"An Etiquette Expert vs. the Annoying Seatmate"

SUSAN FITTER


I TRAVEL about once a week. I’ve dealt politely and effectively with irate ticket agents, a band of would-be thieves and other people who could have easily turned my trips into travel disasters. Being an etiquette and lifestyle expert helps me negotiate some tough situations. Except when I was heading home on Southwest Airlines to Washington after a recent trip to Phoenix.

A middle-aged man who boarded after me walked past several open rows of seats and was making a beeline straight to my row. I was sitting in the aisle seat, and another woman had the window seat. The middle seat was unoccupied. So I thought it was strange that he was headed toward my row.
But apparently, that middle seat looked really good to this gentleman. So good, that once he climbed over me and positioned himself in the seat, he said, and I quote: “I am the luckiest guy on this plane. I’m sitting between two beautiful women.”

I figured he would stop talking after that comment, either out of courtesy or simply because he was going to pass out. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he had had a lot to drink. The stench was overwhelming.

But he didn’t keep quiet or pass out. He just kept talking about his good luck and got increasingly loud about it. He also wanted to talk to me.

Having been trained as a psychologist, I know the first step in dealing with someone like this is to set boundaries. So I patiently explained that I had a lot of work to do and didn’t want to chat. I thought I was firm, but kind.

I kept staring at my laptop, though I wasn’t getting much work done. And I thought the woman sitting at the window seat would take my cue.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. I think she felt sorry for him because once he stopped telling us how beautiful we were, he told us he was afraid of flying and hadn’t been on a plane in 25 years.

As the plane was making its ascent, he grabbed our hands.
I’m as nice as the next person and was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And, O.K., at this point I felt a little bad about his predicament, too.

But just as I was set to try to calm him down, he got increasingly vulgar and, yet again, proclaimed to the plane what a lucky guy he was. He also wanted more booze. But he was a gracious sort and invited me and the other woman to party with him.

I know how to deal with difficult people and feel confident about my abilities. But this guy just wouldn’t cease and desist. So I resorted to the oldest trick in the book: I pretended that I needed to use the restroom.

Once I managed to remove his hand from my arm, which was quite a feat, I made it to the front of the plane and explained the situation to an attendant.
The good news: The attendant moved him to an unoccupied row near the front of the plane. The bad news, at least for the attendant: Our would-be Romeo thought she was really cute, too.

As told to Joan Raymond of the New York Times.