"Don't worry. I'm not one of those people who will talk the entire flight."
My first clue.
On a recent 13-hour Qantas flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, my seatmate confided these words to me just before takeoff. In hindsight, I should have known better. He was married, so there was absolutely no interest romantically. That wasn't an issue. But the goateed guy had a nerdy-edgy Foo Fighters way about him. He was intriguing, funny, uniquely creative, even worldly, as he commuted between the US and New Zealand where he had a successful career in the arts. I admit, I was curious.
Then he really started divulging.
Layer by layer he unfolded his world and led me in. Six hours and too many glasses of pinot gris later (I stuck with water), he was still talking, actually spilling. I learned how he met his wife on Match.com. He shared her deep insecurities stemming from her damaged childhood. He revealed the cost of their home. There was even talk of how he blew off prior girlfriends and wished he could make amends.
I liked the guy in that you're-just-my-pal way. I mean, he promised to give me special Kiwi chocolate once he had access to his checked suitcase. He offered career guidance. He even wanted to weigh in on the design of my upcoming book cover. We bonded and I gained a cool new happening friend.
Or I thought I did.
That was all before he popped a blue pill, announced, "I snore," and slept (and snorted) until about an hour before landing. When he woke, my pal was gone. Suddenly a stranger was beside me. He was distant and done with me. In fact, he barely said goodbye when exiting the plane. I was confused, disappointed.
Was I merely a one flight stand? Another tug on his proverbial seatbelt?
I turned to experts for answers.
Rich Beattie, executive editor, TravelandLeisure.com, advises that I shouldn't have expected much from the get go.
"Airplanes create a sort of alternate reality -- you're stuck in tight quarters with nowhere to hide but the bathroom. You can almost never change seats, and you can't get off at the next stop. It's a chatty person's dream come true. But when your forced proximity ends, that's often where your bond ends, too. Unless there's some event that deepens your connection -- the plane lands on the Hudson River, say -- flights usually aren't a unique enough experience to cement the bond. So when the flight ends, the connection disappears, and you go back to your real lives--in other words, you won't be seeing that person again."
Nancy Winston, a noted New York psychotherapist and human behavior expert says it had nothing to do with me.
"As soon as he starts spilling, it's all about him. There's no you. How can you feel bad about someone who has no sense of you? This is his movie, you're just his audience. And when he says, 'that's all folks,' that's all. If you realize it's a one-man show, you don't need to feel bad. To him, you're not a person listening, you're just an ear."
Jodie Berlin Morrow, PhD, life coach and human development specialist took the enjoy-the-moment approach.
"During a long flight, to be entertained by someone who tells you interesting tales can be wonderful. The pinot made the guy high as a kite. You enjoyed it in the moment, he was finished and that was it. I wouldn't even pass judgment. You weren't used, you were entertained."
Dan Post, author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, arbiter of American etiquette for nearly a century, patiently explained, "human attention is a gift. Just because someone sits beside you on a plane doesn't imply an obligation to listen. Take responsibility so you don't end up being victimized. It's reasonable to excuse yourself from the conversation or veer towards to safer topics and avoid politics and religion.
In the Fight Club, Ed Norton's character has a theory that on planes everyone has single serving everything -- including the single serving friend. You develop intimacy immediacy, then it goes away when the flight is over. It's not to say that you couldn't meet your future husband on board, but don't necessarily expect it."
Karen Schaler author of Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go, agrees that flying friendships are superficial and evaporate as soon as the wheels hit the runway. But to escape feeling hostage in your seat, Schaler suggests, "excuse yourself to use the restroom. This way, you break the chain of non-stop chatter by getting away for a few minutes. The second you come back, before you sit, put on earphones and say you're going to relax or watch a movie and keep your earphones on for as long as needed. They're your best friend!"
These wise souls do have a point. I guess I'll chalk it up to the unique, fleeting relationship of being strangers on a plane. And in the future, I'll be sure to have my headphones handy or simply relish my short-term single serving friend.
Jeryl Brunner is a journalist and author of the upcoming book, My City, My New York: Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places.
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