It’s said that the journey matters more than the destination, but what if that passage involves the decimation of your personal space at 35,000 feet?
Cross-continental adventurers often seek to cross borders that break comfort zones. But in order to reach those unknown horizons, we often must fly—and in uncomfortably tight circumstances that ironically limit the very freedom we chase.
Before we step off the plane and into a land of unlimited opportunity, we are first confined by a series of set, stagnant choices: beef or chicken, coffee or tea, peanuts or pretzels, aisle or window. Wedged between these seating options lies the most cited challenge a third of many economy passengers face: the middle seat. Statistically, the middle seat is no man’s land. According to polls by Skyscanner, only one percent of travelers choose the middle seat over the window or aisle. All three seats are physically uniform, measuring an average of 16.5 inches (42 centimeters) across. But psychologically, seats vary.
The anxiety of seat selection is a cognitive process in part explained by the study of proxemics: Our nervous systems help define our sense of personal space, and when that space is challenged, unruly behaviors manifest. The most familiar concept of proxemics is that of personal bubbles—those invisible zones around each person that, when breached, make us uneasy. “On airplanes, proxemics rules are broken,” says Linda L. Nussbaumer, author of Human Factors in the Built Environment. “If individuals can select the seating where they are most comfortable, they may feel as if they have some control… however, not much.”
In the tight confines of an aircraft, our normal proxemics rules are compressed because personal space is nearly nonexistent. For the passenger stuck in seat B, those in seats A and C are both just a little too close for comfort. Unable to escape, we make do by creating a sense of solitude among flanked strangers using silent cues: We lean away, turn our backs on our neighbors and brandish intellectual barriers constructed of Wall Street Journals and New Yorkers. We silence budding conversations with earbuds, scan new releases on embedded screens and avoid eye contact—anything and everything to ignore our neighbors.
How we seek comfort varies from passenger to passenger, and our seat choices are characteristic of our preferences. Having already sequestered themselves along a solid barrier, window-seat enthusiasts value privacy and enjoy a sense of limitless solitude that’s only achieved by keeping their heads in the clouds. Passengers along the aisle lean toward freedom instead, moving through the cabin without needing permission and are the first to escape when the plane touches down.
But few would choose the middle seat of their own accord. Grazed by the adjacent bubbles of luckier neighbors, personal space is limited. Your movements are peripherally examined by the wingmen to your left and right: your screen visible, your page numbers notable, your breathing audible.
Nested by the window, passengers can soar. On the aisle, they can swan. Those in the middle? Cooped.
Before we spread our wings on the other side of the arrival gate, we hold tight to these waning moments of control—the seat assignment representing one of our last choices before uncertainty takes over. But perhaps that’s the advantage of actually selecting seat B from the start: to willingly become the outlier even before we hit the baggage claim. Middle-seat sitters explore new terrains—and isn’t that autonomy the reason that many of us travel in the first place? Since a plane ride is the ultimate limbo between here and there, why not embrace the adrenaline rush of the unknown even earlier in your expedition? Forget what you think you know; relinquish control; sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.
After all, vacations don’t commence at our destination: They begin as soon as we board the plane. And setting off on our journeys with open arms can allow us more than just enlightenment—it also earns us the right to both armrests.
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