Talking to Strangers on Planes

It’s 5:20 am on a Monday and I’m at the airport to head back to San Francisco after Thanksgiving break. As I pass through security, I come to learn that due to the weather out of Vancouver, our flight has been delayed by 4 hours, meaning I’d miss that important meeting at work I’ve been preparing for the last few weeks. On top of that, I have a serious tooth infection, am on antibiotics, painkillers, and cannot really think straight.

The last thing I was thinking about was interacting with other human beings.

After wasting time on Instagram for a few hours, I finally heard on the loudspeaker…

“Air Canada flight 310, with destination to San Francisco, we are now ready to board”. Phew, let’s head back home.

Prior to getting on the flight I loaded up a few podcasts, made sure I queued up some Travis Scott on Spotify and pulled out my sleeping mask to get some rest and listen to some tunes. Time to be a recluse.

Getting on the plane, I realized I was in the last row, right next to the bathroom. Ideal. Trying to not complain much, I sit down in my seat, put in my headphones and start to doze off. That was until Jamie and Brandon sat down. They were my “row mates”, and by the time they took their seats, they were already engaged in a loud, but interesting conversation about their Thanksgiving breaks.

“So what did you end up doing for the break?”

“Spent time with friends, my family, and did a bit of work. Excited to head back to SF though, I’m enjoying my classes at the moment and have been looking forward to them to finish up the semester strong”.

Being the nosy person I am, I started to engage despite my pain and exhaustion. Exchanging niceties at first, it wasn’t long until the three of us were engaged in a conversation that lasted the entirety of the flight.

I learned that Brandon was a double major in Computer Science and Music at Cal Berkley. He’s about to start an internship at Facebook this summer, but also had a composition he was preparing for an upcoming concert later that week. I learned that Jamie was a software engineer at Airbnb, she had her own Youtube channel to help people get into software engineering and was passionate about teaching.

We shared our experiences in college and in our roles at the companies we worked at. We chatted about our partners, our families, and our ambitions for our careers. We touched on the challenges we were facing, personally and professionally, and how we were thinking of overcoming them. We even spoke on the purpose behind why we were doing what we were doing and shared some very vulnerable aspects of our lives that would take a number of encounters to share otherwise. All of this occurring in the last row of an airplane, not some coffee shop, house party, or social gathering.

It was quite a beautiful moment. To be able to sit down in a plane next to complete strangers, and by the end of the flight, feel a sense of connection that is often rare in our daily interactions.

I realized through this experience, that despite how wonderful our longer-term relationships are, at times there can barriers to engaging in deep conversations. Given past experiences and context, it can be difficult to share the shifts in perspective you have had, and explain how you’re becoming a different person than they may be used to. In conversations with strangers, we can speak from the heart and be whomever we’d like to be.

Many of us will be on flights heading back home after this holiday break. There may be delays, the flights may be extremely early in the morning, and you may even have a tooth infection. Despite that, challenge yourself to engage. Say hello, ask that person beside you how their break was, and share a bit about yours. Speaking to those strangers on a plane can be quite awkward at first. Yet, many of them can lead to a rewarding experience and to friendships you may not have been expecting.

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