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Two grown men, at odds over a seatback

Opinion Piece

“You are the most inconsiderate person I have ever met.”

The statement took me by surprise.

He went on: “Laughing, getting up, walking up and down.”

“I didn’t mean to be inconsiderate,” I said.

In terms of ripostes, it wasn’t my best work.

We were seated close to the back of a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft on an Emirates flight from Bali to Dubai.

Near our destination, a flight attendant had walked along the aisle, checking seatbelts were fastened and seatbacks upright.

The chap in front and to the left of me had his seat tilted back, and — when asked by the attendant to adjust it — had fiddled with the mechanism and then left it as it was.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said.

“Could you put your seatback forward.”

“No,” he said.


“Because, look at this,” and he pointed to the seatback in front of him, set in the recline position, then followed up with the bit about my lack of consideration.

I’m a people-pleaser by disposition and was disturbed that I’d annoyed someone so much. So I reviewed my behaviour.

“Laughing”. It was the time for sleeping, and I wanted to get to the aisle to go to the toilet or stretch my legs — I worry about deep vein thrombosis (DVT). I woke my sister Elaine to get past. Startled, she came awake clawing at the air, like a kitten pawing at a suspended ball of wool. Embarrassed at having caused this commotion, I laughed . . . maybe too loud, too long.

“Getting up”. It was to guard against DVT. Perhaps the annoying part was when I forgot to remove the audio-visual headset. It broke free and hit the head of the chap in front.

“Walking up and down”. Again, the DVT concerns.

A minute or two later, the flight attendant again asked the chap in front to return his seatback to the upright position. He turned and said: “Are you going on to London?”

“No,” I said. Our next leg would end in Manchester.

“Right,” he said, and complied with the flight attendant’s request.

The implication was clear: he wouldn’t have to put up with my inconsiderate ways for the next leg, so he could stop his seatback protest. It mattered not that the protest affected not me, but my sister, who had caused no offence.

I’m 61; this chap was in his 40s or 50s . . . two grown men, at odds over a seatback.

In the airport at Dubai, Elaine and I wandered the polished halls on the way to our departure gate and who should we meet coming the other way but the seatback chap and his attractive female companion. We nodded, smiled and continued on our way.

He sounded English. I’m an English-born Anglo-Scottish New Zealander. I wondered if the seatback episode reflected a distinctly English approach to acceptable behaviour, because the word that resonated with me was “inconsiderate”.

I’d said I hadn’t meant to be inconsiderate. On reflection, I realised that was the point. The dictionary meaning of “inconsiderate” is “thoughtlessly causing hurt or inconvenience to others”; or, not stopping to think about the effect that actions will have on others.

The seatback chap had used the perfect word for what he wanted to say, and my comeback had only confirmed it.

I’ve been on the wrong end of a few bollockings in my time, and this one hardly registered on the scale from mild to withering. But it added another dimension to my month-long stay in the United Kingdom.

I took particular note of the everyday acts of consideration that make life bearable in a densely populated country with buildings and streets made for a world without cars, trucks and buses.

Consideration for others isn’t just an option in places like York, Whitby, Penzance and London; it’s essential to the conduct of civilised society.

In two weeks in York, I admired the courtesy and patience of drivers who pulled over to let oncoming traffic have the right of way in narrow streets.

In Whitby, motorists crawled along cobbled streets, edging through wandering pedestrians like Kiwi drivers navigating a sea of stock.

In Penzance, the expertise of the drivers in guiding their buses on the narrow, steep, twisting roads made me imagine they were the public transport equivalent of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows. But as they negotiated the seemingly impossible corners on their route, they relied on the courtesy of other road users.

And if the bus drivers in Penzance were the Red Arrows, those in London were Fighter Command, weaving their way through crowded streets, the few transporting the many.

Think about the quirks of everyday English life — queues, manners, humour, the tendency to say sorry, and the assumed right to get bolshy if the rules of considerate behaviour are broken. You start to see how a nation that spread its language and influence around the world, and created an empire then lost it, can still be on friendly terms with so many . . . even though the edges may fray a little from time to time.