We middle-class citizens mostly meet folk like ourselves, who can drop a few bucks on organic milk or Tim Noakes-approved salami. But interactions within those cosy bourgeois confines say a lot about our relations with each other and the rest of society. Business travel is an ideal opportunity to people-watch, or more precisely, to eagerly jump to conclusions about strangers.
Some assumptions are bound to be accurate, like the stinking backpacker in sandals who always boards last, just when I believe that I might be seated next to someone who’s showered since the Berlin Wall fell.
I’m tolerant, but being downwind of a trustafarian – a hydrophobic trust-fund kid who grooms like a dung-beetle – infringes on my clean-air rights.
There’s the Chinese tourist who doesn’t realise he’s noisily cleaning his sinuses every 30 seconds, or the “before” poster-child in a weight-loss advert.
There’s the Regional Sales Manager of Acme Forklifts, too seasoned a traveller to give the aircrew the courtesy of paying attention to a safety demo. Yes, Wessie, you know how seatbelts work, but look up from those spec-sheets, just to be polite? And he “shares” the armrest in the same way that Hitler provided humanitarian aid to Poland.
The (insert pompous title here) asserts Alpha Male status by insisting on a business-class upgrade for a one-hour flight from Durban to Joburg. Fellow Gautrain passengersdeduce from his cellphone call that he’s flying to six destinations in six days, that the diamond deal will be closed in Kampala on Thursday and that “the package will be with you before I arrive.” His sweatpants and a stained T-shirt signify a Bolly-and-Stolly foot-rub on arrival.
He reckons women are attracted to power, even if the men have the manners of a misanthropic buffalo with gout, the social conscience of Genghis Khan and the athletic, sinewy grace of Dominic Strauss-Kahn.
I’ve encountered all these archetypes while travelling, but two experiences on terra ferma stand out. The first was of a writer from a mildly influential weekly who’d arrive at media events and thrust his business-card at the registrations-desk folk without acknowledging them. He’d stare at some unseen Elysian field where hacks are fed grapes by pert maidens, holding out a hand until his personalised press-pack was placed there with genuflections and reverence. I sniggered helplessly when I first saw it.
Some weeks later, I arrived at a similar briefing lugging a flying-suit, two aluminium camera-cases and a tripod (it was that kind of day) and was disdainfully appraised by the same registration person. She winced at my ensemble: “Oh, you’re just the photographer,” she sniffed.
I was bemused, then angry, then embarrassed at my own inward hissy fit; did it really matter? Perhaps the lady had just lost a nail, a client, or a baby. We all just needed to get over ourselves.
Obviously each of us is entitled to some common courtesy by our peers, subordinates and superiors.
But what swings the tone of these interactions, where genteelly impoverished old-money folks no longer hide their disdain of the hoi polloi with icy decorum, or where blinged-up, new-money oligarchs regard entitlement as a pheromone?
Maybe it’s all down to the size of the crowd. Terry Pratchett said that the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters.
Somewhere there’s an algorithm for the point at which a crowd turns ugly, whether it’s in a stadium, an airliner or a 50%-off sale; the more crowded, the more mean-spirited.
The fewer passengers per row of seats, the more magnanimous, accommodating and the nicer to the staff. Unfortunately, there are ever more of us everywhere. Perhaps we need to deploy smelly backpackers to stress-test our tolerance levels. Let me know how that goes?