You Can Be Charming or You Can Be Right

I had an interesting conversation with some friends a few days ago. The conversation has been marinating. Now it’s time to write about it. The conversation was about my recent flight to Montreal.

There is a rule for flying and literally everyone knows it: the person in the middle seat gets the arm rests. Attached to this rule is one that hasn’t been explored as much, but it still is generally recognized: the middle seat person ONLY gets the arm rests. They don’t get part of your space, too.

So here’s what happened on my recent flight to Montreal: middle seat guy jutted his elbow into my space. NOT COOL. But the question on the flight was how to handle it. Because I could be RIGHT – and thus ensure his elbow never crept into my space ever again – or I could be charming. In both situations, my intention was to reclaim my tiny seat, but in one, while I could get immediate results, I might also sit next to someone who feels awkward about our encounter for the entire flight. And yes, “Can you please move your elbow,” is a very reasonable thing to say, but sometimes reasonable corrections and assertions land badly. In this case, our first encounter would have been a correction. First impressions mean everything and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I should pause. You may be wondering why I only see two options (be right or be charming). That’s because when I brought it up to my friends, they both launched into a diatribe that began with, “well you should have ____,” and “I know what I would have done! I’d have _____.” From experience, most people would never do any of the obnoxious things that usually get filled into the blanks that proceed those statements, but once the outraged monologues begin, reality tends to take a hike. For me, what I heard my friends helping suggesting was that I could be right or I could be charming. Or alternately, I could tell off the jerk who was invading my space, which was really what their suggestions were.

I’ve spent a lot of my life being right. I know how to shut down a debate with a winning blow. I’m very skilled at throwing verbal punches that make me the victor and the other person the vanquished loser. The problem is that winning sometimes shouldn’t be the only goal. Sometimes relationships need to be kept in tact. Being right does not allow for that. That’s why we have charm. It’s why I spend so much time learning about charm. And it’s what I used on the plane.

Focus always on the first impression


Early on, the flight attendant gave me coffee and I asked centre seat man if he’d mind holding my coffee while I put my laptop away. While he held it, we chatted. Why was he going to Montreal? Through that, I met his wife who had the window seat. She spoke French and I noticed he spoke English. I included her in the conversation and we switched back and forth between French and English. When he handed me back my coffee, I said, “Mind your elbow. I don’t want to knock you.” His elbow slipped out of my seat and didn’t return again. Our first encounter had been pleasant and curious. When my request was made, we already had a relationship formed on the belief that we were each very nice people.

It gets better, too. It turned out their home was Victoria, like mine, and the wife had baked cookies before the flight. She offered me a freshly baked homemade cookie to go with my coffee. The next five hours of the flight were friendly and we all shook hands amicably when we parted ways at the luggage carousel. Not for the first time, I was rewarded by choosing charm and placing enormous value on a mindful first encounter.

Had I followed my friends’ helpful advice, a few things would have had a different outcome. The biggest one is that these two perfectly lovely people would have thought less of me. Say what you will about not caring what strangers think of you. I do care. I care a great deal. I want people to think well of me and it impacts my self-esteem when people do not think well of me. I also thought well of them. They were a lovely couple who shared homemade cookies with a stranger.

Sometimes it is important to remember that being impulsive and right is damaging and serves no purpose. It was an important reminder to me to always choose charm, even when charm is not the easiest first choice. It was also a valuable reminder to focus always on the first impression.