While flying on a commuter plane to PHL, I noticed that the flight attendant bumped my shoulder each time she passed. She did not say excuse me. I recalled that this has happened on other flights like this, but today I decided to think about the phenomenon rather than just internally complain about it.

What’s going on here? Is it another sign of the declining civility of our society, or is it something else? This flight attendant is otherwise courteous and friendly. I did not note the others who bumped me as being especially rude either. But, they were bigger, as is this woman. The plane is a Dehavilland Dash8 turbo prop with 22 inch wide aisles. This makes it a challenge to navigate the corridor without touching the passengers on either side.

So avoiding bumping is hard, but what about failure to apologize? If this flight attendant and I were the only two people in a narrow corridor in say a building, and we bumped shoulders, I expect that each of us would say, “excuse me”. This is a different context. It’s different in that there are 50 people on this plane and we are all crowded together. The man next to me is less than an inch away. The man across from me is perhaps 27 inches away. To deal with this radical proximity, we are all making a silent bargain. We are pretending not to notice each other’s presence.

This delusion let’s us get through a moderately uncomfortable experience without losing our composure. We won’t see each other again, or won’t at least recall the meeting, so there is no payoff for investing time and energy to develop a relationship with rules and protocols for dealing with the invasions of personal space that are happening all around us.

These sorts of delusions work for a short commuter flight. They do not work for a family or for an executive team. The irritations of living and working together need talking through. Otherwise, we turn the experience of irritation into an explanation about others’ bad motives. Degraded explanations lead to degraded interactions and damaged relationships.

Courtesy is ritualized conduct that eases the friction of living and working side by side with other annoying humans like you and me.