Off the Map: Temporary cultures

Most people who know me well are aware that I absolutely love to travel. It shows through my activities — just in 2017, I was away from my home base for 50% of the year and I traveled the equivalent distance of about five times around the circumference of the earth via nearly 60 flight segments.

This desire is based on a strong spirit of wanderlust that was cultivated in my youth on many summer family road trips throughout North America. It undoubtedly had a considerable influence on my career decision to become a geographer and cartographer.

To be honest, even at this point in my 30+ years career I never really tire of the act of travel. And as many frequent travelers will tell you, it’s easy to get into the travel routine that many infrequent travelers might consider a burden — the packing, the airport transfers, getting through security, knowing what amenities are best at which airports and so on. The compulsion is fed in part by an insatiable sense of discovery, but also a certain feeling of mastery over a process that can be fraught with complications (and here I’ll recommend watching the 2009 film Up in the Air for a pretty accurate perspective on business travel). For some of us, even when we finally return home (which is always a good feeling), it doesn’t take long before we start getting anxious to get back to the airport and depart once again. And as for jetlag, well that eventually becomes less significant (or nearly nonexistent) when you travel enough between time zones; it’s as if your body eventually tells you “I give up! I don’t know what time it is, and I don’t care — just please sleep at some point!”

But as a frequent traveler, geographer and culture geek, what fascinates me most about travel is the degree to which we are exposed to what I call “temporary cultures” during the act of traveling. From an academic perspective, a culture is a collection of customs, beliefs, social norms, behaviors and material representations of a unique group. Cultures can be based on a wide range of variables, but are most often seen as aligned with a specific geography (a country or region), an ethnic group or a religious group. Usually these cultures are cultivated because they’re confined to a specific geography in some manner, whether by a boundary line, a mountain range, a river or some other imposed limit.

In a similar manner, much of the travel we experience is defined by combining a group of human beings together in some form of transportation container, such as a plane, boat, car or train. These are well-defined spaces with a specific purpose that almost always come preloaded with their own cultures — call them rules and regulations — for how the space is to be used and treated. In a personal vehicle on a family road trip, the rules might be less explicit or strict. Until someone crosses a line (usually a child) and then mom or dad must define the cultural boundary (“Stop asking are we there yet?”). By contrast, public forms of transportation are usually much more regulated, primarily for the purpose of everyone’s physical safety, if not physical comfort and peace of mind. But as is universal with any spaces that people inhabit, we all bring with us innate behaviors and unique quirks that can dramatically change the experience from one trip to the next.

For the sake of illustrating a temporary culture, let’s consider the environment of an airplane. The process of traveling by air, and the planes in which we fly, creates arguably one of the most controlled, regulated spaces where temporary culture is cultivated. The formation of a culture is most dependent on the presence of a common experience, and as previously mentioned, this is often assumed to be one’s geographic location, nationality, ethnicity or religious affiliation. But in our daily lives, we are very regularly put into situations of common experience with other people and that spark of a temporary culture often starts with communication; a complaint about a long queue at the store, a comment about the current weather outside, a compliment about someone’s clothes, or perhaps an exclamation about the local sports team’s latest triumph (or failure). All it takes is that connection, and from there the foundation for a temporary culture is laid.

During air travel, this dynamic is perhaps most explicit. Passengers waiting to board often chat with one another about where or why they’re going somewhere, complain about a flight delay, compare frequent flyer programs and so on. Alliances and factions often organically form as individuals or groups assert themselves in the process. For example, a blatant social class dynamic is engineered into the temporary culture of planes, between those who fly first class, business, premium economy or regular economy. So at times there may be unspoken (or even very vocal) disdain for those who are privileged to fly in first class versus those relegated to the “cattle car” class of economy. We make assumptions, draw conclusions and establish biases about people based on where they sit on the plane. Of course, just because someone sits in economy class doesn’t mean they’re not “privileged.” There might be all kinds of reasons why they’re in that seat.

But where temporary culture really roots itself in a plane is at the more local level — in a specific set of seats, in a specific row and in a small cluster of people. There is an unspoken cultural etiquette expected on planes, and how someone behaves can either quickly stabilize the cultural balance or completely disrupt it. Let’s consider a few common elements of the temporary culture of planes.

First, speaking with fellow passengers. As I mentioned, communication is the foundation for igniting temporary cultures, and often two or more passengers will strike up a conversation before boarding. When it’s time to board, that quickly ends, and life goes on — get to your seat, get settled, relax. But when you get to your seat, you now have the option to communicate or not with the person next to you. From my years of excessive travel, I’ve noticed that it tends to be an all or nothing proposition. People either say nothing to one another beyond a simple “excuse me” or “thank you,” or they seem to go all in and carry on conversations of great length. These discussions are also often quite personal. They share many details about themselves, their work, family, history and health, and I think this is often volunteered so readily because they are at least subconsciously aware of the temporary nature of their cultural experience. I’ve also noticed that oftentimes, neither person wants to offend by not talking, so they wait for an appropriate break to enforce the cessation, such as a meal being served. Occasionally, that connection may actually plant a seed for continued interaction beyond the flight, but that tends to be rare.

Second, seat etiquette. If you fly in first or business class, this doesn’t apply as much since those classes come with a greater personal space buffer. This is a key cultural differentiator for their social classes, because in any plane, personal space is your currency. But in economy class, it’s a whole other world of managing boundaries and encroachment. Perhaps the most grievous offense is leaning your seat back (especially to the full extent), which can be interpreted as the cultural equivalent of “flipping the bird” (flashing the middle finger) to the person behind you. If you and the seat in front of you were two countries, the seat going back is a potential act of war — an encroachment into your territory that requires retaliation. Some people bump the seat in front of them more, some punch the video touch screen harder in the headrest in front of them and some even buy the special wedge devices that can prevent a seat from being leaned back (this is the geopolitical equivalent of a “strategic defense initiative”).

Sitting in the middle seat: If you’re unfortunate enough to sit in a middle seat in a row of three or four seats, there’s often a battle over who uses the armrests. Some people don’t care or don’t need them and will concede that battle from the start. Others are insistent on asserting their sovereignty over the armrest at all costs, and may go to great lengths to ensure their arm will not move — except perhaps until they go to the toilet, in which case the battlefield is reset. And if you aren’t aware, there’s a “sympathy rule” for people in the middle seat: let them have the armrests; it’s bad enough to have to be in the middle of a human sandwich for a few hours.

I could go on and on with this example, but I find that the most fascinating aspect of temporary cultures is the fact that they’re temporary. You can develop a rapport with a seatmate on a plane for a ten-hour transatlantic flight, learn a lot of in-depth information about one another, and perhaps even share snacks or drinks. But like a great beautiful bubble that can disappear in an instant, such is the fate of most temporary cultures the moment the travel experience is concluded. On a plane, as soon as that front door opens, pop! The temporary culture vanishes to history and our “normal” lives return as we get on with our business.

Like any cultural experience we choose to experience, whether deliberate (which is often the point of travel) or accidental, we hopefully depart that bubble with a greater understanding of our fellow human beings. We heard an inspiring story, we learned about an amazing family, we lamented a tragic circumstance or we shared in a hopeful new start in another location — all the common victories and challenges of life. Temporary cultures, whether on a plane or elsewhere, are a foundation for how people relate to one another as human beings — not as citizens of a specific country, or from a specific race, or practicing a specific faith. That’s a key reason I love travel, because I get to experience so many of these temporary cultures where our true commonality as human beings shines through, agnostic of the formal boundaries that often divide us and allowing every one of us to embrace the fact that at our most fundamental level of existence, we’ll always be far more similar than we are different.