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Look Behind Before You Recline: Letters to the Editor

Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel's regular series in which Features Editor Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Got a question? Please send questions or comments about travel etiquette to editor@smartertravel.com.(Questions may be edited.)

I've been issuing advice on travel etiquette in dozens of Upright Position columns, covering everything from chatty airplane seatmates to SeaWorld. Now it's your turn. Below is a selection of emails submitted by SmarterTravel readers in response to Upright Position.

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In Response to In-Flight Phone Calls Are Not the Devil

We live in a culture where (1) so many people are oblivious to others, (2) courtesy is a forgotten thing, and (3) flying is NOT a comfortable experience.

Add cell phone conversations on flights where people are already cranky and uncomfortable and you will have physical altercations. You may not believe in flight calls are the devil but they will surely be the spark that starts many a fire.  Why do think flight attendants are against this??

—Donna V. 

In Response to Should Reclining Seats on Planes Be Banned?

I disagree with the editorial in favor of reclining seats. I am not going to throw around a mess of insults.  Rather, I would suggest reclining without asking is the decision of one human being to be rude to another, and perhaps put them into pain.  It is obviously not a great moral wrong, but it is selfish.  I happen to teach ethics for a living, though I don't really think that counts for much.

—Bruce B.

I read your article about reclining seats and loved it. Just to share my recent adventure. I was on a flight from Paris to NYC for nine hours. The person in front had her seat back because the person in front of her did. I even asked and the lady in front of me didn't want to disturb the first recliner. I have a hip problem and can't get out of my seat when seats are reclined. The flight attendant asked the first recliner to put her seat up some and she did for an HOUR of the nine hours. It was a miserable flight for me. Reclining seats need to be destroyed. We are packed in like sardines in a can anyway! People can be so rude and don't care!

—Lynda

Due to a family crisis—our youngest was in a bad accident one and a half years ago—I've spent a lot of time commuting across the U.S. recently.

Regarding the to-recline-or-not issue: I would not recline without asking the person behind me first.  

We have so little space on planes that arbitrarily grabbing a chunk of another person's space without warning seems very rude.  Also, it makes it much harder for the people in the seats behind you to get out to stretch their legs or go to the bathroom.  This is especially true if you are sitting in an aisle seat. You have effectively blocked a whole row. 

After a serious illness I had a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot), which then moved from my leg to my lungs, almost killing me. That is also a serious risk when sitting for such a long time. I now wear compression stockings when flying, drink water frequently, and get exercise walking up and down the aisle several times during the flight if possible.

I've had people slam their seats back in my face when I was working on my computer and only quick action on my part prevented potential damage to my laptop.

Suddenly slamming the seat back can also catapult food or drink into the lap of the poor person behind you—which is potentially dangerous if they have hot coffee or tea.

One exception is late-night flights. If the person behind me is asleep, I would not disturb them, but I would gently recline my seat.

I hope you rethink this issue.

—Susan

In Response to How to Make Your Chatty Seatmate Shut Up (Without Violence)

Caroline,

Talk to me.

Firstly, I will say that I enjoyed your article, as it had a very catchy title that many will be interested in; so please do not take my comments as hostile or critical, this is just my honest perspective. While you did take the time to perform research on etiquette and politeness, I did find it conspicuously polarized as if it was written by a social xenophobe. As one who could likely be accused of being one of those "chatty seatmates," I have some perspective on the issue that could offer some balance to your article, which is what I often look for in truly productive reading.

One could truly miss out on the best wisdom, contacts, and future friends by calculatingly designing ways to routinely make others "shut up" while commuting on planes, trains, and automobiles. I have been in moods and positions where I didn't feel like talking either, and I don't think that anyone should be forced to do so, as your article aptly describes. I would say, however, that one should at least consider the possibility of a worthwhile connection that you might be missing before being too courteously dismissive. Recently, I traded a nap for a conversation with a man with whom I assumed no commonality existed; I discovered this simply by asking what he did for a living. It ended up that he allowed me to sharpen my acuity for the industry in which I consult. The conversation was very educational and it allowed me to ask questions without risk; it allowed him to talk about a subject he dearly loved, which most people would find quite boring. Needless to say, it was an equitable trade.

Had I encountered a person who refused to make eye contact, who gave two word answers and opened a book or snuggled into a pillow on the wall, I would have gotten the message instantly and not considered him or her to be rude at all, just otherwise occupied in some way. In my culture, there is a term known as "nice-nasty," which indicates that the very act of forcibly being polite, or not, while showing obvious disdain for another does not elicit appreciation, respect or admiration for gracefulness. Have you ever experienced a person who smiled or laughed for effect with venom in their eyes? Yeah. In fact, I think your well-researched suggestions would make your seatmate silently curse under his breath and shut up all right, but the ensuing silence would be based on quiet hostility. That wouldn’t be a good trip for either seatmate, but perhaps I am projecting myself on others too much. The suggested statements of etiquette that you offer would only be necessary, as a last resort, if the seatmate repeatedly interrupted your obvious book reading time, forced you to remove your ear buds several times, or continued to speak despite the lack of eye contact. At this point, I am in full agreement with you.

I believe that your article would be heralded by an Andy Rooney type of personality, being an old curmudgeon (God rest his dear soul), but those of us who truly adore the dying art of good conversation may feel that we are losing friends along this journey that makes life so grand.

Great article! You are a wonderful writer, and you definitely made me think, which in the end is what fine writing is all about. And by the way, I am hopeful for a chat (or joust) with you, unsquelched, anytime on a plane or train. Unless, that is… ?

Very respectfully,

—Michael O. A.

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