Airplanes Are Like First Dates

Two days ago I came back from spending ten days working in Florida. Why did I come back to -6 degree temperatures? I can’t be sure. File it under: Poor Life Decisions and Didn’t Check the Forecast. However as I was flying back, I realized that airplanes are kind of funny. You’re stuck for two hours (or so) next to a complete stranger. Do you talk? Do you simply say hello and then reach for your iPod or book? Do you ignore each other? It really depends on your preference, as well as your randomly assigned seatmate. I used to HATE talking to the person next to me on a plane. I’m an introvert, and nothing alarms me more than knowing that I have to make small talk for two hours. Small talk is not my thing. I can make casual conversation for a few minutes and then my brain goes, “Oh God. What next?” and it gets awkward. I’m probably less awkward than I think I am, but the whole situation makes me nervous. But after my recent flying experiences, I actually enjoy it in some instances.

When I went to Charlotte last month, I ended up chatting with a couple of really interesting people on the way there. One was a girl who had just taken a job with a hotel in Germany that was for military personnel. She was a little younger than me and nervous yet excited. She was from Kentucky and was leaving all of her friends and family behind for this opportunity. I found it interesting to talk to her and to hear about the experience she was gearing up for. On the next leg of the trip, I sat next to a woman who helps get artisan cheeses into big retailers like Walmart. What a random job, right? I had no idea that was even a position. But she loves it and I liked talking to her. She’s on a plane twice a week at least, so she’d seen some cool places. On the way back from Florida, I got talking with a guy who was in medical school and was about to start his residency. I’ve always found the medical field fascinating (but could never be a doctor) so I enjoyed talking with him.

Planes give you a chance to find out about jobs you didn’t know existed. I also think they’re a good networking opportunity, as weird as it sounds. Maybe you tell someone you’re a graphic designer and it turns out that they’ve been looking for someone to handle a few projects. On the other hand, they also have an awkward blind date feel about them. I’ve never been on a blind date, but I can imagine that they’re very similar to plopping down next to a stranger on your way to your final destination. You hope you’re next to someone normal and fun. Hopefully they don’t talk too much, and hopefully they’re into normal things so you can find some common ground. You worry about awkward pauses and you’re constantly trying to come up with new things to discuss. The end of the experience is awkward too. On a blind date, you worry about who picks up the tab. When you’re exiting a plane, you have to figure out how to say goodbye. Do you simply wave? Do you exchange numbers or find each other on Facebook? Do you wish them a pleasant trip? What’s the proper level of pleasantries based on the conversation you just had?

I had a bad blind date/seatmate experience on one leg of my Florida trip. We were in a row with only two seats, so the pressure was on for us to chat since it was just the two of us. The guy seemed to be a few years older than me. We smiled at each other, but then we didn’t speak. When you first sit next to someone on a plane, you have a short window to start talking. If you go twenty minutes in silence and then say, “Soooo where are you going?” it seems weird. Anyway, I knew we weren’t going to talk, which was fine. But they turned the lights off since it was an evening flight and it just felt awkward. Like we were on a date at the movies and should, at some point, whisper commentary to each other about the film. Except we would discuss the flight attendant’s heavy Boston accent (“What did he just say? Did you understand that?”) To make it worse, everyone around us seemed to be chattering away with their seatmates. It made it feel even more awkward to stare straight ahead, waiting for it to be okay to use portable electronic devices. It felt like a dating disaster where you have your friend call and pretend there’s an emergency and you have to leave. Luckily the flight was short and my iPod was fully charged. Crisis averted.

Do you enjoy flying? Do you talk to the person next to you or keep to yourself? Any interesting seatmate stories?

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