Darwin and the Airplane
June 7th, 2012

When she sat down she immediately pulled out her book.  She was relieved to see that the guy sitting next to her did the same.  She intended to fly to New Orleans quite happily without having to chit chat all the way there.  As it turned out, she married the guy about three years later.

The “she” I refer to?  One of my best friends from undergrad.  And yes, she married a guy she met on a flight.  Five years and two kids later, they are happy as can be.  Had they both kept their noses in their books as intended that likely wouldn’t be the case.

I got to thinking about my friend when I read this article about how Baltic Airlines intends to allow passengers to board planes according to their moods.  Worker bee travelers can tap away at their laptops in concert.  Those looking for networking opportunities can join up as well.  And those wanting to keep to themselves can select a “relax” option.  At first blush this strikes me as a genius idea.  We’ve all been stuck next to a Chatty Cathy when all we wanted was some peace and quiet.  I’ve also been in the inverse situation where after long and sometimes lonely business trips I’m looking for a conversation, only to get major nonverbal cues from my seatmates that they are not.  Nevertheless, there’s a part of me that bristles at this idea of mood-based seat assignments.

It seems that via social media and other electronic conveniences we are increasingly able to control what exposure we have to people around us.  We can use Facebook to “check in” at various locations and events, enabling us to find people we already know in the same place.  We can hunker down into our smartphones, iPads, and Kindles while waiting for restaurant tables.  We can chat on the phone while riding in taxis.  And now we can have some say in how we are seated on airplanes to ensure that we either are or aren’t disturbed, according to our mood.

It’s not that I mean to be a total grinch / luddite / hater.  I believe that all of these conveniences have real value.  But I also think there is real value in facing the unexpected.  For starters, the real world brings unexpected things our way all the time.  How are we to learn to deal with them if we never have to?  We read in parenting magazines and blogs that we have to allow our children the opportunity to fight and fail and resolve conflict because our interventions will ultimately prove counterproductive.  I can’t help but wonder if the same isn’t true at some level for adults.

Not every unexpected encounter is one for the history books.  Plenty of them come and go without lasting in our memories.  But I think that the more we minimize or narrowly select our human interactions the worse we become at interacting.  And then a cycle starts:  The worse we are the less we want to do it.  The less we do it the worse we get.  And so on.  And that is why I believe there is value in chatting up the bartender while you wait for your date.  There is value in smiling and nodding while a person tells a story that doesn’t particularly interest you.  There is value in sitting next to a person on an airline with whom you have nothing in common.  Relating to people is the only way we learn how to relate to people.  (How’s that for meta logic?)  I fear that this Darwinian selection process of only linking up within our existing cohorts will ultimately make us socially weaker.  We will never have to flex new and different interpersonal muscles.

The traveler who wants to work or network or sit silently may get more out of a flight by electing to sit next to someone just like him.  But  with that he loses the opportunity to find that he has something in common with a person who, on the surface, seems foreign to him.  The soccer mom and the tattoo artist who both have kids leaving for college.  The sales guy and the computer programmer who just finished the same book.  He also lose the opportunity to meet someone who is truly different.  The musician going out on tour.  The person who writes mobile phone apps.  The person who used to work for the Fed and now drives a cab.

When you get down to it, I suppose this is a post about being open minded.  Finding like-minded people quickly and easily via the vast electronic capabilities available to us today is an incredible thing.  The world can be an isolating place and I think it is often made better by the ability to seek out compadres we might otherwise not have found.  But I think we have to be careful not to let the pendulum of our interactions with the world swing too far in the other direction.  We can’t allow ourselves to only find like-minded people or we’ll lose the ability to relate to anyone who isn’t already a kindred spirit.

Back to my friend who met her husband on a plane.  The irony of it is that they both intended to avoid each other and ended up finding a connection in spite of themselves.  Sometimes life throws people at us and we must interact no matter how much we don’t want to.  Nevertheless, I think we have to beware the pitfalls of keeping our circles small.  There’s a whole world out there that is filled with people we might not want to miss.

4 Responses to “Darwin and the Airplane”

  1. Alice Says:

    Best plane ride of my life!

  2. Ana Says:

    Gail I agree with you. I think chance interactions are an important part of community. And being forced to interact with people throughout the day (including on an airplane) can, at the very least, get you out of your own head and back into the world. I think about this when I see people plug in their earphones immediately getting on a plane/bus/walking around—they are essentially isolating themselves and indicating that they are not interested in being part of the community. Yes, people can be annoying, but people (sometimes the very same ones!) can also be amazing, eye-opening, life-changing. Now, I’m actually quite shy, so its hard for me to approach people, but I do keep myself approachable & do try to smile, exchange pleasantries, etc… as I go about my day. I haven’t had quite the life-altering experience as your friend, but I’ve had pleasant conversations, book recommendations, travel advice, and other serendipitous experiences just by being open to them.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    This is a fascinating perspective and context. One I hadn’t thought about. The absolute necessity to be “trained” in dealing with the unexpected – and in order for that to occur, we can’t be solely weeding out the like-minded, ignoring the “realities” around us, or surely we’ll miss out.

    Much food for thought here, Gale.

    (And by the way, I also met my husband on an airplane… )

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Gale, I love this story—and what’s cool about it is the fact that they not only chatted (in spite of themselves) and connected… they actually called/emailed (texted?) later in their real lives. I know I am definitely guilty of connecting with a stranger and then never actually staying in touch with the person once I’m “back to reality.” But this is a story out of a rom com. Did it make for some great wedding toasts?!