Everybody knows that I spend a lot of time on airplanes. But what almost nobody knows is that for my Sociology 101 class in college, I did a project at the airport – observing behavior related to personal space – not because I was interested in personal space but because I loved airports so much. I love the hustle bustle and the way people are going and coming and saying hello and goodbye and dealing with joy and frustration. There’s something about an airport that I see as a microcosm of human existence. The anthropologist in me just loves it.
Which is fortunate because I’m marching towards having traveled four million miles on airplanes in my lifetime (so far). That’s a lot of time in that microcosm – interacting with strangers, observing human behaviors, and thinking about what it all means.
In airports and on airplanes, there are a lot of strangers together in one place. I have found that people’s cultural conditioning, implicit assumptions, and biases about “who’s who” lead the way in how they behave, who they argue with, whether they feel like they can make a demand, when they feel they need to submit, what they feel they have the right to expect, how they treat someone, and the tone with which they talk with one another. And I find that if you’re observing really well, you can start “seeing” their assumptions in their behaviors.
For example, you can “see” when someone steps in line in front of you during boarding that they assume you’re not in business class, too. You can “see” assumptions play out based only on characteristics that are visible – gender, age, ethnicity, wardrobe, travel partners – and it’s fascinating. It is like a crash course in a culture every time I am boarding a plane.
If you slow down long enough to observe, you’ll see it too. For more discussion on these types of biases, you can read more in an earlier article I published on Forbes.com titled “What I’ve Learned On Airplanes About Conditioning.”