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What kind of person talks to a stranger on a plane?

Do you talk to your in-flight neighbour?
Do you talk to your in-flight neighbour? Credit: GETTY

Many years ago, on a flight from Cyprus, I struck up a conversation with the stranger beside me. We talked about my life as a freelance journalist, the challenges I faced, and my hopes for the future. When the plane landed a few hours later, he urged me to keep on going – and handed me a wad of cash (no strings attached). I hadn’t even told him my name.  

Ask a friend or colleague about in-flight small talk and you’re almost certain to get an impassioned response. Some travellers will say they cannot stand it. They haven’t the patience for a stranger’s life story and just want to be left alone to read, listen to their music, or stare at an iPad.

Others, however, can’t get enough of it. Take my mother. On a recent Wizz Air flight from Luton, I dozed off – for 10 minutes at the most. When I woke up I found her happily chatting across the aisle to a woman and her daughter about their home in Camden, the wedding they were attending, and their recent holidays. By the end of the four-hour flight she had spoken to half a dozen others.

So why do some people love nothing more than a chin wag at 35,000 feet, and others detest the idea? What does it say about their personality? Is it a generational thing? And are there other benefits to an in-flight chit-chat (other than the slim chance of financial reward)?

“Certainly, some people are more open, gregarious or extroverted than others,” says Mario L. Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University. “However, one of the things I have found surprising in my research is that people are often far more open to a conversation in practice than they tend to describe themselves as being. 

“Part of the issue is opportunity. Many of us would not start a conversation with someone next to us on the plane, but many of us would certainly respond if the other person began that conversation, and would probably let the conversation run its course.”

He adds that people overestimate the discomfort - and underestimate the value - of talking to a stranger. “Talking helps everyone,” he says. “And basic decorum suggests the stranger is unlikely to ridicule our efforts.

“Opening up to others is cathartic. Among the most interesting parts of talking to strangers is that we may find ourselves revealing parts of our lives that we don’t or can’t to those who are very close to us. Strangers on a plane, people we’ll probably never see again, can be perfect outlets.”

Anonymity is key, according to Small. “A friend has to be trustworthy, yes, but we usually also want that person to continue to like or respect us. A random stranger can be better for venting our feelings without fear of being judged by someone we care about. This is part of the reason people confess personal things on online forums – no one knows who we are.”

The prospect of an avalanche of personal information is why some people fear in-flight conversations, however.

“You might get away with just a brief nod or a smile should the person in the next seat greet you, but chances are these opening pleasantries will lead to a conversation,” says Simon Horsford, writer and Telegraph Travel contributor. “Before you know it, you will have opened the Pandora’s box of your fellow traveller’s life history. They’ll regale you with never-ending stories about home, work, children, holidays and so on – I’ve even had one elderly man offer intimate details about his last stay in hospital.

“The odd thing is why people should feel the need to speak to their neighbour when flying, while communication between train passengers is restricted to a resigned grimace. It may be a case of nerves, the excitement of travelling abroad (no doubt emboldened by a few drinks in the airport bar), or perhaps it’s just a sudden, unfathomable desire to be friendly.”

Not every stranger will offer medical revelations, of course, and Amanda Hills, president of tourism marketing firm Hills Balfour, makes the point that plane neighbours automatically have things in common: a passion not just for travel, but for the same destination. “I find people really open up in the sky and I’ve had some fascinating conversations over the years,” she says.

Conversations often turn into lifelong friendships, too.

“Dan Air”, founder of confessionsofatrolleydolly.com and a flight attendant for a major UK airline, says he has seen numerous instances of two people boarding as strangers and disembarking as friends, and heard several stories of travellers meeting their future spouse at 35,000 feet.

Are some routes more conducive to in-flight connections?

Heather Poole, a flight attendant at a major US carrier for over 20 years, believes so. She says: “Certain routes are way more friendly than others. Manchester comes to mind. Others, such as Miami-New York, can be difficult. The time of day probably makes a difference to.”

Professor Small agrees that geography makes a difference. “People in the US tend to be more open than other nationalities,” he says. “But different parts of the country differ. I always seem to talk to the person I sit next to when I fly Southwest. But talking to strangers seems a lot less common to and from the major cities on the East Coast.”

One thing which could kill the in-flight conversation – for better or worse – could be in-flight Wi-Fi. The technology is slowly becoming ubiquitous.

“Flying is one of the few places, because of the lack of free connectivity, where we are not looking at our phones and checking our social media likes,” an Ethiopian Airlines spokesperson said. “So it’s the perfect given time to talk to other passengers. This can bring new friends, business connections or simply advice on the place you’re travelling too.”

It might even bring you financial benefits. That wad of cash I was offered after a flight from Cyprus was gratefully received. Meanwhile, Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, says: “I once sat with a woman on a flight who turned out to be going to the same conference as me in London. She hadn’t been there and really wanted to try proper fish and chips. So I took her out. The entire chip shop heard the story and joined the celebration. We ate for free.”

Professor Small concludes with advice for your next trip. “Turn off the phone. Remove the ear phones. Keep an open mind.” What have you got to lose?

Do you talk to strangers on a plane? Or would you rather keep to yourself and get lost in a book? Comment below to join the conversation.