The Elbow Thing

So of course I’m on a plane this morning and the guy next to me is doing the elbow thing.

You know what I’m talking about. He’s leaning into the armrest with his elbow and it’s clearly touching mine, but he doesn’t care. I, on the other hand, am deeply disturbed.

I always wondered how this battle begins, but the way it ends (for me) is always like this continuous game of chicken where each person is like deliberately leaning into the armrest, more and more, trying to assert their control over this meagre collective area for a measly hour, until finally, one of them gives up.

It becomes a matter of pride. It’s a game of will.

I wonder what makes people feel this way. I’m guilty of it too. I get very protective of that space. Is the other guy is aware of what he’s doing?

How many spaces are there in America/Canada where this would happen? These people would never sit at your table at a restaurant. They might shove you in the subway, though or take up two seats on a packed bus.

It’s almost like we become scarcity-obsessed. We wouldn’t care if the other guy didn’t want it so much– but because he’s imposing, *I* want to impose on *him*!

Anyway, this is ridiculous, maybe not even worth a post. But I find it amazing what happens to us when we feel imposed upon like that. Almost like Jekyll and Hyde.





10 responses to “The Elbow Thing”

  1. Rick Avatar

    I have my own story of “being imposed upon” from yesterday and it’s still just eating my lunch. Angst. Whine. Sigh. And I’m a pretty even-keeled guy, but this particular instance is just stuck in. Is it my own selfishness? Yes, and probably it’s good to show me where I’m just not “there” yet. But really, that was “my armrest” not his/hers.

  2. Mike Billeter Avatar

    I tend to feel exactly the same way as you do in the situation, but I do not feel like it is quite so much a scarcity obsession.

    To me, it comes down to a matter of appreciation. Under normal circumstances, if I felt the person (we’ll say John) “needed” the armrest more than I did, I would willingly concede it to him. Every time. Even if it led to my own discomfort (as it would…because I like having the armrest).

    However, when I get the feeling that conceding will simply make John say “That’s what I thought” instead of “Thank you for letting me have the armrest,” I’m WAY less inclined to give it up.

    It’s like when dishes sit in the sink and both you and your roommate think each other should be the one to wash them. If you both sit and play this passive-aggressive, “I won’t wash them, they’re his dishes” game, they’ll never get done. However, if I know that my roommate will appreciate my washing the dishes and will consequently mow the yard instead of me, it’s worthwhile to wash them.

    I think it is harder for us to perform acts of kindness if we feel they are expected rather than appreciated and reciprocated. This is what happens with the armrest battle. John will never say, “Thanks for giving me the armrest. I won’t be having my second serving of soda, would you like it?” so it doesn’t seem worthwhile to concede our little space of pride and perceived comfort.

  3. Judy Helfand Avatar

    Ok, I am going out on a limb here. I really think this might be a man thing. Just the other day you wrote about “Why Women Will Take Over the World”, except that we are not good team players! You talked about women being more patient and being attuned to emotions. Having said that, I can tell you I just don’t get worked up about elbow room, but my husband will really get flustered. People are funny and that is why Seinfeld was so successful writing “about nothing” except these perceived trivial issues.

    Years ago, I worked in downtown LA – yes, people actually work in the financial district. A group of us would go to lunch and it was not unusual for the host at the Sizzler to come to your table and ask you to share a table with complete strangers! Benihana still does this, I find it intrusive. Do you?
    As to the seat on the bus, well, I used to take the bus in Los Angeles. I remember being 8.5 months pregnant and not one gentleman would offer me a seat for the 25 mile drive. Maybe I looked imposing.
    Thanks for listening.

    1. Julien Avatar

      @Judy — I think it is a man thing. I was going to say that in the post but then I figured, meh, too many gender things in a row. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Adam Daniel Mezei Avatar

    Thanks for posting this, Julien! On intra-EU flights I’ve found the whole armrest thing to be very culture-specific.

    Furthest to the south and east you head in Europe, the less people are inclined to be cognizant of this whole personal space issue. Russians: “What is personal space you talk about? I have never heard of this thing before?”

    I think the space thing is very strongly connected to the pre-1989 period, where more for you necessarily meant less for me and so the idea is to work my darndest to ensure you don’t and can’t get a piece of (insert commodity or item or service) because I need more for myself and my family. Or so went the thinking…I still see inherited examples of this amongst the younger kids here in Prague, and they hardly realize they’ve taken this in by osmosis until you physically point it out to them. It’s uncanny!

    Scandinavians and Northern Europeans tend to behave more equitably, I’ve found, in general. Train rides in Denmark or Switzerland are a dream. There’s less a feeling of personal entitlement and more of a live and let live mentality, a respect for the commons and the community, as it were.

    Since I fly around often, I experience similar “elbow experiences” to the ones you describe almost constantly. There seems to be a sort of unwritten unspoken rule that if someone is going to opt to sit on an aisle seat (doesn’t everyone want to?) they don’t have a right to their right- or left-side elbow rest, as the case may be. It’s insane.

    The best thing — as Mike clearly points out in his comment — is when someone thanks you for your sacrifice or even goes out of their way to suffer discomfort in order to make you happy or to concede to you for no other reason than out of personal kindness or self-sacrifice, usually with very little explanation as to why, everything seems to work like a charm.

    On long trans-Atlantics or worse — to China — this whole elbow thing can become cause for a major passive-aggressive head game the entire journey long. But there are solutions for things like that… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. karim kanji Avatar

    I’m heading to Africa from Toronto in May. the last thing I need is someone doing the Elbow Thing to Me. In fact, if i’m saddled up beside someone (unless she’s a cute girl) I’ll just defer the arm rest. The last thing I need is any tension during a two day journey.


  6. Hugh Macken Avatar

    i can, um, relate. and yes, i do think it’s a guy thing but i’m not sure. i defer to Judy on that and i agree this is really seinfeldesque. But what about the airlines. Don’t they have people that specialize in passenger pyschology and stuff? Where is the southwest airlines social media person when you need them? do they monitor your site julien, or just brogans? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Dave Delaney Avatar

    It’s funny that you wrote this. A short time ago I mentioned “the elbow thing” to some co-workers before we a trip.

    They looked at me like I was mad.

    Perhaps it’s a Southern thing, that people are more patient and polite here. I don’t know.

    I completely agree with you though. Maybe it’s that people from bigger cities (like Montreal and Toronto) have less space around them.

    Space becomes precious and you’ll fight silently to claim yours.

  8. Jackson Miller Avatar

    I have a different strategy. Once I realize “the elbow game” is being played. I quickly defer the armrest. Then the person next to me relaxes. A short time later they will feel comfortable enough to move their arm off the armrest, even if just for a split second.

    As soon as that happens I pounce and take full control of the armrest. Usually they realize that they have been beaten and the game is over.

  9. victor Avatar

    Actually, I completely understand this. I flew 104 times last year.

    Some people need to own the whole armrest. Some passengers realize that if I claim the back of the armrest, they can put an elbow on the front – there’s enough armrest for everyone if someone isn’t rude.

    On one flight where the seat next to me decided to own the whole armrest and push my arm off, I put the armrest up. Then he got closer to me. That was weird and uncomfortable, so I put the armrest down again and conceded as much space as possible.

    Like everywhere, there are considerate people and inconsiderate people.

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