Talking to Strangers: On Airplanes

I’m the kind of person who would rather talk to my seatmate on an airplane than read a book.  No, I’m not forceful about it.  I simply smile and say hello to them as they sit down.  If they look at me in surprise and just nod, I know they’re not interested.  If they return the smile and hello and make a comment about how full the plane is or the weather, I know I’m in.

Some of you might say “Oh – but what if he wants to talk about nuclear physics for the next three hours?”  First of all, the chances of that happening are slim.  How many nuclear physicists are really out there?  And what are the chances one is sitting next to you?  Secondly, you can direct the conversation.  If his work sounds boring, ask about his kids.  Or the most interesting place he’s ever traveled.  Usually I start out saying, “Are you coming or going?”  Then I get to learn if they’re traveling to see family or for work or for pleasure and take it from there.  Third, have an out.  I have a book on my lap.  You can always say, “I’m at a really good part and want to get back to it.”  They’ll get the point.  And finally, from experience I can tell you it rarely happens that the person sitting next to you is completely boring.  Though that could be simply because I’m fascinated by most everyone.

In all the years I’ve traveled alone (seventeen) I’ve only had one questionable experience.  The lady next to me had Alzheimer’s.  I should have known something was up when her daughter put her on the plane, thanked the flight attendant and then left.  My seatmate asked me what day it was fifteen times before we took off.  Thankfully there was a brilliant man sitting behind me.  He peeked his head over my seat and said, “Hey – want to sit next to me so we can work on that presentation?”  I’d never seen the man in my life, but I loved him instantaneously.  I moved.  And here’s the thing: if you end up having a  bad experience it’s a much better story to tell when you get to your destination instead of “Oh, the flight was fine.”

My new presentation partner happened to be staying at the same hotel as me.  Yes, this could get very bad.  Though I was appreciative of his efforts on my behalf, I found out over the course of the flight that he and his wife were not doing so well.  This happens to me a lot – people seem to feel some sort of immediate trust in me that they can spill their guts about their relationships.  I don’t mind at all really – relationships fascinate me.  However, I wisely decided not to take him up on his invitation for dinner.

On another flight I happened to sit next to a good looking guy my age.  Statistically speaking, this is rare.  We hit it off so well we had lunch together at our layover stop.  If he didn’t live on the other side of the country, we’d have seen each other again.  Neither of us was interested in a cross-country romance.

This thought of talking to strangers crossed my mind today because yesterday I did plenty of it on a train.  That’s tomorrow’s story.  In the meantime, do talk to strangers.  It makes life SO much more interesting.

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