Stop hogging the armrest

It’s midnight Columbus time, and I am angry. In fact, I’m ready to snap.

You see, I’m currently 30,000 feet over the Western United States, sitting in an all-too-familiar and incredibly uncomfortable situation…again. I’m in the middle seat of an airplane, trapped between two grown men approximately the same size as I am. And I get to enjoy this prison for at least another hour before touching down in Portland, Oregon.

Now I know airplane seats were originally designed for 1950’s travelers, which I’m sure were at least a few pounds and a few pant sizes smaller than the three of us that are currently packed into this row. But why am I the only person who seems to be sucking it in? The gentlemen to my left and to my right are both spilling over into my tiny aeronautical space. They have laid claim to BOTH of their armrests, not giving a moment’s consideration that at least one of those armrests would have/could have/SHOULD have been mine if only I had sat down first. Somehow, even though their feet are tucked under the seats directly in front of them, their thighs have invaded my personal bubble as well. Call me old-fashioned, but I really, really don’t like to rub thighs with complete strangers.

So I sit here trapped, angry, and feeling like the only person who tried to make himself as small as possible on this airplane. And I conclude that the reason is because most people put themselves first. They look out for #1. And they act as if it is their birthright to claim just a little more than their space because they got there first.

My tirade does have a point besides letting me blow of a little steam (thanks for listening by the way).
I’m pretending to be quite righteous as I sit here stewing in my middle-seat hell, but the truth is there are many places in life and work when I take up both armrests. More often than not, I do it unintentionally, as some travelers do (not these two dudes beside me, but some do I’m sure). But intent doesn’t really matter when you’re the one without the armrest, now does it?

Like when someone on my team needs my attention, or my brain, or my part of a project and I intentionally go about my day focusing only on MY work and MY needs. Oh, I have great reasons and excuses for my behavior, but I’m often being selfish and I know it.

Same thing happens at home with the wife, the kids, and even the dogs. Especially the dogs. My poor dogs love me so much and there are days I barely pet them because I’m too “busy”. Thank God they forgive me even faster than he does.

I think my anger has been provoked because I’m not just talking about airplane etiquette. This is a rampant problem and is very likely why our teams don’t work and customer service blows almost everywhere we go. Nobody is willing to give up an armrest. Nobody is willing to suck it in/suck it up for the sake of their fellow travelers — which includes our customers, coworkers, employees, bosses, friends, family, and yes, our dogs.

Here’s what scares me about this whole thing: When very few people are willing to let go of their own comfort, their own agenda, their own gosh-darn armrest, the few who ARE willing to do so inevitably become discouraged. And I’m talking discouraged to the point of “Screw it. I’m taking back that armrest the moment he reaches up to scratch his nose.” And that, my friend, is like jumping into the toilet of selfishness milliseconds before the flush. It’s nearly impossible to back out once you’ve bounced off that diving board.

The only way I know to reverse this spiral of selfishness is to encourage the positive behavior we desire in others. When you see someone obviously (or not-so-obviously) sacrificing their own comfort for the sake of someone else, pull that person aside or write them a note and MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT. Tell them that even though the person they were serving may not have noticed, YOU noticed. Tell them their actions made the world a better place today. Tell them to not give up.

If you’re one of those people who give up part of your lunch hour to help somebody understand a piece of software better, or you volunteer to work an extra shift so someone else doesn’t miss their kid’s soccer game, or you regularly stop everything you’re doing to give an employee your complete attention, I want you to know how special and rare and wonderful you are.

And if you’re one of those people who practice the lost art of sharing armrests on airplanes, I can’t wait to sit next to you someday. Fair warning, though, I may invade your space to give you a well-deserved high-five. 


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