The best offense is a good defense.
Flying on an airplane is a special kind of torture, one with a payoff so great we willingly risk terrible outcomes ranging from getting a cold to dying in a crash. But while most of the suffering that comes with aviation transportation is merely a nuisance at worst, travelers can still fight back against the irritants that degrade your experience. Because stretchy pants and neck pillows can’t save you if you find yourself seated beside a Chatty Cathy who won’t quit till she’s told you her life story.
Attention is a privilege, and small talk is not a right that anyone is owed.
The deeper problem with many so-called “friendly” conversationalist seatmates on airplanes is not their genuinely solicitous interest in their fellow man or their neighborly social graces, but the often unconsciously selfish needs that motivate the prattle. Babbling Brian might be nervous or lonely, but he also might just want to talk about himself, and you’re a captive audience. Your attention passes their time, it amuses and entertains them. Did you not sign up for such labor? Too bad. You might be sitting next to them for a long time, and being rude and awkward is going to make it feel even longer.
While none of these conversation drivers–boredom, nerves, polite curiosity–are particularly nefarious in pursuit, they also don’t entitle a bystander’s (read: your) attention either. Socialization has taught us (especially women) that congeniality is fundamental to human interaction, and that attention is the given response to the solicitation. With the exception of your neighbor needing physical access that only you can provide, this is unequivocally untrue. Attention is a privilege, and small talk is not a right that anyone is owed.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Now, exercising that empowerment can be a thin line to walk, as you are sharing communal space with someone who, ostensibly, is just being friendly. So when you’re stuck next to a neighbor who just won’t shut up, how can you end the conversation for good?
Do Not Open Yourself up to the Possibility in the First Place
Window seat, hoodie up, that’s the way I like to avoid talking to people on planes. For maximum control levels, you’ll need to physically arrange yourself away from your neighbors, and there’s no better position for that than the window seat. The best offense is a good defense!
Even if you aren’t using them, headphones in your ears are visual cues that you aren’t up for chatting. Regardless of whether you’re listening to music or not, never answer audible solicitations while you have your headphones on (or return them to your ears as soon as you have acknowledged any request). If your seatmate needs to get up, they’ll tap you. If they just want to chat, they’ll give up when you just plain don’t answer.
Just like with headphones, it doesn’t matter if it’s a real action or not–closed eyes say to the world, “Do Not Disturb.” So shut your eyes and do your best to snooze.
“I get airsick,” is just about the worst thing you can hear from a seatmate. If your neighbor won’t quit the chitchat, interrupt with the bad news.
“I’m sorry, I’m feeling a bit sick. I’m going to sit quietly for a while.”
And up the ante, if you must: “Honestly, I’m afraid to open my mouth.”
Open a Book or Your Computer
Not always as effective as it should be, opening up that novel you’ve been dying to get into or that work you’ve been avoiding won’t always drive away the blathering windbag beside you. In fact, this exact tactic could work against you if you aren’t careful. Don’t allow a seatmate to use the introduction of a physical object as a segue to a new conversation (“What are you reading/working on?”). Here’s where you must summon your most perfunctory, non-solicitous answers, and do not elaborate or give additional information no matter how weird it feels.
THEM: “What are you working on?”
YOU: “Just work stuff.”
T: “What do you do for a living?”
Y: “Office work.”
T: “What are you doing now?”
***NEVER TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE SCREEN***
THEM: “What are you reading?”
YOU: “Oh, just a book I picked up.”
T: “Is it good?”
Y: “I don’t know.”
T: “What’s it about?”
U: “Just a typical [novel/memoir/book of spells/Arya Stark kill list]”
T: “Do you like it?”
U: “I’ll have to tell you when I’m finished.”
***KEEP YOUR EYEBALLS ON THE PAGE***
Your role in the conversation is to offer so little that it pegs you as the poor conversationalist. Tis nobler to be boring than standoffish.
Be Direct and Be Firm
This is actually the route I’d advocate for all to use, but being assertive is so downright terrifying to so many people that there have to be softer avenues for escape. If you can be mindful in the moment, remember that being assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive, and being direct doesn’t mean being impolite. A canned script can be as simple as, “Well it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m going to [read/watch a movie/cast a spell/think about my cat/sit silently].” And then stand firm in your silence.
But Don’t Be a Jerk
Being passive aggressive with someone who is trying to make conversation with you makes you the bad guy. There’s no need for rolling of eyes, sighing, or offering other so-called “cues” that you’d like to exit the conversation. Not everyone interprets things the same, so if you want someone to understand you, be clear and direct.