An Eye for an Eye is NOT How Interpersonally Competent People Operate

Today is Friday, so this post is on interpersonal competence.

Last Wednesday, I got my Coloradobiz magazine weekly ezine.  There was an article entitled The Angry Traveler.  I read it with interest because I travel a lot and often meet and deal with a lot of angry people.  The author presents a rant about airline travel from a guy he knows who travels a lot.  He calls him Dan.  You can read the whole article by clicking on this link:

Dan is a pretty angry guy.  He lists a set of rules for air travel – most designed to make his air travel experience a little easier.  He seems to have little empathy for infrequent travelers or older people who can be overwhelmed by the whole experience and who don’t follow his rules.

Interestingly, I agree with most of Dan’s rules for air travel, and try to follow them myself.  However, I realize that for a lot of people, flying is an infrequent experience.  I like to think that I’m a little more patient and understanding of others who either don’t know Dan’s rules, or don’t play by them. 

Dan’s rule # 11 really hit home with me – and it’s one that I have long followed.

“Rule #11 – Don’t recline your seat back when in flight if someone is sitting behind you. This is about the rudest thing you could ever do to another breathing human. Just don’t do it. You probably remember from physics that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. These laws apply everywhere in the universe except on an airplane. The amount of discomfort you inflict on the person behind you by reclining your seat is in no way equal or proportional to the modicum of comfort you derive from doing so. My rule of thumb – if the flight is under one hour, don’t do it at all if someone is behind you. If the flight is over an hour, and you absolutely have to recline your seat back because of a medical emergency, ask the person behind you if they mind before you intrude.”

Dan then goes on to list several things you can do to deal with people who recline their seat and make you uncomfortable.

“If the person in front of you insists on reclining their seat in your face, without asking and against your will, it’s up to you to deal with it. I have assembled here a few ninja travel defenses moves that I have found useful in providing equal and opposite discomfort to the person rude enough to recline their seat in my face. I suggest you try these in order, as they start fairly benign, and increase in intensity as the battle progresses. As soon as the offender reclines his or her seat:

  1. “Groan loudly and mutter something like "Oh good God!" or "Jeeeeeesus!" or "Allah Akhbar!" or "Aieeeeh!" This vocal approach works often and many times avoids overt hostility.
  2. “Combine the above with an attempt to cross your legs so that your knees push back on the seat while you’re groaning and muttering.
  3. “Sneeze. Loud and close. And try to project a little moisture. Innocuous as this gesture actually is, I find it to be fairly effective.
  4. “Open up a newspaper or magazine and put it up high in your face so that the pages "accidentally" curl forward and tickle the top of the offender’s head.
  5. “Enjoy the in-flight music (or make up your own in your head) and tap your foot in time against the hard metal bar under the bastard’s seat. I find the hard outer edge of dress shoes works best. Doing this will send constant, methodical water torture like shock waves through their seat, thereby disrupting any derived comfort and eventually driving them insane.
  6. “Every time the person appears to nod off or get comfortable, stand up to stretch or go the bathroom and be sure to use the back of their seat to steady yourself, push down hard as you stand up, and when you let go, they spring forward. I knocked a guy’s glasses off his head one time with this move. It was beautiful.
  7. “My favorite – turn the air jet over your seat to full and aim it at the top of their head. This one rarely fails. The offending party will typically turn around and look at you. If they do you can either look back or pretend to be asleep. If they ask you to turn it off or re-direct it, just say ‘Oh, sure’ and do so. Then when they turn around and get comfortable, turn it up again.”

I must admit, I have been tempted to do some of these things.  But I choose not too.  I handle this situation by acting in an interpersonally competent manner.  I tap the person sitting in front of me on the shoulder and politely say, “My legs are kind of long and when you recline your seat so far, it makes me very uncomfortable.  I’d appreciate it if you could move it just a little more upright.” 

If I’m working, a fully reclined seat makes it almost impossible to keep my laptop screen all the way open, so I’ll say something like, “I’m working on my laptop, and when you reclined your seat, it came back so far that I can’t keep the screen open and see what I’m doing.  I’d appreciate it if you could move your seat just a little more upright.”

Usually people say, “OK”, or “I’m sorry”.  Occasionally, someone will say something like, “I paid for my ticket and I have the right to recline my seat.” 

When this happens, I say, “You’re absolutely right.  I was just hoping that you would show me a little consideration, it’s pretty tight in here.” 

That usually does the trick and they move their seat forward – if only a little.  However, sometimes they say something like, “Screw you.”  When that happens, I just resign myself to a couple of uncomfortable hours.

This is how interpersonally competent people handle conflict.  It usually results in a mutually agreeable solution.  Sometimes, but not often, it results in a “screw you”.

My rules for dealing with conflict in an interpersonally competent manner:

  1. Assume good intent on the part of the other person.  I have found that most people don’t realize that they are inconveniencing another person by reclining their seat.  If you point it out to them nicely, most people will move their seat forward.
  2. Tell people how their action affects you – “I’m uncomfortable,” or “I can’t work on my laptop.”
  3. Ask the other person to do what you would like him or her to do – “I’d appreciate it if you could move your seat forward a little.”
  4. Don’t escalate matters if the other person doesn’t do what you want.  As my grandmother used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”  Dan’s “ninja travel defenses” designed to be “useful in providing equal and opposite discomfort to the person rude enough to recline their seat in my face” may give you a measure of revenge, but at a cost to your personal dignity.  Is it really worth it to fight back in a passive aggressive manner?  I say, “No.”

As I’ve said previously, the irony here is that I agree with most of Dan’s rules for air travel, and I try to follow them.  On the other hand, I choose to attempt to resolve the inevitable conflicts that occur while traveling in a positive, not negative manner.

The common sense point here is simple.  Deal with conflict in a constructive manner, and you are likely to get the result you want.  Becoming passive aggressive when you don’t get what you want will not help you get what you want.  And you will be likely to feel not so good about yourself afterwards.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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  1. Yes, it seems easier with greater chance of success to just ask a person kindly. Offer to buy them a drink or make some positive friendly gesture when asking. If they are unwilling, switch seats with someone else or ask for the assistance of the flight attendant.
    Live Your Dreams,
    Jill Koenig
    Author, Coach, Motivational Speaker

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