6 Ways to Avoid Talking to Your Seat-Mate

Before  my most recent airplane trip, I couldn’t wait to sink into the anonymity and quiet of my own head space. And I had the good fortune of getting just what I needed. One flight even had an empty middle seat between me and a man who slept the entire  way. Ah, the bliss! Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good, you know?

But I’m not always so lucky, especially when it comes to off-putting conversations. They can be overheard or, worse, direct. I once was asked by  a mouthy guy, “What’s that? A salad? We don’t eat salads in Pittsburgh.”

Then there was this en route to  Paris: “You should cancel your next flight and come to Romania with me.”

In the first example, my fellow passenger simply butted in where he didn’t belong. In the second, I was engaged in conversation prior to the comment, thinking I met an intellectual match (I nerdily referenced Vlad the Impaler). Then I realized the stranger next to me knew nothing of boundaries.

Recently, while booking my next trip and feeling particularly needy for personal space, I decided  — with help from many of the smart, funny women I know — to list things my fellow women business travelers have actually used to dispel unwanted conversational engagement while they were in transit. Here you go:

  • Write on a piece of paper, “I have spiritual laryngitis” and pass it to your talkative neighbor. Look both apologetic and beatific. Folded hands at the heart and a small bow of the head can increase effectiveness.


  • Someone seeking conversation once asked my mortician friend Suzanne if she was reading one of those Harry Potter books. “No, it’s an embalming textbook,” she replied. I think we all can use this response, even if we’re not packing educational embalming material. I suggest looking over your glasses and drawing out the “balm” syllable in a low, dramatic tone.  The addition of a creepy smile will shut it all down.


  • In the enthusiastic whisper of a preschool teacher, try this: “I’m doing a silence experiment during this flight! Do you want to see if you can do it too? I bet you can!”


  • Don’t underestimate the threat of vomit. We can thank Joan for this piece of brilliance: “I suffer from airsickness, and the more I have to focus on your conversation, the less I can focus on not throwing up in your lap.”. Here’s a tweak — a quick faux convulsion with a hand to your mouth, perhaps even holding up the airline barf bag in your other hand, Exhibit A.


  • Patty proposed asking “So which Doctor Who is your favorite?” This can be substituted with a Star Trek reference or an old English literature reference or, well, choose your own adventure. Although I caution you that the nerdy approach does not always repel conversation. Sometimes it might get you an invite to Romania.


  • When all else fails,  go with Julia’s idea to repel conversation with your own strange exuberance: “Wait, let me tell you the stories about how I rescued each of my seven cats! I have pictures, too. Want to see them?”

May this list serve you well, and may the skies you fly not be any friendlier than you like.

Any ideas to add to the list? We’d love to hear them in the comments!


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