space and the etiquette of the First Class cabin means that interaction isn’t required except for a demure smile on boarding between, dare-one-admit, smug people who know they have made it. Business class is more jolly and, depending on the seat configuration, can mean staring at someone eye-to-eye for landing and take-off.

Being thrown together—often literally—can be fun for some. You bump up against people you are unlikely to meet in everyday life. Some people who work in the same building never spend more than 12 hours together in a full career of 40 years.

There are individuals who treat the whole a journey as a cocktail party, trying to find out what they have in common to start and then maintaining a conversation. But it can be testing. What do you do if you are sitting next to someone wearing some religious apparel, who has a special meal and only drinks water? What of the person who makes it apparent they intent to get as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible, or, worse, the misbehaving child?

Even the most extraverted person may choose to keep to themselves. After all there are enough sources of amusement these days for long haul flights: television programmes, films, magazines. By the time the meal service is over and you have had a little nap, it is easy to cross the Pond without having talked to anybody.

Enforced intimacy makes some people nervous. Perfect strangers can see exactly what you are reading, eating, drinking. It can shock, surprise, even disgust.

But for many people, the real problem is dealing with the curiosity, say nosiness, of the person seated next to you. Conversations can start innocently enough: a whinge about the late departure, a joke about the safety-on-board routine…then it moves on. We are all going to the same place but is it business or pleasure; have you been there before; do you like it.

Men, more than women, seem to want to know "what you do." It is about putting you in the right box; knowing who is the alpha male. It is a short-hand to your status, your personality and your values. It is a predictor of your lifestyle. Some ask the question directly: others beat about the bush but you see what they are doing.

The real problem arises for many professionals: doctors, lawyers, accountants. Your travel companion has you trapped…and what an ideal opportunity for a little (free) advice. Or for letting rip at your whole profession for being greedy, selfish parasites.

Consider what to do if you are a psychologist. Usually there are three classic reactions. First, the best—a touch of paranoid insecurity. They believe, and some actually say “you must be analysing me now” then fall silent. Second, a more complicated reaction, involves pouring out how hopeless, pointless, expensive, or imprisoning psychotherapy is. The analysts call this a defence mechanism (possibly reaction-formation). It usually represents the fact the person has had (and desperately needed) therapy, but remains unhappy, un-cured and passive aggressive.

The third want some free therapy for themselves, their family or friends. The bed-wetting child, the defiant adolescent, the ADHD employee. The late 50 year old believes his forgetfulness may indicate Alzheimer’s; phobics want to know how they can be cured. Do pills work for depression? How to help their child’s eating disorder? Why did my spouse cheat on me? Is my boss a psychopath? Why can’t I find a successful diet?

They may start giving quite intimate details. Sex, money, drugs and more. They pour out their woes as if you were taking a case history. A problem for the travelling professional who wants some peace, yes, but a professional ethical problem? Many medical association or professional society ethical codes require one to have an ‘adequate basis’ for diagnosing, prescribing and recommending. If you tell a person to do something or not on the basis of time in the pretzel service are you technically liable? And what if they say they were abused as a child, or are currently abused by a relative? Do you have an ethical duty to report?

So what is recommended? First be empathic, but be general in advice: “People with those sort of problems, generally find…” Second, recommend groups or literature that may help. Third, say clearly “I am off duty now” or “I am a doctor/psychologist/lawyer, but not your…” Hand out your business card—if you like. The message is: this is neither the time nor place for this sort of confidential material to be discussed.

Imagine being sued by a fellow passenger whom you only ‘advised’ in a bemused way over your third quarter-bottle of indifferent plonk. It probably has happened.

But what about other professionals? What if you are a stand-up comic or an undertaker? Comedians are often the most serious, even gloomy of people, yet strangers expect them to amuse with jokes. Presumably being a funeral home director or a dentist stops the conversation stone dead. But not necessarily: your seat companion may have just had a bereavement and also wants a tad of sympathetic counselling. Don’t believe that being a professor of philosophy or an entomologist gets you off the hook either.

Try “I teach geography in an inner-city state school” and you may prompt a socio-political debate about feral youth.

Treat the whole thing as a game to while away the uncomfortable hours. Adopt a new persona each flight. Have fun hoodwinking the nosy-parkers, or just avoid all eye-contact, put on headphones and bring piles of papers to work on.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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