…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

How to Deal With Talkative Passengers While Flying at 32,000 Feet

For those of you who claimed to have built life-changing friendships, been engaged or married, or reached an epiphany about red meat on a red-eye from San Francisco to New York, a bladder-buster from Sydney to Sabzewar, or ate, prayed and loved from Reno to  Vegas – I do not want to sit next to you on an airplane.

It’s not that I’m an unfriendly person.  I’m not afraid of catching your tuberculosis.  I will not complain should you remove the shoes you’ve worn for four months in the heat and humidity of the Amazon, studying the nesting habits of Harpy Eagles. Your newborn can scream endlessly in my ear, while you peruse an article about how to please your man in bed with Hello Kitty lingerie.  Please don’t hesitate to hog our joint arm rest, fall asleep on my shoulder, then drool and moan for the next four hours, as you have an erotic dream.  And, should you need to climb over my legs for the eighth time in three hours to go to the bathroom because of some bad Chinese food you had in Nogales, Arizona the day before, that’s O.K., too.

Just don’t tell me that you got diarrhea, because you had some bad Chinese food in Nogales, even though you wanted to have Mexican, but your mother-in-law, who had moved there after violating her parole, believed that a plate of General Tsao’s had less calories than anything from Bubba’s Burrito Shack – Home of the Biggest Baked Beans Your Burrito Has Ever Been Stuffed With…west of the Mississippi, south of Tucson, north of the Mexican border, east of Interstate 19, two doors down from that place that used to sell sculptures made out of spark plugs and chicken feathers, but is now a Jesus book and gift store with inflated prices…and speaking of inflation – have I seen that Pam Anderson lately  – she’s got more air in those two babies than we do in all four tires of our Chevy Suburbans combined.  We’ll all need our life jackets when this plane goes down, but Pam won’t have to worry since she’s got her own personal flotation device.

Nothing good has ever come out of a conversation I’ve had with a stranger in an enclosed space, flying 32,000 feet in the air.  Decades of flying have taught me that conversing with strangers in an airplane is best done when,

We share a common language.  Mono-syllabic words barely strung together with dubious conjunctions, adjectives and adverbs, accompanied by shrugging shoulders, frantic hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions is not a language and cannot be maintained over the course of a twelve-hour flight.

We adhere to a strict hygiene regimen, which doesn’t include gargling with Jack Daniels and Coke.

We are certain that the other is not a blogger, who will write about her experiences with people she has seen on airplanes.

On a flight to Las Vegas I sat across the aisle from a young woman who droned on endlessly in a loud, nasally drawl that could be heard as far forward as the cockpit doors and five rows back to the toilet.  This woman was in the first year of her graduate studies at Washington State University, which is in Pullman, Washington, and not Vancouver, Washington. Her boyfriend lives in Vegas and was picking her up from the airport, but his last text revealed that he might be a little late, as his truck had some issues and would not start.  He had gotten this truck second hand in 1997…no, maybe more like later in the 1990s, because that was when she was still working at the Denny’s, and her dog was still alive.  This wasn’t the chocolate Lab, which really belonged to her grandmother, but the Wheaton terrier that she’d gotten at the pound in the fourth grade….

“Oh my God, is she going to keep talking?”

This from the lady sitting next to me.  Her perfume was an intoxicating mix of Junipers and the Pinyon pine forests after a warm Spring shower.  She was fashionably-dressed in a leather motorcycle jacket, leather boots and a large wrap, which she had carefully arranged over her outstretched body.   She then took out a pair of headphones – the size of Texas on steroids – snapped them over her ears and pretended to sleep for the rest of the flight, not even waking up for free nuts.

The above scenario wonderfully illustrates my strategy in dealing with talkative passengers while flying at 32,000 feet, which is – Do Not Deal with Talkative Passengers While Flying at 32,000 feet.  Do not engage.  Do not encourage. Do not continue to bob your head up and down to a conversation you’ve mentally checked out of ten minutes ago.  Do not end your sentences with a question mark.  Do not appear to be someone whom people might want to have a conversation with.

At the same time, be careful not to elicit this stranger’s animosity towards you.  You will have to sit next to this person for the next several hours, and the plane is full.  You cannot wander the aisles aimlessly, nor line up for the toilet in clusters.  You cannot spend the entire duration of the flight in the toilet.  You must remain in your seat next to this person.  This person may be flying to Puerto Vallarta to avoid a murder conviction.  He may be sitting in the aisle seat so you’re at his mercy, should you need to go to the bathroom.  You cannot confront nor offend this person.  You can only distract yourself, become passive-aggressive, and turn your growing rage and angst inwards.

Having a prop or adopting passive-aggressive tactics on a flight is essential to your mental well-being, when dealing with fellow passengers you’d rather avoid. Bring noise-cancelling headphones,  your Kindle or Nook, a sandwich full of stinky cheese, a precocious child who’s just had a gallon of Pepsi and is sitting in the window seat, big books with titles like, An Illustrated Guide to Airline Disasters, Volume 3.  Occasionally guffaw and slap your knee for no reason, begin all your sentences with, “But Mother said…”.  You will be astounded at how many of your fellow passengers will leave you alone, or maybe even wish that you would just die….

…which brings up the issue of violence in the air.  Since 9-11, it has been nearly impossible to hurt yourself or others on a flight.  Even the pages of the SkyMall magazine seem flimsier, so that you can no longer get a paper cut by flipping through its pages.  Of course, we can stick our pens into our eyes in an attempt to abort a conversation we can’t escape from – but at what cost?   What if we miss our eyes and leave a huge, idiotic pen mark on our forehead that we can’t see?  What can we unassuming passengers do, when confronted with an airline passenger who just won’t shut the hell up?

In the mid-1990s, I flew from Phoenix to Vancouver, Canada, sitting next to someone who had as many offspring as there are eggs in a carton.  He had wallet-sized pictures of all his kids neatly placed into a long plastic sleeve, so that when he opened his wallet the plastic sleeve unfolded and cascaded onto the ground in a long line, like pulling an endless string of multi-colored handkerchiefs out of a clown’s vest pocket.

“They are a cute bunch, praise Jesus!” Brady Bunch Man times two shook his head, folding the pictures back into his wallet. “But, good Lord, can they be a handful!”  He turned to me, “Now, how about you?  Where are you from?  Are you from around here?”

An even greater pet peeve I have besides sitting next to a relentlessly-friendly stranger on a plane is said stranger assuming that all non-Caucasians are born and raised in a country outside of North America. And while my first reaction was to call Brady Bunch Man on this, I was also aware that we were flying 32,000 feet in the air for the next three-plus hours without anything to distract me, having stupidly assumed that I could catch up on my sleep during the flight.

Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation or the fact that Brady Brunch Man called out to the Lord in every other sentence, but I did an about-face from my own non-engagement strategy which I thought would discourage any further conversation – I pretended not to speak English.

“Ahh…no.  I no…s-sorry….”

“It’s O.K.  I mean…” in a louder and slower voice,  “Where are you from?  Are you from here?  From A-mer-i-ca?   Where…you…come…FROM?”

“Yes!  From!  Yes…I come…from…uh…CHINA!”

“Well, that’s wonderful!”  Then more slowly and loudly, “We have the Chinese…in …our…CHURCH.  The house of…GOD. The Chinese, his name is Nguyen.  Good guy.  Fine Christian.   NGUYEN…he’s Chinese!  You go…go to church, yes?  GO CHURCH…yes?”

“Noooo…sorry…I no go to church…I..Buddha yes, b-b-but Jesus, no.   Jesus, no.”

This was a line my grandmother had used half a dozen times to discourage various religious people who would call on her in Vancouver. However, unlike my grandmother who wanted to learn English and could listen to the same speech over and over, without comprehending a single thing, except “Hello!”, “Jesus loves you”, “bye bye”, “God” and “thank you”, and then suddenly announce when she became bored, “Buddha yes, Jesus NO!”, quickly close and lock the front door that separated her from her religious visitors – I had no door to separate me from Brady Bunch Man, except the one which kept our cabin pressurized and safe – the same one that led outside into the sky and 32,000 feet to the ground.

You might think it’s a special person who pretends not to speak any English so she can get out of talking to strangers on a plane, but the person who attempts to convert someone to his religion using a vocabulary of thirty words or less is the true champion of the two.

Armed with a fervent belief that God would help the most English-language-impaired among us see the light, Brady Bunch Man showed me pictures of his church, his favorite passage in the Bible, then half-told, half-performed a story about a man who regained mobility through the power of prayer and good deeds, after a devastating car crash that left him paralyzed.

“…his car go BOOM…with other car, yeah!  And he fly over his car…like this….  Then BOOM BOOM!  No more feeling.  None!  Very bad, his body bro-ken.  Very VERY VERY baaaaad.  Bad. No good.”

When faced with an English as a second language speaker, some of us may talk in a way that suggests the non-native person is also hard of hearing or slightly brain-damaged.  While I may have been mentally-impaired that day I pretended not to understand English, listening to feats of religious heroism as they might be related to an orangutan was far more agonizing than hearing the same thing spoken in normal English.  So, I finally came clean with Brady Bunch Man:

Yes, I’m from Taiwan, but I speak perfect English, since I’ve lived in North America most of my life.  Maybe you haven’t noticed there are many of us here.  By the way, Nguyen is Vietnamese and not Chinese.  He’d appreciate your getting his nationality correct.   And while I’m sure he’s a lovely person, I’m really not interested in Jesus, as I’ve mentioned several times already.  Also,  I’ve had an average three hours of sleep each night for the last three months, so I’d like to spend the rest of this flight relaxing and sleeping.  When I wrap myself up in my jacket and close my eyes, it means I’m trying to sleep.  When I read this magazine it means I would prefer reading this article instead of listening to you.  I’m just trying to be polite, it’s not a cultural thing, it’s just a universal gesture which most people recognize as a sign not to disturb the other person, and I hope you understand this, too.  It would be be nice not to listen to you for the rest of this flight, so please stop talking now.  This isn’t an issue that’s up for discussion.  Well, sir, I’m sorry you feel that way.   You left me no choice, but to be so direct.  Maybe God will show me the light one day, but in the meantime – I suppose you’re right – I’ll just take my chances in hell.

9 comments on “How to Deal With Talkative Passengers While Flying at 32,000 Feet

  1. runs
    January 16, 2016

    Agreed, and the same applies to many forms of public interaction. Things like flying are already uncomfortable, and unpleasant conversation just makes it worse. On a bright note, I once sat next to a man coming from Ireland with whiskey on his breath and a crying toddler in his company. To my chagrin, he rambled on about his trip, the smell of alcohol permeating the air, but at the end, gave me a 5 euro note and thanked me for my patience. I think some people manage situations like flying by conversating, and that’s ok, but I will never be one of those people!


    • lostnchina
      January 17, 2016

      Really 5 Euro for listening to the conversation? I hope you were paid by the minute and not by the hour! And hopefully the child wasn’t too neglected. Thank you for sharing and for reading this post!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jean
    January 7, 2016

    I once had a oil company labourer /driver sit beside me on a trip from Calgary to T.O. Eventually he mentioned, that his wife and 2 kids, wanted divorce him. They lived in Nfld., while he was working in AB.

    I believe I was the first outside to know since he told me found out by phone 3 days before. He was flying back to Nfld.

    No, he didn’t have designs on me. I think he really wanted to tell someone this shattering personal news that was going to be big impact on him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lostnchina
      January 7, 2016

      He must have been quite shaken to tell a stranger on a plane. How did you react. Were you encouraging him, or he just blurted it out?


      • Jean
        January 8, 2016

        He just blurted out as we were talking about his work experiences in Alberta. I live in Alberta and during the height of oil economy, our province had a lot of temporary workers from other parts of Canada and world-wide. Some of these people earned nice money…before the bust.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jean
        January 8, 2016

        Then he fell into thought. After all he did have 2 young children.


  3. expatlingo
    January 5, 2016

    You are my hero. Forever and ever my hero.

    I have found it very useful to use my children as buffers against talking to strangers on planes. I stick them in the seats between me and strangers whenever necessary. They are much better than me at completely blanking strangers whom they don’t want to engage with. Want to borrow them for your next flight?


    • lostnchina
      January 5, 2016

      Whee! You’re on. How are the kids on holding their pee during long distance flights?

      Wait…wouldn’t I be considered a *stranger* to your children?


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