The last post you will ever read about the ethics of reclining your seat on an airplane
Airplanes go zoom in the sky!
This is the first installment of a new feature here at Calm Down called “I Do Not Care About This Subject (But Here Are Thousands Of Words About It Anyway).” Every week I will write about one issue that I just don’t care about and I wish I never had to hear about again. Sometimes (but not all times) I will go further and argue that you also shouldn’t care about the issue in question. This is one of those times.
Is it ok to recline your seat on an airplane? I do not give a shit.
This is a pretend issue. It is driven by a small band of weirdoes and a media that coddles them. I don’t care about it, and most people don’t care about it.
You are familiar with the basics: airplanes fly in the air. They have seats in them. The seats are for passengers who pay money for tickets to travel across the world at great speed. The passengers have this little button in their armrests that they can push and then recline their seatback a couple of inches. Because of how physics works, the space they gain comes at the expense of some space in the area of the person behind them.
No one disagrees that you have the right to push that button. Well, that’s not true. Some people do disagree with that but those people are extremists and it is silly to even address them. The button is there. You have the right.
Closer to the realm of reasonable debate is whether, in a decent society, one should avail themselves of the right to recline. There are lots of rights that we enjoy here in the free and prosperous West that most people still don’t exercise because it’s not nice. You have the right to stand on a street corner and shout about how the Holocaust is a myth. But it’s not something you should do because it’s going to annoy people around you and make you seem like a crazy person. In many states, you have the right to walk around with an AR-15 in your hand but it’s not something you should do because it will frighten people around you and make you seem like a crazy person.
The only penalties you will suffer for exercising your rights in those ways are reputational and moral.
There exists a not insignificant minority of Americans online who believe that people who exercise their right to recline should also suffer reputational and moral punishment.
How many people believe this? We’re talking about a potential social prohibition on behavior, so if 11 people think this, they are shit out of luck. But if 89% of people think it, then they might be able to make progress towards their goal.
The easiest way to try to grasp public opinion on this issue is to look at polls.
The most straightforward poll about this is from 2014.
In 2014, YouGov found that 55% of Americans think it is acceptable to recline your seat. This number increased to 78% on an overnight flight. A plurality of Americans (43%) said they would be more annoyed by not being able to recline their own seat than they would by someone else reclining their seat in front of them. On overnight flights, this skyrocketed to 70%.
Another poll from 2014, conducted by 538, found that 41% of Americans think it is somewhat or very rude to recline your seat but that only 20% of people say they never recline their own seat.
A third poll was conducted in 2022 and it had very different results.
The Vacationer surveyed 1,098 Americans and found that fully 77% of people think “it is rude to fully recline your seat.” However, this result is not as decisive as it may appear. 30% of people think it is rude and still recline their own seat. Add them to the 22% of think it isn’t rude and even in this poll—the one which is the most anti-reclining—a majority of Americans admit to reclining.
This poll also raises some red flags.
According to Vacationer, 28% of Americans said that they recline but “politely ask if it is okay before doing so.”
Those people are obviously liars. No one in my entire life has ever asked me before reclining in front of me. I have never witnessed someone in my row do that. I have never overheard someone in earshot do it. I have encountered lots of people on social media who claim to do this. And I’m sure some of them do, but 28%? 28% of Americans recline their seat but only after asking? Please. More than a fourth of people on a plane seek positive consent before reclining? Get a life. That is obviously not true. Only 2% say they know it’s rude and do it without asking. Bullshit. People recline their seats in from of me 95% of the time I am on a plane. Those people either don’t think it’s rude or think it’s rude but don’t ask.
The lesson of both this poll and the show House is that everyone lies.
This particular lie does perhaps offer an explanation for the disconnect between the three polls. Since 2014, social media has forced all of us to hear the incessant whining of people who really hate it when someone reclines. This vocal group of people has succeeded to some extent in mainstreaming an emergent storyline that reclining is bad in some way.
Maybe the people who lie about asking before reclining are telling an aspirational lie. Maybe they would really like to be that sort of person. Maybe they confuse themselves with this pretend person they read about on Instagram. Or maybe something else is going on: Maybe they are choosing the answer that felt closest.
Vacationer did not give people the chance to say, “I recline, but I would raise it up if the person behind asked me to.”
Anyone who has ever been on an airplane and interacted with humans knows that the overwhelming likelihood is that this is how most people actually behave.
Fortunately, the 538 poll did ask people about this.
While 58% of people said that it was not rude to recline, 64% said that if asked, someone should refrain from doing it. Almost half the people who say it is not rude to recline say you should raise your seat up if asked.
I think that probably understates the number of people who would, in fact, be willing to raise their seat up if asked politely. In real life, people are nice and conflict-avoidant. They might not have an “obligation” to the person behind them but when push comes to shove, they are going to be like, “oh sure, sorry of course.”
A secondary finding of the 538 poll is that 37% of people say that it is somewhat or very rude to wake the person in the aisle seat up so you can go to the restroom. What would those people have them do? Piss themselves? That seems more rude.
This raises an interesting question: do people know what the word rude means?
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