What to do about those elbows -by Terry Howard

BREAKING NEWS: Airlines banish the dreaded middle seat (USA Today, 4/23/20)

To further the goal of social distancing driven by COVID-19, the hugely unpopular middle seat has been ushered into retirement leaving millions of dangling elbows, including mine, breathing a sigh of relief.

Years ago, I pushed my way through first class out of breath having barely made the flight. I eased my way down the aisle and — as is the practice with Southwest Airlines — tried to find the first available seat. Not surprising, the only remaining ones were those in the middle.

Now seated in the first available row were two rather large people both with excess flesh spilling over into the middle seat. Although the flight was short, from Dallas to Houston, I didn’t exactly relish the thought of being sandwiched between these two, so I kept going.

Further down I spotted another opportunity. The closer I got however, the two occupants shot an icy glance at me, then quickly hunched over the vacant middle seat and into an intimate conversation. OK, I got the message, so I kept going.

Short on options — and with the flight attendant breathing down my neck to take a seat, any seat — I came across my last opportunity before takeoff. The problem, however, was that there was somebody’s stuff on the middle seat. Feeling the heat from the flight attendant, I pointed to the middle seat with a polite, “excuse me, but I need to sit there.” With that, the nonverbal unhinging by the two occupants began in earnest.

The gentleman on the aisle, let’s call him “Mr. Warm and Friendly,” ripped his seat belt loose, bolted into the aisle and muttered something under his breath as I squeezed by. The lady in the window seat, let’s call her “Sister Congeniality,” swept up the stuff in the middle seat, jammed it into her briefcase and, like “Mr. Warm and Friendly,” stared straight ahead. Now this is going to be real, real interesting, I thought.

My next task was to figure out what on earth to do with my suddenly useless elbows. While I waffled, Mr. Warm and Friendly slammed his elbow firmly onto one armrest. Goodbye option one. The other one was vacant, but I hesitated before laying claim to it. Since I was last seated, I wondered about armrest protocol. Did the two occupants hold exclusive rights to them since they were there first? And, if so, should I ask permission before venturing onto their armrest turf? And since the typical armrest is, what, four inches wide, was half of it rightfully mine?

Before I could figure out answers to these vexing questions, “Sister Congeniality” quickly staked claim to all four inches. That ended that. Dangling elbows and all, I tried to fold myself up like a cardboard box and anxiously looked forward to getting to Houston.

The truth is that the need for personal space — and the resistance to invasions into it — is strong. Look at it this way: what would your reaction be should you arrive at work and find someone else sitting at your desk? Or suppose that you rush to the movies to get a good seat and, since you’re the first person there, you take a seat in the middle of the theater. Seconds later, someone else enters — a perfect stranger, mind you — and plops down in the seat right next to you. What thoughts would probably race through your mind?

Research suggests that most people perceive themselves as being surrounded by a three-foot oblong bubble of personal space. In his book, “The Hidden Dimension,” researcher Edward T. Hall, who coined the term “proxemics” (the study of man’s use of space), points out that people have several kinds of space “around them”:

  • Intimate Space (6 to 18 inches) — Our most private area. We normally reserve this space for intimate activity.
  • Personal Space (1.5 to 4 feet) — Space into which we allow intimates and close friends, and in which we discuss personal matters
  • Social Space (4 to 12 feet) — The distance in which we are usually comfortable conversing and working with acquaintances or colleagues while transacting business
  • Public Space (12 feet or more) — The range beyond social space. It extends as far out as possible to allow us to recognize and interact with others in some way.

Crowded elevators, jam-packed subways — or, as was my case, crowded airplanes — are places where our space boundaries get stretched to the limit. The tighter the space, the greater the tendency to stare straight ahead, correct?

There’s also a tendency to stiffen up and try not to touch our neighbor. And if we do bump up against someone, the tendency is to apologize, draw away or tense the muscles, which signal, “Sorry for intruding on your space!”

In the end, the upside of how far-reaching COVID-19 has permeated our lives is that it has gotten us to be a lot more observant about how we interact with others, especially when touching is involved.

Oh, yes, lest I forget, because of the pandemic, elbow “bumping” is now the new norm as a replacement for the time-honored handshake.

So, elbows of America…. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!


Image Credit: Boeing 747 sunset landing wallpaper (wallup.net)

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