The Art of Making Connections: 4 Lessons from a 5-Hour Plane Ride

airplane row

It was just past 2pm on a Tuesday in late summer, and the crowd walking onto the Southwest flight from Baltimore to LAX was a mix of majorly White-American families and middle-aged singles. I had forgotten to check-in for my flight 24 hours prior, as recommended, so my C-36 position self had the high-esteemed luxury of taking my pick of the remaining middle seats that no one ever wants on the mostly full plane.

The decision of who I was going to sit with for the 5-hour ride wasn’t a task I took lightly. I knew I didn’t want to sit near any of the babies or children who were screaming near me just minutes before as I stared out of the window in the gate waiting area and willed the plane to hurry TF up.

People like to think that it’s an advantage to get an early pick of their seat as part of the A group, but if you’re a solo-traveler like myself, then a later position is truly where it’s at. You have the privilege of shallowly judging the profiles of your would-be seatmates before you take your seat – single-handedly determining what your flight experience will be.

Wouldn’t you rather take control of your destiny instead of passively waiting to see whether life is going to hand you lemons or lemonade?! Of course you would.

It’s akin to walking into a bar and chatting up your confirmed cool and sexy new date rather than staring at your phone and sitting in anticipation of a cute-seeming, very likely actual creep to swipe right on you.

These are important decisions people.

As I walked down the aisle eyeing seats, I eliminated them one by one. The older women in row 4 who were deep in conversation – eliminated. I wasn’t tryna have people talk over me for 5 hours. Older, larger men in row 10 whose bottoms spilled into the middle seat – eliminated. No explanation necessary. I made it midway through the plane and had yet to see a hot guy who I would hit it off with! (Don’t act like that’s not everyone’s plane fantasy). I started to get antsy as a line began forming at the back of the plane and pickins were getting slim. I’d already passed some perfectly fine seats in hopes of finding the perfect seat mate. A classic symptom of being a young millennial in this age of having unlimited options at our fingertips, AMIRITE.

Like last call at the bar, I made the split decision of turning back and choosing one of the seats I’d eyed before. “Can I steal this seat?” I said with a wide smile. I always ask to steal things. I like to believe that it’s cheeky though sometimes I get smart retorts like “You can’t steal it, but you can have it.” This time, I received a friendly response and felt satisfied with my seat decision as I sat down with enough room to comfortably breathe. My seat-mates weren’t chatty. They were each focused on their laptops or phones. Perfect. I popped in my earphones to listen to the Dear Sugars podcasts I’d frantically downloaded right before boarding the plane, closed my eyes to listen and was at peace.

It was 2 hours into the plane ride when I realized just how long 5 hours really take when you’re stuck thousands of miles in the air. I already finished 3 podcast episodes and didn’t feel like reading either of the two books I brought on the plane. I got up to go to the bathroom and as I return, my seatmate to the left, an older woman, asks me how old I am – a question I’m always amused by as people often think I’m in high school. I say I’m 24 and she offers me a drink voucher explaining that she gets so many of them because she travels so much. I accept and ask a couple of follow up questions just to make conversation.

We order pinot grigio from the flight attendant and we make chat lightly about the benefit of appearing eternally young in your 20s. Our 3rd seatmate returns from the bathroom and we learn what brings each of us to LA. I tell them I’m pursuing my dream of writing for Film/TV and they’re both extremely encouraging. I like them already. They’re both in town for business. From there, conversation flows seamlessly.

We touch on the topics of career, relationships (we legitimately have a full therapy session), divorce, parenting, following our dreams, and making the most of life. We even end by sharing whether we believe in life after death and joke that we’d all met in a previous life! I had somehow formed a more robust relationship with two strangers that I’d known for a couple of hours than the relationships that I have with some people I’ve known for years.

For some reason, I felt compelled to share intimate details about my life that very rarely come up in conversation –  including my estranged father, my failures in dating back in D.C., and my plans for a new life in LA. Keep in mind that I’ve never been a seatmate that’s interested in doing anything more than popping in my headphones and sleeping or reading. Walking by, you would never peg us as obviously matched for an instant connection. On the surface, we had nothing in common – a white woman in her mid fifties, myself, a black woman in her mid twenties, and a white man in his mid forties. But we were weirdly perfectly paired.

The final 2 hours of the plane ride flew by as we indulged in the vulnerable kind of conversation that we often find ourselves craving from the ones we love. I felt seen. We had no reason to lie about our truths since we didn’t know each other. It was an amazing experience that I’d previously thought only happened in movies. In addition to my new friends’ email addresses and a full heart, I took a couple of other things away from that serendipitous meeting. I believe that these principles can bring more joy to our daily interactions and help us make friends with anyone we meet.

1. People are GOOD when you believe they are

I started the day in a challenging mental space as my mother continued to be less than supportive of my decision to move and then when I called my sister to talk about it, the conversation quickly turned into her venting about a ton of stuff that she was dealing with. I struggled to re-center myself as we headed to the airport and was making decent headway until faced with the screaming children in the waiting area. Regardless, I was determined to keep a cheery disposition and be friendly to anyone who was ready to receive it. I approached my seatmates with a big smile and open heart and I think that helped them respond to me in a similar manner. I’m a big believer in the goodness of others (and law of attraction) so I have to give myself some credit for what transpired.

2. People love to talk about themselves

This is actually something I learned while doing a marathon of post-grad informational interviews in an effort to figure out what kind of media job would be the best fit for me. When you have almost nothing to offer the executive person who you’re asking out for coffee, you have to show that you’re interested in them. The only reasons for them to entertain you are 1, the satisfaction that they get out of feeling like they’re giving back to the youth and 2, the primal satisfaction that we all get from having someone else take an interest in us. Who wouldn’t happily jump at the rare opportunity to shamelessly talk about themselves at length without the risk of being deemed conceited?! I made a point to express my genuine curiosity and ask my seatmates follow-up questions while keeping an open and sincere disposition to everything they shared. While people do love talking about themselves, having someone share personal details with you is always a privilege and should be treated as such.

3. Being vulnerable yields more vulnerability

When given the opportunity to share my truth, I pretty much always opt for complete honesty unless a conflict of interest is present. I’ve shared my plans to move to LA and pursue my writing dreams with countless strangers in the past couple of months, so sharing my plans with my seatmates was a no-brainer. I’m generally an open person and I believe that openness is a surefire way to have others feel comfortable with you. When you have nothing to hide and openly share information about yourself, others feel able to expose more of themselves. According to Shasta Nelson, the founder of Girl Friend Circles and author of Friendtimacy, the formula for the meaningful connections that we crave includes a mix of positivity, consistency, and vulnerability. The more vulnerable, the more meaningful if you ask me. Our plane conversation would have never reached the level that it did if we felt unsafe to share such personal details about our lives. We somehow knew that we could trust each other or just happened to be 3 naturally open people. Either way, vulnerability was the key necessary for us to end our shared experience by playfully calling ourselves “The Southwest Support Group” and flirting at ideas of traveling to Europe together – “Eat, Pray, Love” style.

4. Spread light and be light

We all have things to be sour about. We have bad days. We react to adverse situations and let it affect our mood. We sometimes project our bad moods onto innocent bystanders. We’re human. Our imperfection is where our beauty lies. If we can learn to be loving and compassionate to ourselves, to take it easy and forgive our slip-ups, then we give ourselves room to do the same for others. When approaching an uncertain situation like a plane ride, car ride, party where you don’t know anyone, solo-concert, etc., try to be light and be open. Be friendly and let your inner light shine. It only brings positive experiences into your life and isn’t that what we’re on this planet for?

I’ve come a long way from the fearful and doubting person that I used to be. I’ve finally found a fruitful way to approach life: Be a kind person, believe in the goodness of the world, and you’ll get it back. This amazing experience is proof.

somethhing wonderful

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Have you had a similar serendipitous encounter with people that you didn’t know before? What led to the almost instant connection? I’m curious to hear whether other people are having these amazing experiences too! 

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