There’s a saying that you learn good manners from those who have none.
I was reminded of this on a recent plane flight. The big passenger seated in front of me fell into his seat like a dead weight, launching the open bottle of water on my tray table into my lap. As he organized himself, he stretched his head backward over the top of the seat, leaning back so my face was less than a foot away from his oily-pated comb-over. And then he started to scratch his head, and dandruff began falling like we were inside a snow globe. This presented a quandary for me: do I ignore it, as is my general rule when encountering rude behavior? Often people are rude out of ignorance, not because they’re actively seeking to irritate us. The next response: see if the behavior stops. Maybe it’s a fleeting bad moment. But the scratching continued, and I began to realize that Puritan forbearance could not be my path. This guy didn’t need a shampoo; he needed a Silkwood shower.
Finally, I stood up, walked around to face him, and said, in the friendliest possible way, “Excuse me, sir. I’m sure you didn’t realize this, but you’re scratching your dandruff into my drink. Do you think you could stop, please?”
“Huh?” he said. I repeated, “Could you please stop scratching your dandruff into my drink?” and I made a scratching motion with my hands to my head. The hand motion seemed to get through to him and he grunted and looked away. The head scratching continued, furtively, throughout the flight, but he made a point of leaning forward when he did it, which is really all I could ask for in that situation.
My point here is not that, as Oscar Wilde said, “Other people are quite dreadful,” but rather that we all do things that are unwittingly rude. Travel throws us together in ways that make opportunities for rudeness more likely, so if there is ever a time to be mindful of your actions, it’s on a plane, train, bus or subway.
Some rules of the road:
1) If you are going through TSA security at the airport, be attentive to the procedures. Don’t wait until you get to the conveyor belt to take off your belt, feel around your pockets for loose change, dig your computer out of your suitcase, unlace those purple hightops, and drain your bottle of water like it’s the last you’ll ever see; it shows utter disdain for everyone in line behind you, some of whom may be scrambling to make a flight. It’s a kindness to be quick in the TSA line.
2) If you’re in a middle or window seat, it’s customary to ask the person next to you to stand up so that you can get by to use the restroom. If it seems annoying to ask, it’s much more annoying to push past someone and trample their feet in the process. If they refuse to stand – also rude – let your feet fall where they may.
3) Overhead storage: don’t throw your bags on top of other people’s belongings already stored in the overhead bins. Move them aside, in case they have to access them during the flight. If you see a person struggling to get their bag into the overhead bin and you are in a position to be helpful, please help! It doesn’t have to be a little old lady – we can all use a hand from time to time.
4) Armrests: belong to the person in the middle seat, because they have no aisle armrest or window to lean on.
5) Getting on the plane: We all know how this works. The airlines call the first class passengers to board first, so don’t push up ahead of everyone to board, when you know you’re in seat 28D. It makes it that much harder for everyone else to board, thereby slowing down the entire process.
6) Personal conversations: I’ve learned more about the sexcapades, personal finances and secret political strategies of complete strangers than I’ve ever wanted to know, while riding Amtrak between New York and Washington. Be aware of what you’re saying, either on the phone or to a fellow traveler, while onboard.
7) Crying kids: are usually more upsetting to their parents than anyone else. Chances are Mom and Dad are doing everything they can to make it stop, so be sympathetic and put on your earphones instead of shooting dirty looks.