I am a hardened traveler. I have perfected my stony "Don't even think about talking to me" face (distant stare, furrowed brow), and if you do dare to think about it, you'll be met with a curt and final "Fine, thanks" and a quick dive for my headphones or cellphone. No eye contact. Never any eye contact.
It's not that I don't like you, it's just that I don't want to take the risk of finding out I don't like you, only to become your forced companion for the next several hours. I would rather sit in my bubble of solitude and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. It's safer that way.
On one particularly tiring trip (our flights had been canceled and we were well into our second day of travel), I was annoyed at being stuck at the back of the plane, in a middle seat and separated from my husband. About halfway through the flight, it started to get a little bumpy. No big deal, but I could tell the lady to my right wasn't happy. Must be a newbie. Oh well, she would survive.
(If you've made it this far, thanks for hearing out what was my rather ungrateful mindset for many years!)
The flight went on, and the turbulence got worse. Much worse, like nothing I had ever experienced before. Not that I was nervous -- I knew it was nothing serious (right?), but by now the lady next to me had her eyes squeezed shut, knuckles white from holding onto the armrest so tightly, and she was breathing hard through gritted teeth.
For a few silent minutes I directed the sliver of fear I felt towards her, as irritation. Why was she making me feel so uncomfortable? She was probably making other people feel that way, too -- couldn't she just pull herself together? But in that moment I realized that no, she couldn't. And that I had something that I could offer her -- a moment of connection to draw her out of whatever horrible scenario she was battling in her head. I had a decision to make.
I wish I could say it was an easy decision. I agonized over it for several minutes, imagining the awkwardness that would be the rest of the flight if she rejected my attempt to connect. What if I only made it worse and launched her into a full-blown panic attack? The irony of my angst over this possible minor discomfort while my neighbor was clearly trying to avoid thinking about imminent death was lost on me until later.
Finally, a jolt that terrified even me gave me the courage to move past my indecision. I put my hand on hers (yes, I touched a stranger on a plane without being invited) and said (without looking at her), "Don't worry, everything is going to be OK."
She opened her eyes and looked at me and I turned my head to make the dreaded eye contact. "Thank you," she said as she exhaled, and I realized that this connection, this terrifying act of reaching out to a stranger, was what she needed more than anything in the world right then.
"Hi, I'm Amanda. What's your name?" I said (thinking, "What on Earth am I going to say next, what if I sound stupid?")
She told me her name and we kept talking and holding hands for the rest of the bumpy flight. After exchanging pleasantries and optimistic speculation on the likely outcome of our journey, we learned that we both traveled a lot for work (she wasn't a newbie after all), grew up in small towns and were actively involved in our local motor sports communities.
Her expression of gratitude when I first reached out (which was, for me, more terrifying than the turbulence ever was) will stay with me forever. We spend a lot of our lives surrounded by people we don't know, and it can be easy to forget that every single person in the crowd has a rich and complex story of existence. And every single person craves connection and belonging. At some times more than others.
I have a game that I like to play now when I travel. I like to observe people from a distance and imagine what their morning was like, or even their whole week. I try to guess what the biggest things on their minds are right now -- are they falling in love? Out of love? Do they have a loved one who is battling illness, or have they just had a wonderful success? If they catch me staring I do my best to avoid the impulse to look away, then make eye contact and smile. Sometimes, they even smile back.