The Airplane Therapist

Black and white whisper in the earWhen the flight took off, he was just a well-built, graying man with a wrinkled button-up shirt and a day-old copy of USA Today. By the time we landed, I knew him as Will, the 36-year-old recent divorcee who had spent the weekend with his college buddies, commiserating in his recent woes. I knew he preferred red wine over white, used to work as an animator who now dabbled in agency graphic design and would do anything for tickets to see U2. And he was recently diagnosed as bi-polar by the same doctor who advised he have knee surgery a few years back.

When our plane landed, he said his farewells to the woman he was sitting next to (in the row behind me) and went on his merry way.

So is the nature of the standard airplane seatmate / therapist relationship.

Though I don’t need to hear every last detail about a person’s life, I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that people don’t mind spilling their souls to the people they sit next to on airplanes. It never fails to surprise me what people will divulge … and how comfortable people feel to advise their seatmates in return on everything from marriage problems and college choices to medical issues. There is something about flying that allows for unusually short-lived but intimate relationships found nowhere else in our society, that I know of anyway.

Perhaps it’s the fact that we share mere inches of space with our seatmates or the unquestionably short duration of a flight (in the grand scheme of time). Within a certain time period we are confined to a specific space, and a lot of people feel comfortable sharing every little detail with perfect strangers, knowing full well that they’ll never, ever see these people again.

These therapy sessions start out quite innocently, almost always with a question along the lines of, “Why are you going to (insert destination here)?” From there, the conversation either leads to answers about family, friends or work.

And then the dominoes begin to fall. In order to sustain a conversation, the person who asked the question originally must either respond to the answer or the answerer must conclude his answer with a question for the person who asked. From there the conversation either fades away into awkward silence or, if it is the beginning of the flight, falls into an hours-long conversation of illegitimate children, weird work stories, strange surgeries, private encounters and so much more information that TMI doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Airplane seats may not recline all that much, but there frequently seems to be someone in need of therapy who sits next to the person who has no qualms with diagnosing problems.

What is the strangest thing someone has ever told you on an airplane? Have you ever been someone’s therapeutic ear on a flight?

Photo credit: Hen3k Hen3k

13 Responses to “The Airplane Therapist”

  1. Trisha Miller

    How funny, but true! Sometimes I’m simply amazed by the candidness of the conversations I overhear. As for me, I generally have my laptop out (working) with headphones on to discourage questions…..I really dislike personal questions from strangers so I’d rather appear unapproachable than rude. I’m sure that must sound terribly introverted, but then I am terribly introverted. 🙂

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve taken to putting on headphones, mainly to avoid having to hear personal stories, but there is that really iffy period of time as you’re taking off and landing that lends itself to casual conversation.

      Reply
  2. Jen

    I excel at awkward silences, so strangers who try to start conversations with me are generally met with uncomfortable looks or just plain get ignored. Eh, sometimes happen with people I know as well. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Andrea

    So true! Great post topic…I will never forget the flight I took where the guy sitting next to me told me all about the reason for his trip: he had just found out he was HIV positive and was travelling to tell an old partner the news. It was incredibly personal and he spared no detail. He was such a genuine person though, by the end of our chat it felt like I had known him for years and I didn’t really mind. I can’t remember where I was going for this flight it was so long ago, but I remember him. As for me, though, I never initiate conversations on planes. I have to be in a certain mood to want to chat. Too much reading or work to catch up on usually.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Wow ~ that is quite the story! I wonder what happened to him and how his conversation with his partner went.

      Reply
  4. Jill

    The best stories I ever overheard were among a large group of military guys on their way home after being in Vietnam. It was in 1971 and the flight left Seattle after midnite, heading to JFK in New York (so it was over 5 hours). All the guys had landed in Seattle from a flight that came thru Alaska. The airline flight crew was serving champagne – in bottles – to everyone on the plane!! There were maybe a dozen or so of us civilians, and probably 50 military. Stories about their families, pictures passed around, what their plans were for the future, etc. (There were a number of them planning engagements for their girlfriends – they were asking for ideas) I got the impression that these guys were not all from the same units, or even from the same branch of the service (there was a bit of bragging & bravado). But mostly it was a 5 hour party with people who were glad to still be alive and ready to take up their lives again. I’ll never forget this flight – and I often wonder how the engagements went!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Such an awesome story! If only every flight involved free bottles of champagne!

      Reply
  5. jade

    So much fun! I always have the most interesting conversations with people on flights. Usually, if we are traveling home, I get great reccommendations for places to eat or things to do.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Recommendations for places to eat and things to do sounds like a fairly safe conversation. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Emily S.

    This is so true! I was on a flight to San Francisco in December and sat next to a man who told me all about his plans to challenge his child’s fourth grade teacher because she was teaching them about the Jewish religion in a public school. As a former teacher, I tried to gently explain to him that there’s a difference between teaching about a religion and teaching the religion itself, but he was unconvinced. He then tried to pick my brain on the best way to go about taking down this teacher. AWKWARD!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Yikes! Hopefully the flight wasn’t too excruciatingly long. That would have been a tough conversation to sit through.

      Reply
  7. Nick

    I’ve listened to the most heartbreaking stories on flights. It’s a captive audience, and some people feel the need to confess. Plus I have that face that people open up to. Marital infidelity, depression, substance abuse… I’ve been told a lot.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      A fascinating case study, isn’t it??

      Reply

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