Is there any site in contemporary society more evocative and emblematic of intercultural communication than the airport? The transit point of the international airport provides visible confirmation of the intercultural reality of contemporary life while intercultural communication is the prominent academic discourse that attempts to describe such intercultural contact (p. 1).
What follows are stories of my own experiences, and lessons learned, from such contact.
It was between twelve and three o’clock at night in August 2010, and I was sitting on the cold floor of the ticketing area of Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, in hour 18(ish) of a 30 hour wait. I had some issues with getting on my flight and as a result was forced to spend way too much time in the ticketing lobby before finally getting a boarding pass as a standby passenger. I did not know when I would get the pass, thus why I had to wait there. As I sat on the floor charging my phone in my demoralized state, an older woman came up and began speaking.
The Atatürk airport in Istanbul is an international connection point at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia—this and its position as the main hub of Turkish Airlines guarantees a very large and diverse collection of passengers. Those traveling through Istanbul are flying in from, and flying to, every continent on earth. For many, Istanbul is the last airport stop before their final one. For others (e.g., scientists or military officials going to Antarctica), it’s one of several stops on their long journeys.
I didn’t know where the woman who was speaking to me was from. Since I had no idea what language she was speaking, she began to aggressively (at least I perceived it as aggressive) use nonverbal communication to make it very clear she wanted to use the outlet that I had been using to charge my phone. Taken aback by her directness, I unplugged my phone and let her use the outlet. However, I did not leave the spot.
Airports like this one are very crowded even during the middle of the night, because there are constant departures and many people have overnight layovers as they crisscross the globe. I’ve seen the Istanbul airport more crowded at midnight than I’ve seen many other airports at noon.
As a result of this, once you find a good spot for the night, you must protect it like an animal in the wild protects its territory, and mine was indeed a good spot because of the prized outlet. After she plugged her phone in, there was an awkward silence (or to me it felt like it since I’m excessively awkward), and I just continued to sit in the area as she sat there too and waited for her phone to charge. This is when we attempted to communicate further.
I spoke English (slowly) and she spoke her language (slowly) and we soon realized neither one of us knew what the other was saying and had both made the classic gaffe of speaking slower and thinking it would work. So we began to communicate with nonverbal communication; laughing, gesturing, etc. She nodded her head and smiled a lot, and I did the same, but I honestly have no idea if she understood anything I was saying and I did not understand anything she was saying. The ‘conversation’ was simple, I think we were trying to figure out where we were both coming from and going, typical airport small-talk. Although simple, the experience was fascinating and it has stuck with me to this day.
In March of that same year, I found myself in a similar situation at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, another crossroads of the world with direct flights to five of the continents.
My friend and I were traveling to Scotland and had a six-hour layover, so naturally we went to the airport bar in the international concourse. There were only about six people there, but the person sitting on my left was going to somewhere in South America while the person sitting to my friend’s right was traveling to somewhere in northern Europe. We engaged them in conversation and it was so cool to learn about their plans and their lives. The man going to South America, for example, was going there to meet up with his girlfriend so they could explore the continent together.
Earlier during the summer of 2010 but before the Istanbul experience, I had a connection at the Frankfurt airport in Germany. I ended up sharing lunch at the airport Burger King with a woman who was on the same plane with me from Belgrade to Frankfurt and we spoke about our respective backgrounds. We ate and then went our own ways.
On another trip from London back to the Cincinnati area in December 2009, the couple sitting next to me on the flight from London to New York was also connecting to Cincinnati and actually lived in the same suburb as I did. We ended up talking, sharing backgrounds, and I gave them a ride to their house from the airport because we lived very close to each other. I learned they were U.S. Americans who lived in England because one of them was serving on a U.S. base there.
Finally, earlier this year in July 2017, I again met someone while sharing phone and laptop chargers with them at the Istanbul airport, though this time we were sitting at a coffee shop–she was a businesswoman who travels a lot between South Africa and Turkey to procure products to sell. Note these opportunities are not limited to the airports. On a flight during the same trip, I met a man from the country of Georgia who was living in Russia at the time, and we connected on Instagram.
For all the above experiences interacting with people, there are probably five more I would’ve had but chose not to because I hesitated for one reason or another. I was shy, I was content in my own world (listening to my music), I was tired, or I felt like they would not be interested in conversation…so I didn’t even bother to try. However, I do not regret any of the times that I have tried. Not all of those times have led to amazing interactions, but sometimes they have been great intercultural encounters.
That’s the thing…if we attempt to interact with other people while at airports (or anywhere else…), we give ourselves a chance of fascinating conversations with other humans we may remember for a long time.
In the same article cited at the beginning of this post, Simpson describes the same challenge during his time living in eastern Asia:
…I routinely sit on an airplane for a dozen consecutive hours at a time and bypass the opportunity to converse with or even acknowledge the Japanese, Chinese, or Thai person sitting six inches to my side (2008, p. 14).
It turns out, intercultural communication does not automatically happen when people of different cultures are placed in the same space (which sounds a lot like one of the assumptions behind Intergroup Contact Theory).
Just because international airports/flights place people from all the continents in the same space for hours/days at a time, there’s no guarantee they will take advantage of the opportunity to interact with, and learn, about each other. The reasons for this inaction are many. One of the reasons is that people may not believe others will want to engage in conversation with them, and they may think a conversation with somebody from a different culture will be more trouble than it is worth because of the inevitable communication barriers. Some people are also hesitant because of popular fiction depictions such as the one at the beginning of the movie Taken, in which an airport conversation leads to a kidnapping. The latter problem can be avoided by using common sense (don’t engage in conversations with people who obviously act suspiciously, etc.).
Finally, some people may see themselves as ‘loners’ who don’t like talking to strangers. That may be so, but Aristotle was right [PDF] when he said humans are social animals, and the ‘need’ to interact with others will always prevail, especially during 16+ hour flights and 24+ hour layovers.
Recognizing the potential benefits of intercultural communication and helping people make personal commitments to engage in it would go a long way in encouraging more of us to do it.
Attempt to engage somebody in conversation next time you find yourself flying and are bored. Do not chase after people or make situations awkward, but talk to the person sitting across from you at the gate, the person waiting in line to get coffee at the food court, the person sitting next to you on the plane, etc. You might be surprised by what you learn. While I have focused on airports, this advice is good for any life experiences in settings all around the world (e.g., train stations, museums, grocery stores, coffee shops/hookah lounges, bars, workplaces, etc.).
Simpson (2008) summarizes one of his points nicely and it serves as a good endpoint for this blog post:
Today one need not be a member of the foreign service or a Peace Corps volunteer to have an intercultural experience. We encounter the other at the airport, on the subway, in the hotel corridor, in the supermarket aisles, in a conversation with a call-center operator, in Starbucks, 7-11, Taco Bell, and the ubiquitous “Irish bars” that dot urban landscapes around the world. This is a reality of life for many people today (p.23).
The next time you encounter those ‘others’, think about saying hi to them and see what happens!
Simpson, T. (2008). The Proximal Other: Globalization and the Itinerant Subject of Intercultural Communication Research. In L. A. Flores, B. J. Allen, M. P. Orbe (Eds.). International and Intercultural Communication Annual 31. Intercultural Communication in a Transnational World (1-31). Sage.
Disclaimer: The above post is an old one, which I am reposting on this new website. It has been edited.