- Washington Post
You asked: I’m stuck in the middle seat. How do I reclaim the armrests?
14:01 JST, March 17, 2023
Traveling has always come with complications. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal.
I’m stuck in a middle seat. What do I say to the guy who spreads his elbows across both armrests? He’s invading my personal space by taking up the whole armrest and then some. I’ve said something like “Can you keep your elbow on your side of the armrest?” and have been met with hostility that unsettled me. I’ve also stuffed my jacket between my arm and the armrest. Is there something I can do or say that’s not so passive-aggressive or doesn’t trigger their aggression? – Anonymous
It’s bad enough to end up in the middle seat. It is unfathomable to me, but there are people who actually love the middle seat. The rest of us normal people see it as a necessary evil, the seating assignment equivalent of taking one for the team.
All seats are not equal, and we have unspoken rules for each (although the more you fly, the more you realize not everyone knows them). Some rules are obvious, like you can’t be a jerk about getting up for your neighbors if you booked the aisle. On the other hand, the rule that the middle seat gets both armrests is regularly debated, which is why you keep ending up in elbow battles.
So what can you do about it? I wanted to get a variety of takes, so I reached out to experts on etiquette, leadership and mediation. They shared one key takeaway: Anger will get you nowhere in this situation.
When you come in hot, it’s natural for your neighbor to respond hot. “If my end goal is for this man to take his hand off of my armrest and have a nice flight . . . acting defensive or bossy or hostile is not actually going to get me [there],” said Samantha Karlin, founder and CEO of the leadership training organization Empowerment Global. “Most people won’t act defensively unless they’re attacked.”
Once you board, establish dominance early by assuming both arm rests from the moment you sit down, but lay some groundwork in case of encroachment. Since we’re more inclined to do favors for friends than strangers or enemies, Karlin recommends setting a cordial tone with your neighbors early, taking a “kill them with kindness approach.”
“Establishing some sort of relationship is key,” she said. “You’re trying to garner empathy from them.”
When they take their seats, try some small talk to take the edge off – say hello, ask how their day’s going or where they’re off to. Then if you’re feeling cramped later or have some other qualm with a neighbor, address it nicely. Karlin suggests a line like “Gosh, the middle seat is awful. I’m exhausted, do you mind if I take this armrest?”
Jaclyn Roberson, senior partner and mediator at Roberson Duran Law, advised something similar.
Because “your energy can dictate someone else’s energy,” she said, “if you do go in calm and polite, you might encourage the other person to behave in the same manner.”
“Obviously that’s not a guarantee, but one can hope,” she added.
I caught Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the owner of the Protocol School of Texas, just after she stepped off a flight to Nashville. Fittingly, she was booked in a middle seat. She told me there’s really no good way to tell a person to move. “It’s reprimanding someone, it’s uncomfortable for us,” she said.
Not only is it awkward, Gottsman says it’s a risk to point out someone’s bad behavior; there’s no guarantee how they will respond. The best you can do is ask with courtesy. “Would you mind moving over a little bit?” may do the trick.
“Approach them as best as possible, watching our facial expressions, watching our tone of voice, not flailing our hands, acting disgruntled and irritated,” Gottsman said. “That’s just going to set them off.”
They may be happy to move, but if they appear annoyed, so be it, Gottsman says. Should they snap, tell a flight attendant immediately.
Yes, you’re owed both armrests. Yes, you should ask for them if you’re feeling slighted. But you also need to have realistic expectations. Even though you’re in the worst seat, flying economy is miserable for everyone.
“In mediation, I always tell people you’re not going to walk out of here with everything you want,” Roberson said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to give to get.” If you can’t coax the entire arm rest from your neighbor, perhaps you can share it (although you should take the better arm placement).
Your other option is to avoid the uncomfortable position altogether.
“Pay the money for the aisle,” Karlin said. “Invest in yourself.”
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