I have a friend who loves to chat with her in-flight seatmates. After seemingly every trip, she tells me of the romantic interest, professional contact or inspirational person she met (and subsequently exchanged contact information with) at 30,000 feet.
Once, she befriended the man sitting next to her only to find out he was a member of the band Grizzly Bear.
I’m not like her.
If a stranger starts talking to me while we are sitting in our giant metal tube on the tarmac, I’m friendly but inside, I’m getting nervous. Nervous that if I talk now, they will want to chat the entire flight.
No thank you.
Flying, for me, is quiet time. Just because we are sitting abnormally close to one another does not mean we should share our life stories. This is a personal preference of course, but one that many share.
Is there a polite way to let your seatmate or other overly talkative stranger know that you aren’t looking for a conversation? Is it okay to fake sleeping or start reading to let them know you want to be left alone?
Ensuring that you aren’t trapped in hours of small talk requires a fine balance of kindness and curtness. So I smile, respond to questions but don’t ask too many of my own.
Then when the conversation breaks (or the plane starts to take off), I pop in the headphones – the universal sign to “leave me alone, please.” Better yet, you could slip on an eye mask, put up your hood, or even use foam earplugs.
Of course, overly-talkative strangers extend beyond flights. Who hasn’t encountered the cashier who openly comments on your drug store purchases? Or the waiter who lingers at the table for far too long. The sales clerk that follows you around the store inquiring about your every need.
Last week, a young man approached me on the train and proceeded to talk for the duration of the ride. While I avoided eye contact, checked my phone and attempted to put my headphones back in my ears, he persisted.
The conversation was uncomfortable and pushy.
This is not always the case; sometimes people are genuinely being nice. But boundaries should be respected. Like the earphones on the plane, there are kind, but strong ways to send the message that you do not want to be chatted up.
So, is it okay to assert your personal silence by reading, listening to music or simply closing your eyes? If strangers are insistent about speaking with you, can you nicely explain to them that you prefer to have this time to yourself? If you ask for a little space, a little silence and a little privacy, will they most likely acquiesce?
Or, do you just have to be plain rude?