What Your Inflight Behavior Says About You

Jul 31, 2018

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From the moment you arrive at the airport until the plane lands safely at your destination, you will encounter extremes of human behavior that come about because, frankly, the experience of flying, for all but a few, is not part of any regular routine.

There’s the person who demands the window seat; the fellow who picks a fight with every gate agent and flight attendant; the Chatty Kathy who pretends not to have noticed your large noise-canceling headphones. Unless you’re flying on a private jet, there are all types of people on planes, and even if you’re in a premium cabin, you will meet them.

Are these people always so … intense? Probably not.

How flying affects your behavior

We are largely defined by our settings. And when we are on a plane, we cede control of our environment — even our actions — for the sake of getting where we want to go.

For some people, especially those with trust issues, this can be a terrifying experience. In daily life, these individuals compensate for their distrust through habits, avoidance and doing what they please as much as possible. But on an airplane? The situation is out of their hands.

That’s very stressful! And stress contributes to any number of unusual or extreme behaviors, from impulsivity to paranoia and even depression.

When we are under stress, without our schedules and rituals, we are often at a loss. The habits we rely upon without thinking are gone. We may feel adrift, which makes us more reactive and emotional.

After all, it’s largely our habits and schedules that keep us looking and acting normal. When we travel, we become unglued.

And guess what?  We all get to sit next to each other, totally unmoored, for sometimes 15 hours or more. That’s right: you, Bob and his fear of the unknown.

Try to remember that anxiety, uncertainty and even sadness may be motivating your seatmate to fidget repeatedly with the window shade — or prompting a passenger to carry on exhausting conversations for the entirety of your long-haul flight.

No matter what type of traveler you encounter on your next trip, just practice your breathing techniques, and try a trick I use in every stressful situation: don’t take it personally.

It works, trust me. But if you’re not the meditative type, just remember those noise-canceling headphones. That’s what they’re there for.

What kind of person jumps from their seat the second the plane lands?

Dr. Mary Olmstead, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Ontario, has written extensively about impulsivity. She notes that a person who exhibits impulsive behavior — if it’s characteristic of that person — may have any number of reasons for acting quickly and without thinking.

“This tendency to act without thinking or prioritizing short-term over long-term gains could interfere with an individual’s ability to … alter their behavior in response to social or other environmental cues,” Olmstead wrote.

On a plane, an impulsive person may have a very inflated sense of themselves. Seatbelt unbuckled, elbows flying, that individual is opening the overhead bin to get to the head of the line before there even is a line to cut.

It’s possible, too, that a traveler may be compelled out of his or her seat by anxiety or, more simply, urgency. After all, you never know when a person is rushing to catch a connection.

What kind of person can’t sleep even on long, overnight flights?  

For a sleepless person, stimuli can be overwhelming, distorted and misinterpreted. These individuals react to stress by creating more stress. If you’re seated next to a person who has spent every minute of a 14-hour flight to South Korea playing Minecraft, watching every available episode of “Friends” and pacing back and forth down the aisle, be kind — this restless person is probably depressed and worried.

Writing in The Lancet, Dr. Charles Morin, a psychologist at Laval University in Quebec — and an expert on insomnia — describes the importance of Cognitive Behavioral Techniques (CBT) for travelers who toss and turn.

But if you are seated next to an insomniac, either circumstantial or clinical, your best bet is to use those same methods to get yourself to sleep. (And if you are that insomniac, the methods also apply to you, too.) Not to oversimplify, but it is largely about the breathing. Start with a deep breath in, and a deep breath out, concentrating on the breathing, shutting out external distractions and any upsetting thoughts or feelings. It’s not easy the first time, but practice improves efficacy. Consider it another excuse to book your next overnight flight.

What kind of person just can’t stop chatting?

Loquacity is rooted in all sorts of causes, ranging from anxiety to inattentiveness. On a day to day basis, these chatty travelers have more organic outlets. But on a plane, usually denied access to the Internet and a frequently revolving queue of personal interactions, you might find this person talking non-stop and in a tangential manner. For that individual, this can relieve some of the stress associated with being in flight.

It’s just that you’re stuck next to that person. Sorry.

No matter where you are or who you meet, the strangers you encounter in the check-in line, on the aircraft or at the baggage claim are going to demand that you be patient. Try to imagine each person as somewhat bewildered, anxious and out-of-place. It can help you sympathize with those extreme behaviors, too.

Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

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