DSCN0214 by Jada Drew

You know that moment before you board an airplane and you ask yourself, “I wonder what kind of person is going to sit next to me?” Sometimes I am not in the mood to sit with the person who is going to tell me her entire life story.

Why? Her story may not be as important as the nap I’ve been craving; or that initial greeting may lead to awkward eye contact and forced conversation. Honestly, if I go an entire flight without speaking to the person sitting next to me I am just fine with that.

On the other hand, when I do make a greeting, I meet fascinating people who impact my life in ways both big and small.

Most people could probably use a crash course in airplane etiquette. As a seasoned flyer I would say airplane etiquette can be achieved by agreeing to comply with and partake in the following behaviors: Be courteous and kind with a positive attitude, know when to engage in conversation, be open to difference and, last but certainly not least, having a pleasant smell — a behavior that I call “smellitude.”

Listening actively

A good tip, if you want to converse with the stranger sitting next to you, knowing how to do it properly is key. If someone does speak to you then listen actively — that means remove ear-blockers. You are much more likely to engage in conversations and build relationships. Even if the relationship only lasts for two hours, your mind is enlightened and your perspective broadened.

Know when and how to engage in conversation

If you notice a hesitancy to speak or make eye contact maybe the person next to you is not in the mood to talk. Give them a little time. They may need time to settle in or maybe they are not interested. In my years of flying I’ve learned that there is a time to engage and there is a time to not give a damn and fly away, literally. Read the cues and smile anyway.

Be open to difference

Engaging with your co-passenger is like entering a diversity-training workshop. I’m a diversity trainer so I know. You have to step out of your comfort zone. People usually connect with others they feel comfortable around. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when on a tight airplane with strangers and no ventilation. On the other hand, there is growth when you are open to meet someone new. When you step outside of the comfort, magic happens! You connect with people with whom you have nothing in common. The new connections stimulate your mind and increase your net worth.

Yes, net worth! Delta Airlines hit it on the head with the Innovation Class, a mentoring program that connects travelers with enterprising ideas and companies, as they travel. It increases the possibility of economic growth. But, you don’t need a program. Just talk to the person sitting next to you. You never know what business deal may go down.

Be polite

One of the most common discourtesies committed on a plane by a co-passenger is being greedy with space. Ever sit in a three-seat row and the passenger in the middle hogs BOTH armrests? How annoying is that? Don’t be that person. Your elbows are not the only elbows on the planet. [pullquote]Be courteous and kind with a positive attitude, know when to engage in conversation, be open to difference and, last but certainly not least, having a pleasant smell — a behavior that I call “smellitude.”[/pullquote]

Smell good!

Be aware of your smellitude — in other words be conscious of the smell you are putting off into the universe and more importantly to the nostrils next to you. When a person has a strong, aggressive and rude attitude in their armpits and other parts of their body left to your imagination (but I think you get the idea) it is really difficult to sit next to them and want to engage in a conversation with them. In addition to smelling good, your attitude should be pleasant too.

Have a positive attitude when you fly

The key is to practice a spirit of happiness, to simply say hello. Pay it forward. My close friends always joke with me in asking, “Where in the world is Jada this week?” They ask about recent adventures. I always share my airplane stories first. My growing world perspective not only helps me, it helps my friends learn too. The next time I travel, I will think of the fascinating people to meet, the stories I will share; and ultimately how I will be a more open traveler. It all starts with a welcoming smile.

Jada Drew is the director of multicultural education at Guilford College and runs Social Designs Consulting.


  1. I struck up a conversation with the two people next to me on a recent flight and it turned out one was studying journalism and the other just graduated with a history degree (which I studied). I thought of your article as I boarded a plane yesterday, too.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.