4 min read

In Strangers' Living Rooms

Every time I fly, the distance I contemplate driving to avoid flying goes up.
In Strangers' Living Rooms

Greetings fellow travelers!

The biggest difference in making a long trip by car versus flying is the amount of time you need to spend with strangers. In our cars we can relax and be ourselves. We can play whatever music or podcast we want, or indeed sit in quiet contemplation. We can eat and drink what we want when we want. And we can talk with our companions with no fear that others will overhear our secrets.

The highways are often crowded, true. And there may be accidents, speed traps run by aggressive police, and trucks riding up on your bumper. But your odds by car are much better than by plane that you'll depart on the day you intended and arrive on the day you intended.

As an aside, at what distance do you say you'd rather travel by car than by plane? I thought about this recently as I spent the better part of 12 hours to travel less than 400 miles by plane, including getting to and from the airport, getting through security, waiting at the gate, only to be hit with the dreaded "maintenance" issue. Every time I fly, the distance I contemplate driving to avoid flying goes up. Anything up to 8 hours driving, and I really have to think about it.

In any event, my wife and I experienced several different airport lounges recently, in a couple European airports and a couple American airports. The contrast was stark. I don't believe it's due to airports' size, or how busy they are. Many European cities have supremely busy airports, with high-trafficked lounges.

Probably the first difference you notice in the European lounge experience is the noise, or lack thereof. Not having TVs every few feet blaring CNN or some sports channel removes excess sound that contributes little to entertainment but greatly to stress. The default setting in many European lounges is therefore much quieter.

In part because you aren't competing with background noise, conversations are also quieter. I observe a greater sense of propriety as well, meaning that people try to speak at levels that keep their conversations discreet. Even in close quarters, you do not overhear most people's private conversations.

If you mosey up to the buffet, you will find food and snacks that reflect local tastes and availability. In this at least, the lounges in different countries are similar. The same travelers in Europe, however, do not as often fill their plates to overflowing just because they can. They do not leave large portions of food uneaten because they didn't really want it in the first place.

Contrast now a few hours spent in some US airport lounges. I was left agog at how some travelers behave. My overall impression is that two years of not flying have locked many travelers in their car mindset, even though they're back in strangers' company at the airport: they can relax and be themselves. They can play whatever music or podcast they want. They can eat and drink what they want. They can talk with companions with no concern that others will overhear their secrets.

In one memorable 60-minute stretch, I accomplished the following recently in a US airport lounge:

  • Participated in a couple business meetings, discussing e.g. new app features and some sensitive personnel issues. This was courtesy of business travelers participating in Zoom meetings in full volume in open seating.
  • Watched a number of YouTube videos, thanks to nearby travelers thoughtfully leaving the volume on their devices turned up to such levels that the whole row could enjoy.
  • Observed a psychiatrist's dream in the form of various family dramas being played out for all to see – parents arguing with and threatening recalcitrant kids, spouses having intimate discussions I would have rather not overheard, and partners venting their travel stress on one another.
  • Watched harried service personnel carting away uneaten mountains of food, left carelessly in, on, and around seats, as well as spilled and ground onto the floor. What seemed at first like empty pockets of seats were rather hazardous zones of food effluvia left behind by careless travelers.

I really had the sense that many people behaved as if they were at home in their living rooms, or worse, never mind the comfort of their cars. How else to explain people carrying on as if they were the only persons present?

I don't think people in lounges are loud and lack discretion because they believe what they are saying and doing is fascinating to strangers. I hope they don't share intimate details of their work and private life because they think they're so important. I would like to think it's simply cluelessness about how much they are inadvertently sharing.

Or perhaps they're monumentally uncaring, in the sense that such people do not consider others around them as deserving of attention. When you are in a room with dogs or cats, you don't worry about them overhearing your conversation. When you are sitting down to picnic lunch, you don't worry about the insects stealing your business secrets.

The thing is, when you behave in public as if you're alone, you do more than demonstrate bad manners. Carrying on in the same way in a lounge as if you were in your living room at home is passing strange. You are being selfish at best if not demonstrating pathological disregard of others.

I don't mean to be uncharitable. Maybe there are other explanations for this behavior. If you have a theory, please let me know what else it could be.

In the meantime, ask yourself this: when you are among strangers, does it occur to you to moderate your behavior so as to respect your and their privacy? Do you even think about how others might be affected by your behavior?

Be well.

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