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How to Deal With a Rude Seat Recliner on a Plane According to an Etiquette Expert

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Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than shrinking leg room on airplanes is when a passenger reclines their seat, further encroaching on already tight space. While the impulse is understandable, the shift in angle can lead to severe discomfort. So what should you do when someone decides to lean back into your knees or laptop — especially when they don’t ask in advance or give you a hard time about it?

Conflict can usually be avoided with a delicate approach, according to Elaine Swann, who runs a lifestyle and etiquette advice business and was a Continental Airlines flight attendant for 10 years. If the passenger in front of you has just committed the act, she says, you might be able to avoid a loud confrontation if you inform them as “quietly and discreetly as possible.” Otherwise, they might go on the defensive if they feel like they’re being publicly attacked.

Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than shrinking leg room on airplanes is when a passenger reclines their seat, further encroaching on already tight space. While the impulse is understandable, the shift in angle can lead to severe discomfort. So what should you do when someone decides to lean back into your knees or laptop — especially when they don’t ask in advance or give you a hard time about it?

Conflict can usually be avoided with a delicate approach, according to Elaine Swann, who runs a lifestyle and etiquette advice business and was a Continental Airlines flight attendant for 10 years. If the passenger in front of you has just committed the act, she says, you might be able to avoid a loud confrontation if you inform them as “quietly and discreetly as possible.” Otherwise, they might go on the defensive if they feel like they’re being publicly attacked.

Swann suggested starting by softly tapping the passenger’s shoulder and say something along the lines of: “I’m not sure if you’re aware or not, but your seat is pushed on me. Would you mind moving forward just a bit?” It may seem simple enough, but there is crucial context within that language, Swann said.

“Use that wording to let them know that you don’t know if they’re doing it on purpose,” she says. And if the first appeal doesn’t work, consider moving to another seat if there’s space or try asking again in a courteous, but more firm manner.

Despite your best intentions, it’s always possible that a civil request can backfire. Some people may just be impolite, and it’s here where passengers should rely on a flight attendant’s authority to handle the situation before it escalates. “You don’t have to make a big announcement,” Swann says. “But kind of saunter over and say, ‘Hey, I’ve asked [the passenger] twice to move their seat up. Can you help me out?”

Swann says crew members are more than happy to confront the passenger. While a stranger might not be inclined to listen to you, they have to follow the instructions of the airline — otherwise they risk being fined or forced to deboard the flight.

Ultimately, though, recruiting a flight attendant might not be necessary if you approach the situation diplomatically.

“If you’re the person being leaned upon, refrain going zero to 60 if someone crushes you with their seat,” Swann advised. “In many instances, they’re not aware of it because people do not have eyes on the back of their heads.”

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