Musings on personal space

So I was on a red-eye flight to New York last night. I was in an emergency exit row (an extra inch of leg room!) so I started flipping through the little comic strip “emergency instructions”. Being a responsible passenger, knowing the requirements of my seating location. (Yes, I am willing and able to assist other passengers leaving the plane. Yes I am over 15. Yes, I can figure out how to pull that red lever that says “PULL” on it…)

The nervous looking woman seated next to me said “I hope we won’t be needing that.”

I laughed and made a joke about it.

Turns out that she was serious.

As we started to taxi for takeoff, she cinched her seatbelt as tight as she could, and folded her coat on her lap. Then she buried her head in her coat and didn’t move until we hit 25000 feet. She got up and headed straight for the restroom.

While she was sitting there, in obvious distress, trying not to hyperventilate, I had a chance to contemplate our social rules. I wanted so badly to put my hand on her back, say something comforting… let her know I cared. I restrained myself.

How would she have taken it? How could she understand that I can actually care for someone that I’ve only exchanged a few sentences with? I don’t know. But seeing her there with nobody to squeeze her hand made me hate our insensitive, lawsuit-happy country. Everyone insulated from the hurt and fear and even happiness of everyone else around them.

The businessman on the other side of her never looked at her. Never made eye contact with me. He just played breakout on his BlackBerry. The same one that he’d hidden under his leg instead of turning off and putting away like the stewardess had asked.