No Exit: Sociology Meets Air Travel
When I was in high school I was really into existentialism. Not a surprise, considering that teens are often trying to figure out the meaning of their lives (even though existentialists consider life to be without inherent meaning…but I digress).
One of my favorites was the Jean-Paul Sartre play, No Exit. If memory serves, the play is about a group of people, each seriously flawed in their own way, who had to spend eternity together. To paraphrase Sartre’s point, “hell is other people.”
For some reason this idea really struck a chord with me when we read it in my 12th grade world literature class. Other people can really help create friction that otherwise might not exist. (The irony that I would become a sociologist is not lost on me, by the way).
This thought occurred to me on a recent flight. As in Sartre’s play, I was placed in close quarters with a selection of strangers, each with their own unique set of characteristics. Although I thankfully will not spend eternity with them, for the four hours of the flight’s duration we had to learn to negotiate relationships with one another and manage our emotions in the process.
Our challenge began immediately upon boarding. There was someone sitting in my aisle seat, so I had to ask her to move. She did, reluctantly leaving her eleven-year-old son sitting in the middle seat. As I was getting settled in, the woman asked him repeatedly if he was okay from her middle seat across the aisle.
Each time he answered that he was, but within minutes she asked if I wouldn’t mind sitting in her middle seat just for take off, that I could move back for the flight, and then we could switch again when the plane descended. I said we should just switch, that I didn’t want to move back and forth. I admit I was less than gracious about exchanging seats, until I saw a rather attractive man who had the window seat now next to me, which seemed like a just reward.
So I fully admit to being part of the friction, which increased when I asked the flight attendant if I could use the bathroom in first class before the flight left, since it was much closer than walking to the back of the plane as people were getting seated. She was clearly annoyed but agreed.
This type of social situation produces all sorts of opportunities to breach norms and challenge what we think are agreed upon social rules. I gave up a highly valued aisle seat for the least valued middle seat. I also crossed “class” lines by using the bathroom in the wrong cabin.
Other social rules get tested while flying too. The young woman in front of me chatted quite loudly with her seat mate for a good part of the flight. It was obvious from the conversation that they did not know each other, as they talked about where they lived and the weather in their respective homes.
Nothing is unusual about this, except that the loud conversation was continually peppered with profanity. I had the sense that the man next to me was annoyed too, but neither of us said anything to each other or to her.
I thought about this for a few minutes—what would I say? Do I ask the flight attendant to remind her of the unwritten social rule to watch your language? She might have thought that since only adults were immediately next to her and behind her it was totally acceptable to use the f-word as her favorite adjective. Or maybe she was trying to bond with her similarly-aged seat mate by using words she thought might connote familiarity.
The other people surrounding me carried on conversations too: where they grew up, where they live now, favorite restaurants in their destination city, places to shop, and so forth. This type of conversation seems quite acceptable under the circumstances, yet for those trying to sleep (as I was) any talk was disturbing.
In fairness, I’m sure sitting next to me was not so great either. I had a raging cold and spent the entire flight blowing my nose and sucking on cough drops. Because of the absence of personal space, there is a good chance that these unsuspecting strangers left the flight with my germs.
When the plane landed, I couldn’t wait to get out of there and leave my temporary intimates forever. I learned more about them that I wanted to (the lady next to me had ten children, the man next to me played fantasy soccer league on his Mac, even after the flight attendant asked us to turn off all electronic devices).
But with the critical distance of walking through the airport terminal, I realized the absurdity of my irritation. After all, I safely traveled more than 2,000 miles in four hours. The flight was smooth, landed and departed on time. They even served a hot meal in coach (yes, Continental still does that!), and the only challenge was in negotiating being so close to other people.
This experience reminded me that unspoken rules often contradict each other; while some people might prefer that one rule be followed, others might be following another. Is hell other people? I wouldn’t go that far, but we do present challenges to each other when we are in close quarters with no exit.