How To Recline Your Aeroplane Seat Without Being A Jerk

Modern life may be filled with mundane annoyances, but nothing dehydrates the soul quite like commercial air travel. Stressed, scanned, patted down and crammed in, airline passengers seem to be research subjects in some kind of grand experiment in humiliation. And we pay hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars for the pleasure.

Naturally, that means many of us want to maximise the piddling comfort of the roughly 0.3 square metres of space airlines give us by slapping on a neck pillow, leaning our seats back, and enjoying some mid-quality in-flight entertainment.

Reclining your seat without considering the person sitting behind you, however, makes you a jerk. But it doesn’t have to be that way: Just ask the person behind you first.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones recently polled people on Twitter (a social network that makes you a jerk simply by using it) about the crappiness of reclining your aeroplane seat all the way back on a long-haul flight. Sixty per cent of the more than 37,000 respondents said yes, doing that is a total jerk move.

But the other 40 per cent disagreed, meaning there are plenty of us out there who find it totally reasonable to take advantage of the few centimetres of button-activated optional space airlines make available to passengers.

It isn’t hard to imagine their rationales. It’s part of the seat design — even if it shouldn’t be! The person behind me can recline too, if they want! This flight is long, and I’m cranky! I just took two sleeping pills and will start weeping on the guy next to me in one minute if I remain fully upright!

But if you’re the person sitting behind a recliner, having your bubble of personal space burst by a tilting seat-back feels like an insult to your very existence.

The experience of being reclined on is especially bad if it comes suddenly, mid-flight, after you’ve settled in and come to terms with your already cramped existence. It disrupts your whole, measly transitory world. And if you have a drink, food, a laptop or a tablet on your seat-back tray, well, let’s just say you aren’t alone if fleeting thoughts of murder zip through your synapses.

Generally, I’m indifferent about reclining. I’m also a relatively small person — 170cm tall and 59kg — so the reprieve I gain from reclining my seat is presumably minimal compared to even an average-sized person, who is inherently more squeezed than me.

Knowing that I have it good also likely factors into my empathy for those who do recline: If that’s what they need to avoid spiralling into a midair mental breakdown, then by all means.

Still, would it hurt to ask first?

That’s all it takes to keep from making the person behind you hate you for the rest of their life. Just ask. Turn your head into the tiny crevice between the seats and say, “Excuse me, do you mind if I recline my seat?”

While the passenger behind you might request that you wait until they’re done eating, or until they can reposition their laptop or drink, or maybe ask that you not recline all the way, few will probably give a hard no. And in that case, it’s probably best that you keep your distance anyway.

Yes, talking to strangers sucks. Yes, trying to talk to the person directly behind you on a plane really sucks. And yes, it is likely easier to simply lean your seat back and pretend you aren’t screwing up someone’s day. But if asking to recline became the norm, it would eliminate any pesky awkwardness, and we’d all be able to travel in a state of lower agitation.

You may be thinking that this is all the airlines’ fault, that they’re the ones who’ve packed us in like cattle with ever-shrinking seats. And that’s true — if we all had a reasonable amount of legroom, losing a few centimetres to a reclining seat wouldn’t even register.

But at this point, we all know what we’re getting ourselves into when we fly. And a modicum of politeness is one of the last things we can bring aboard without getting charged an extra fee.


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