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A Gentleman’s Guide to Talking on Planes

From small talk to flirting with your seatmate to FaceTiming with your bros, how to properly open your mouth at 35,000 feet

We’ve spoken quite a bit about airplane etiquette over the last couple of travel seasons, like what the hell you’re supposed to do with diapers on a plane, how to not stink up the cabin with your lunch and why it’s so important to say “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess.” But now, in the interest of keeping those skies friendlier than ever, we’ve reached out to a number of experts about how to master the art of talking on a plane. You know, how to chat up that fellow Yankees fan next to you, or how to politely signal to everyone around you that you want nothing more than a nice quiet flight. So, before you get on that plane and make a babbling fool of yourself (or seem like a brooding asshole), take a look at what our pros had to say on the matter.

How do I start a conversation with someone next to me?

If you’re somebody who likes to talk to new people on a plane, the first thing you want to do is lay the groundwork up front. “I usually start by greeting my seatmate, and from that greeting, I can tell if they want to talk or not,” says Abbie Unger, a former flight attendant who now runs Flight Attendant Career Connection. If you say “hello” to your seatmate and get a reply that matches or exceeds your the warmth of your own introduction, you might find that they’ll want to talk to you later. If you get a polite head nod or something equally brusque, there’s a good chance you didn’t just find your new bowling partner.

If you missed your opportunity at the start, Unger says you can later “comment on their book, bag or any other belonging that catches your eye. Or ask about their trip: ‘Are you staying in Chicago or connecting?,’ or ‘Are you headed home?’”

The inflight movie may also provide a good opening for a conversation. “On my last long flight,” Unger says, “I was seated next to a lady, and we exchanged pleasantries right before take-off. Then we both ended up watching A Star is Born on the inflight entertainment system and really bonded over a broken-hearted ugly-cry at the end of the movie. From there, we chatted for the next six hours, became besties and exchanged phone numbers.”

When are the best times to talk during a flight?

For all the ice-breaking that Unger suggests take place soon after you board, Alisha, a flight attendant with a major airline, notes that some people are reticent to talk at the start of a flight for fear that they’ll get stuck talking the entire time. So if things didn’t take off at take-off, you may find opportunities to strike up conversation while food gets passed around or announcements happen, whatever breaks up the monotony of the flight.

The prime time for talking, though, is the last 20 minutes in the air. “People will go the entire flight without talking to each other, but when we’re descending, that’s when people start talking,” Alisha says. She’s not entirely sure why this is, but thinks it may be because they didn’t want to talk the whole time and there may also be a sense of relief when you’re about to land.

Is there a time I shouldn’t talk at all?

Not really. You should be quiet while the flight attendants are going through the safety instructions, and as Unger notes, if there’s a fallen service member aboard, please respect the silence while they’re being boarded and unboarded. But outside of that, there aren’t many rules about talking on a plane. Even with a red-eye, while it might seem like you shouldn’t talk, there’s no rule — unwritten or otherwise — that says you can’t, just try to be considerate of the people around you and keep your voice down.

How can I tell if the person I’m trying to converse with actually wants to talk to me?

Obvious? Maybe. But still: “There has to be some sort of reading of the person as to whether or not they’re interested in having a conversation,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. “If I ask them a question and they ask me the same question back, that’s an indication that they’re interested in engaging in a conversation. But if I say, ‘Are you going to Boston for business or pleasure?’ and they just say, ‘Business,’ and open up their book, I’ll naturally read them as them not interested.”

Overall, be sure that there’s a real give-and-take in the conversation. If you’re the only one talking and the only one asking questions, it either means you haven’t given the other person a chance to talk or they’re just not interested in conversing. So try to be aware of who’s really driving and dominating the conversation, and if it’s you, let the person read their book and shut up for a while.

What about the other way around, how do I end an awkward, unwanted chat with the person next to me?

“The first chance you get, take a nap or pull out your book or headphones,” Greif says. “Those cues will tell someone that you’re not interested in pursuing the conversation. You may also try to give short, one-word answers.” If they’re still not getting the hint, you can politely say that you’d like to read your book or watch your movie, but Greif says to avoid getting confrontational in an enclosed space because then both of you will have a tense flight.

Better yet, how do I make it clear to everybody that I don’t want to be spoken to in the first place?

“#protip: You don’t want to talk if you’re wearing headphones.” Unger says.

Aside from that, comedian and SiriusXM host Godfrey, who flies several times a week to do stand-up, says, “I kind of angle myself away from [other passengers] so that I’m not facing them. There’s this little shoulder move I do to cut things off; window seats are the best for that. Also, what you’re wearing can help. If you’ve got a hoodie on, put that hood up, or if you’ve got a baseball cap, tip it down a bit over your face. Neck pillows are great too. Neck pillow people got it good, pull that shit out, close your eyes and nobody’s going to talk to you.”

How about when it comes to that annoying kid next to me who keeps asking me stupid questions?

For children, try not to be a total dick. Betty, a child therapist, says that you can try making a little small talk with them or maybe show them a coin trick or something if they seem nervous on the flight.

But if you’ve given it a good go and now you want that lousy kid to shut up, Betty says that they may not get the same subtle cues an adult would, so you can politely say to them, “I need it to be quiet right now so I can read my book please.” More than likely, that will get them to stop talking — to you at least — even if it won’t get them to quiet down overall. If that doesn’t work, you can either shoot a look at the parent or let the parent know you’d like a little privacy.

What about flirting, how do I pull that off in a plane?

“Flirting on an airplane is something you have to be careful with,” says dating coach Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley. “Most people on a plane aren’t looking to meet someone, they just want to get to where they’re going. But sometimes you’ll make a connection.” Obviously, making that connection is no different than making a connection on the ground — start with basic conversation openers, and from there, be lightly flattering, uplifting and find ways to tell them that whatever it is that they’re traveling for or whatever they do for a living is interesting.

One important note though — which again, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has flirted while planted firmly on terra firma — O’Malley says to keep things nonsexual and definitely don’t touch them. So no innuendo about their hotel room and no putting your unwashed hands on their leg. Basically, don’t get creepy in a place where they can’t get away (after all, they’re literally trapped next to you).

How do I make use of the inflight texting system?

If you’re not familiar with this, a few airlines have an inflight messaging system, which allows people to communicate seat-to-seat. It only identifies you by your seat number and Shoshanna, a flight attendant with a major airline, compares it to old-school AOL Instant Messenger. Mostly she says that she sees kids using it and family members who aren’t seated next to each other, but she’s seen it used for flirting too. “There was this one guy recently who was in the front of the plane, and he walked back and saw this really cute girl toward the back. He asked a couple of us flight attendants what he should do, and we told him to use the inflight messaging system to say hello,” Shoshanna says.

Aside from trying to flirt and messaging someone you already know, you’re probably not going to use the messenger because it’s a pretty awkward way to communicate.

Can I call someone on my phone during a flight?

No. Shoshanna says that you may have Wi-Fi in the air, but you can’t do a video call or anything like that. It’s actually illegal to do so.

Can I talk to the air marshal?

“He’s actually a federal air marshal, and yeah, you’re allowed to talk to them, but chances are that you’ll never know who they are because they’re always undercover and they’ll have a made up backstory that they tell to people on the plane,” Shoshanna says.

Can I converse with the flight attendant?

“Flight attendants are encouraged to be friendly, welcoming and hospitable,” Unger explains. “Small talk is encouraged. The flight attendant’s goal, after safety, is for each customer to feel important, cared for and heard. Another thing to note is most flight attendants would consider themselves a people person and they genuinely like talking with new people, hearing their stores and connecting.”

When to talk to them is important to know, though. Alisha says it’s difficult to have a real conversation while she’s serving food, so that’s not really the time. Garbage time is a little looser; otherwise you can talk to a flight attendant when you’re headed to the bathroom or when they’re standing near you in the aisle. However, while those last 20 minutes in the air are prime time to talk to a fellow passenger, it’s the worst time to talk to a flight attendant as they’re super busy.

Also, important: To avoid annoying your flight attendant, Shoshanna says that you’ll want to limit the number of times you call on them to under five. More than that, and all the flight attendants will be talking about what an asshole that guy in 26B is.

Speaking of flight attendants, is it okay to flirt with them — so long as I’m not a creep about it?

“It’s not taboo to flirt with a flight attendant,” Alisha says, but be aware that their profession is one that’s been oversexualized by the media, so some of them are cautious about flirty passengers. “Sometimes I wonder, do you really like me as a person, or is this just about some fantasy of yours?” Shoshanna explains.

Finally, is there any chance I’ll join the Mile-High-Club?

“Anything is possible,” Shoshanna says, “but I don’t know anyone personally who has joined the Mile High Club, passenger or flight attendant. Plus, those bathrooms are way too small and pretty gross; I have no idea how you’d make it work.” O’Malley agrees: “It almost certainly will never happen, and there ain’t no room for it in those bathrooms no matter how flexible you are.”

“Although,” Shoshanna remembers, “I’ve been told by other flight attendants that it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for people on red-eyes, because we tend to dim the cabin lights and sometimes people might try some hanky-panky in their seats. So I guess some people can get away with it like that.”

That is, assuming they weren’t sitting next to that undercover federal air marshal.