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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Well, Hello There!

posted by on May 21 at 12:07 PM

You get on a plane, find your seat, and there’s an empty seat next to you—but not for long, because planes don’t fly half-full anymore. So the person sitting next to you shows up, takes his seat, then turns to you, sticks out his hand, and says, “Well, hello there! Name’s Bob!” I don’t like to touch people, as a general rule, and I try to touch as little as possible on airplanes, which are generally filthy, so I’m even less interested in touching people on airplanes. But social niceties obliged to shake Bob’s hand and introduce myself in return.

A connection thus established, Bob settled in for what he assumed would be a nice, long, five and a half hour getting-to-know-you conversation with his new best friend. But as soon as we were off the ground—as soon as we got the okay to use our portable electronic devices, by which time I knew more about Bob’s nieces and nephews than I know about my own—I put in my earbuds and turned up my iPod. Then I pulled down my baseball hat and pulled up the hood up on my sweatshirt. Unable to hear Bob, and with Bob unable to catch my eye, I read my magazines and answered emails in peace and quiet.

I didn’t want to have my hoodie up—it was hot on that airplane—and I didn’t want to listen to my iPod particularly. But as there’s no nice way to say, “Leave me alone, Bob, I don’t want to chat with you, I want to read,” I didn’t have any other options.

RSS icon Comments


The name "Bob" was a dead giveaway. You acted prudently. One should never be nice or talk to "Bob." Nothing good will ever come of it.

Posted by Spoogie | May 21, 2008 12:16 PM

Clearly, The Stranger needs its own corporate jet.

Posted by The Artist Formerly Known As Sigourney Beaver | May 21, 2008 12:17 PM

I have no problem saying, "I'm sorry, but I'm reading." Or, "shut the fuck up."

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 21, 2008 12:18 PM

Never, ever, under any cicumstances make initial eye contact on an airplane. Screw social niceties. Close your eyes and go to sleep. If you can't sleep, just pretend.

Posted by Clint | May 21, 2008 12:21 PM

I've lost hours of study or reading time because people wouldn't recognize that a book is more important than making chit-chat. I need to become more assertive...perhaps not as assertive as Mssr. Poe, but more assertive nonetheless. On the other hand, when I've been in the mood to interact and the person has been interesting, I've had quite enjoyable travel experiences.

Posted by Kat | May 21, 2008 12:22 PM

@4 That also works great on buses, with the added benefit that if you look like you're sleeping, no one will ask you to give up your seat for cripples/small children/old ladies.

Posted by Hernandez | May 21, 2008 12:25 PM

You may hail from Chicago originally, but your inability to directly express a reasonable social need smacks of Seattle passive-aggressiveness. How about "Nice to meet you Bob. I need to concentrate on my work during this flight."

Posted by Hayden Smythe-Geddy | May 21, 2008 12:25 PM

I would have yelled "Bob has a bomb and is going to kill us all!" Always good for a laugh. Well, you should have done that, I really wouldn't since I am pretty sure I am allergic to going to jail.

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | May 21, 2008 12:27 PM

That really hurt my feelings.

Posted by Bob | May 21, 2008 12:27 PM

Should have just started talking about how you came up with the term 'Santorum'.

Posted by left coast | May 21, 2008 12:28 PM

Could he read your screen? Maybe he became speechless from the content of your email.

Posted by stinkbug | May 21, 2008 12:29 PM

People like this are why I invest in hard-to-miss earbuds or straight-up headphones if I'm going to in any sort of situation where I could be someone's captive audience (doctor's office, Metro, etc). I usually add sunglasses if I think I can get away with it. If they can't catch your eye or your ear, they can't monopolize it.

And I don't care if it's Seattle passive-aggressive bullshit, it's also someone being too stupid to pick up on non-verbal, and sub-verbal cues that I'm NOT FUCKING INTERESTED.

Posted by Jessica | May 21, 2008 12:30 PM

it isn't necessary to be "nice." Just be civil. Channel Bartleby with "Excuse me Bob, I prefer to read."

Posted by LMSW | May 21, 2008 12:30 PM

@7, EXCELLENT point!! Bravo!!

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | May 21, 2008 12:31 PM
Posted by A | May 21, 2008 12:33 PM

But What About Bob?

Posted by Banna | May 21, 2008 12:38 PM

Number 7 makes the best sense, what happened to common-sense manners? Remember folks this does go both ways. Should you have a question or a need to talk with a stranger, expect the person you approach to look down, put in the ear-thimbles (ala F451 R. Bradbury)and just sort of drift away. What goes around comes around.

Posted by Sargon Bighorn | May 21, 2008 12:38 PM

I've met Bob before! multiple times. He always looks different. Hmmm... I don't remember him saying his name was Bob. Sometimes he's a woman.

Posted by DJSauvage | May 21, 2008 12:40 PM

Passive aggressiveness is a Western culture thing. It's not just a Seattle thing. Personal pet peeve I have with Slog commenters. OK, rant over. thx.

Posted by mackro mackro | May 21, 2008 12:43 PM

Once in the early '90s someone tried to talk to me on a plane. I really can't recall how I got through the ordeal, without the safety net of being able to blog about it the next day.

What a pathetic move, how about "nice to meet you Bob, I gotta get some work done now" instead of grinding your teeth and thinking "oh my god, I can't wait to post this..."

Posted by Postum | May 21, 2008 12:43 PM

i will say i enjoy, for the most part, at least a little bit of a chit chat when i travel. it feels incongruous to be surrounded by so many people when i travel yet isolated from them as if they weren't there. i like people and the stories they have to tell...i wish more people would chat. (and by chat i mean the art of conversation, not seeking to dominate/proselytize/talk ear off)

Posted by Jiberish | May 21, 2008 12:44 PM

When I moved from Florida to Chicago this year, there sat behind me a poor young woman around my age who was talked to by her neighbor for about three hours. The woman even gave her her home address/phone number so they could spend time together "the next time she's in Gainesville." It was hilarious. I wanted to give the girl a hug and slap the woman. It was clear she didn't want to talk, just sleep or something. And I had to listen to this shit.

Posted by Jennifer in Chicago | May 21, 2008 12:45 PM

John Waters always carries a provocatively named book with him to read like, "Lesbian Nuns".


pretend to be deaf/mute.


start praying in Arabic.

Posted by michael strangeways | May 21, 2008 12:47 PM

We Can Sit and Talk and Not Talk For Hours and Still Have Things to Not Talk About.

Posted by Porkchop Sandwiches! | May 21, 2008 12:51 PM

I bring a book titled "Greatest Airplane Crashes of All-Time: Now with graphic photographs!"

Posted by Just Me | May 21, 2008 12:55 PM

I had the same thing happen to me on my way back from Paris not four hours ago. My favorite moment would have to have been when I pulled out my book, started reading, and my neighbor asks if its an interesting book. I wouldn't know, French Bob. Just like I wouldn't know if the movie I am watching is any good, or what my food might have tasted like hot.

Posted by prenks | May 21, 2008 12:56 PM

Gosh Dan, life's full of little trade-offs, isn't it.

Posted by monkey | May 21, 2008 12:57 PM

Regretfully, Bob, I already have all the friends I can handle and I hope to get some work done on this trip. So please excuse me and enjoy your flight without me.

Posted by Vince | May 21, 2008 1:05 PM

@7 and others have it right. When you don't want to talk with a fellow traveler you politely but unmistakeably bow out. You don't have to tell your interlocutor why you don't want to talk with him but it helps make it seem less harsh. A civil "It has been nice talking to you but I like using my flight time to catch up on: work, reading, sleep, furtive masturbation, and etc." and a smile is all that is required of you. After that you don't even need to avoid eye contact. You can exchange all the friendly smiles you can muster as you squeeze past to get up, ask the attendant for a drink, or wipe yourself clean.

Posted by inkweary | May 21, 2008 1:11 PM

99% of the time, the last thing I would want to do on a plane would be to talk to my seatmate (staring into space is usually preferable to me). I just typically don't say anything at all and just bring out my work/book and start doing/reading it. If needed, I’ll pretend like I’m super absorbed in what I’m doing and do a “hmm, what?”. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone so oblivious that this didn’t work.

Posted by Julie | May 21, 2008 1:13 PM

"No nice way so 'Leave me alone'"? Geez Dan, you must be much more of a pussy in person than you are in your column.

Posted by Providence | May 21, 2008 1:14 PM

"I am a member of the Church of Satan and we are fasting for the destruction of families of pastors and Christian leaders."

Posted by karst | May 21, 2008 1:15 PM

There are the commenters who realize that Hayden @7 nailed it, and there are those trying valiently not to.

Posted by lostboy | May 21, 2008 1:16 PM

Taxi in NY, LaGuardia to Manhattan stuck in traffic on bridge, taxi driver in endless monologue "I sit 12 hours a day in this moving coffin" his wife left with his best friend everything sucks over and over and over. My responses:

1. Could you please stop talking? I'm reading.

2. REally could you stop tlaking you are bothering me.

3. [after about half and hour nonstop] OK you want to talk ? Here's what I think I'm going to tell you right out. You want to hear? OK. You should do one of two things. Ditch this cab right here right now hitchhike to Florida and be a bum on the beach. Of just go commit suicide right now. You're not happy. You make your customers miserable. Really you can't take it, off yourself. You make the world a more miserable place. But you can change it-- leave, change, kill yourself, whatever, just do it." OR in that vein about 6 minutes worth, fairly animated and assertively.

His reply "Wow, thank you for being so direct, I'm really going to think things over."

Then he shut up.

We have such a taboo against being "not nice" it's sickening.

Posted by PC | May 21, 2008 1:22 PM

Dan, obviously you would rather be passive-aggressive than just tell the guy upfront you don't feel like making chit-chat. Very telling.

Posted by Tlazolteotl | May 21, 2008 1:23 PM

@ 3: I couldn't be less surprised to learn that.

Posted by Mike in MO | May 21, 2008 1:28 PM

Seeing as you didn't mention a second person sitting next to you, I can only assume you were in first class... in which case, you'll get no sympathy from me.

Posted by UNPAID BLOGGER | May 21, 2008 1:31 PM

I actually think 29 nailed it. For me, if it were someone totally oblivious (for whom, just ignoring them and doing what you want to do doesn't work), I would want to say "I'm sorry but I would prefer to read" in the nicest, least harsh way possible. Because the words themselves pretty much give a loud and clear fuck you, and it's difficult to actually deliver them while sounding nice and polite. Which is why I prefer to say nothing at all -- for me anyways, it has always been more polite to do that than to say some version of I don't want to talk to you.

Posted by Julie | May 21, 2008 1:32 PM

My mom is just like that. She is on planes all the time, and her solution is just to ignore everything Bob says or attempt to says to her. If Bob gets too chatty, she gives Bob a death look and he usually gets the hint to shut the fuck up.

Posted by Aya | May 21, 2008 1:37 PM

jeez. just tell him you are just getting a terrible flu and your throat is too sore to talk. then he'll get out of your personal space and definitely not try to entice you into conversation.

Posted by nicole | May 21, 2008 1:40 PM

The words don't even have to deliver a "fuck you," much as that might make us feel better sometimes.

How about: "Excuse me, I don't mean to be rude, but I have a lot to think about and I'm not really in the mood for conversation. Thank you for understanding."

Posted by ivan | May 21, 2008 1:46 PM

this guy is an advice columnist?

Posted by ... | May 21, 2008 1:51 PM

I was on a long flight a couple of weeks ago and the gal next to me introduced herself. It turned out she had been my high school English teacher many, many years earlier. We had a really nice chat for about 20 minutes. Then we both agreed we had work to do/reading to get caught up on. We could have said that earlier on, but it was fun finding out what each other had been up to over the years. I don't think either of us suffered any angst or permanent damage from having made that contact. You must lead a pretty cushy life if this is really a problem.

Posted by southerner | May 21, 2008 1:56 PM

Wow, I thought you were just an asshole online.
#41 has the right idea.
This world can use a lot more fair treatment of everyone by everyone.
Try putting all the understanding you lobby for online into real live practice.

Posted by calvin | May 21, 2008 1:57 PM

Now I know why that Bob guy shows up every night on the Slog and posts the same thing to every single thread saying the Slog is a stupid waste of the Internet and everyone who reads the Slog or posts on it is stupid. Except him.

He's punishing us all.

Posted by elenchos | May 21, 2008 2:00 PM

One of the best things about being a scary-looking black dude is that people almost never bother trying to get chatty on public transit.

Posted by shub-negrorath | May 21, 2008 2:10 PM

@9 wins.

Posted by Paul Constant | May 21, 2008 2:11 PM

What if you had to sit next to this guy??

Posted by KELLY O | May 21, 2008 2:11 PM

#24; you are my hero. Snow peas? Soup?

Posted by Gidget | May 21, 2008 2:12 PM

Clear, honest communication is ok when negotiating piss-play or bondage scenes but not when dealing with normal people doing normal things?

Remember Dan, it's good to tell people what you want so long as you do so clearly and politely.

Depending on the other person to get the hint is how people get date raped and other horrors. But then you knew that, right?

Posted by NaFun | May 21, 2008 2:16 PM

Oh my god, people. You'd HATE me on the plane. I really enjoy talking to strangers (it's my mother's influence, god rest her soul) on the plane or in the grocery store. I mean, not like they're my new best friend or anything. But I like making a brief connection.

On one flight up to Seattle from San Francisco the woman and I chatted about her son and it turns out he's majoring in the field my partner teaches in--it's not a really big field. So that was fun. Good times.

Posted by Balt-O-Matt | May 21, 2008 2:18 PM

Okay. Now that I've said that (#51), I obviously don't talk to people who don't want to be social. And if I'm not in the mood to talk, then I'd just give off subtle clues--earphones or closed eyes or an open book.

Posted by Balt-O-Matt | May 21, 2008 2:22 PM

While I am tolerant of a few minutes of chat I think that the people who get onto airplanes, trains, etc, with nothing to do should really wake up and realize that travel is not a novelty anymore. The person that they are sitting next to is not rude, but prepared, and has every right to use their travel time as they please.

Posted by iheartbeer | May 21, 2008 2:24 PM

Just got home from a cross-country flight from hell...the only thing that got us through (me with autistic toddler in tow) was bonding-with-neighbors chit-chat. On hour three of sitting in the plane on the runway going nowhere, it was nice to hear about nieces and nephews.
Of course, the free booze helped too. Not me, responsible mommy that I am, but the plane atmosphere in general.

Posted by j4zz3rgrl | May 21, 2008 2:27 PM

As someone who typically only flies in first class, that is what flying is all about; drinking a half dozen or more of complimentary glasses of Cognac and babbling about things you never thought you would tell a stranger on an airplane. Sometimes people don't want to interact and act like total conceited self absorbed geeks, like you did here, by listening to their headphones or reading a book. Most times I am able to induce the person next to me to partake in drinking copious amounts of alcohol even if they are not a drinker. One time I got a businessman to drink so much one Friday evening flight that I felt bad about his impending meet up with his wife. Flying in first class should definitely be a social experience.

Posted by Gay Seattle | May 21, 2008 2:36 PM

I pretty much talk to anybody, anywhere, anytime. But on a plane is one of the few places where I don't like to talk to people. Yet,sometimes when I have I've learned some amazing things. Thanks food additive man and nuclear submarine guy!

Wasn't it Malcom Gladwell who actually got an idea for his next book from talking to the person next to him on a plane?

Posted by PopTart | May 21, 2008 2:56 PM

I totally sympathize with this dilemma- if you say anything at all, even if you try to say it politely, you're just going to come off sounding like a jerk. Then you remain stuck next to the same person for hours who now probably feels slighted that you didn't want to talk to them and is sending "bad vibes" your way. It's not like they can switch seats easily as if they were on a bus.
I much prefer the passive agressive approach too and bust out the headphones ASAP.

Posted by defman23 | May 21, 2008 3:10 PM

"Psst -- hey, buddy, you know what? I killed a man last night. Choked him to death. I had to -- he was controlling the spiders. You know about the spiders? They're everywhere. They eat your thoughts. Didja know that?"

Then pull out a kid's book about spiders.

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 3:12 PM

Yeah, #55, you don't sound self-absorbed at all.

Posted by Becky | May 21, 2008 3:15 PM

Poor, poor Dan, having to put up with the plebs!

Posted by Jeff | May 21, 2008 3:28 PM

I totally support the passive headphones and hoodie route! Even if you simply say, " I need to work" you open yourself up to questions. Then they wanna know what you're working on...and no matter what you say they have a story they wanna tell you about that.

Really, sometimes it's difficult to be left alone...I even keep my headphones in with my ipod off... it keeps me from being interrupted!

Posted by clarity | May 21, 2008 3:30 PM

It is passive-agressive bullshit. I wrote it, but deleted before posting. And Seattle and Boston are the centers for it. People are just aggressive-aggressive in NYC.

People have to go on craigslist to find friends in Seattle. You're a bunch a passive-agressive assholes who can't drive or even cross the street for that matter. There's no reason not to comment on it. I think the appropriate for you to do would be to say nothing and put your little headphones on or secretly yank my privileges. The weather ain't the only thing that sucks here. P.s. you can't plan worth shit either, everyone has a complaint about every plan and a better idea that they're not going to talk about.

Posted by left coast | May 21, 2008 3:58 PM

I hate it when Bobs strike up a conversation anywhere I can't escape from - Taxis, planes, hairdressers' chairs... That's why I bring a book everywhere. As soon as they start to strike up a conversation, I say "I'm at a really good part of this book and I can't put it down. You don't mind, do you?" No one has ever gotten upset with me, although I have had to duck out of "Really? What's it about?" a few times by saying "I'd really like to read now, thanks." Everyone gets that point.

Posted by Kerri | May 21, 2008 4:04 PM

Here's what you do:

"Hi, Bob. My name is Dan Savage and I'm a faggot."

Posted by Greg | May 21, 2008 4:12 PM

When I've had work or reading to do I've just let people know. Other times I've had some interesting conversations.

Just one thought: Aren't you, ah,,, a little,,,ah,,old for a hoodie?

Posted by MrEdCT | May 21, 2008 4:22 PM

I have never had anybody offer to shake my hand on a plane. Usually it is just a smile a friendly nod, ipod on and book opened!
I made the mistake one time of asking a lady about her little dog that was with her on the plane and I had to listen to her talk for hours about reincarnation! I guess her dog was somebody reincarnated.

Dan, if you ever sit next to me on a plane I wont shake your hand but I will give you a big huge hug and then leave you alone : )
I will make sure and disinfect myself first!

Posted by mj | May 21, 2008 4:30 PM

most of the time, if you make small talk for 5 minutes, then you have the needed informality to pass your ass right next to their face on your way to the can.

it wouldn't kill you to show some empathy, liberal elitist. frankly, i'd prefer to have "bob" back me up in one of these barfights i keep hearing HRC supporters go on about.

Posted by maxsolomon@home | May 21, 2008 4:46 PM

You people who are calling bullshit have obviously never dealt with anyone who can't take a hint. And trust me, it's worse when you're a woman, and Bob is trying to be more than your seat-buddy on the plane. Sometimes even being out and out rude doesn't stop them. Sometimes the hoody and earphones are the only option.

It's not that I've never had a nice conversation on the plane, but most of the time I just want to be left alone. What the hell is wrong with that?!

Posted by scythia | May 21, 2008 4:59 PM

As an actual Bob who used to fly a lot - I never struck up conversations with strangers next to me for many good reasons, including a possible Dan Savage Scenario where I'd be sitting next to someone who might be offended I didn't recognize him or her but in my defense I'd probably miss most major league celebrities sitting next to me, let alone the local minor leaguers.

Posted by Bob | May 21, 2008 5:08 PM

@62 - Will people please shut the hell up about how hard it is to make friends in Seattle? This is all I ever hear! I guess it is, if you stay at home on your freaking couch every night and are scared to go up to someone and say: "Hello, my name is..."

But you are right about the dumb fucks who won't even cross the street with no traffic in sight and the pouring rain...grow some balls, people!

Posted by Shilo Urban | May 21, 2008 5:52 PM

No, I got a better one -- just say "Hiya, Bob. Hey, do ya ever get one a these chicks just won't shut the hell up? I was banging this bitch last night and, God DAMN, I just started chokin' her. Heh heh, she's wearin' a turtleneck today, you c'n be DAMN sure. Hey, do you know what chlamydia looks like?"

Posted by Fnarf | May 21, 2008 6:57 PM

Being introverted is not the same thing as being passive-aggressive. If I'm reading a book, I shouldn't have to do something as terribly fraught with social danger as actively asking someone to stop talking to me. It's simply rude for them not to pick up on the clues and leave me alone. I'm being passive, they're being aggressive, but neither of us is being passive-aggressive.

And here's one voice saying thank god for Seattle's introverted culture. Is it such a horrible thing that one American city follows the norms that 25%-50% of us prefer?

Posted by gfish | May 21, 2008 7:34 PM

Clinically, it may be passive aggressive in the sense that you hurt them by withholding conversation/interaction. Now, your intent may not be to injure them through passivity but functions and outcome pretty much determine that it is.

People often misuse the term, usually misattributing it to a more simply aggressive act that happens to be delivered in a sneaky covert manner, but I just ignore them when they do that.

Posted by Bob | May 21, 2008 8:01 PM

Speaking of introversion, I bet Obama is an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs like me.

Posted by Bob | May 21, 2008 8:02 PM

When I fly, I prefer to rock back and forth chanting, "in'sh Allah, Allahu Akhbar..."

Posted by UnCommon Sense | May 21, 2008 11:03 PM

Bob @73, injuring people by withholding interaction is pretty much the description I have in mind. Maybe add quietly judging or silent piousness. The goal is really to stifle all attempts at friendliness and punish the outgoing.

Dan, this probably doesn't happen so much in first class, you cheap piece of shit.

Posted by left coast | May 22, 2008 7:10 AM

Put your earbuds on, but don't put on any music. It still sends a message.

Posted by Katie | May 22, 2008 9:58 AM

It's sad, but I always fly with a hoody on now for the same reason.

Almost everyone I know across the country hates being spoken to on planes unless it's an attractive person who wants to bone.

Posted by Dawgson | May 22, 2008 10:39 AM

I tend to be more aggressive when I smell a plane talker coming on.

"Hi bob! I'm bs! God, what a relief! I was afraid I was going to be seated beside someone annoying and chatty, but I can tell you and I will get along just fine sitting in respectful silence. Enjoy!"

They don't really know what to say in response to that.

Posted by bs | May 24, 2008 10:59 AM

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