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Can We Talk?

 

Being cooped up in my World Headquarters (aka my home office) has made me thoroughly sick of videoconferencing, texts, and e-mails. Can we just talk? A simple phone call would solve most communication needs and have the added benefit of providing a more natural connection to the person on the other end.

While the marvel of being able to see people on our laptops is not to be diminished, Zoom is a counterintuitive big offender in dehumanizing interpersonal communication. Its overuse has usurped the more personal, flowing conversations we used to have via telephone. Now instead of discussing ideas and solving problems with a short phone call, we must first structure communication by scheduling a videoconferencing meeting. Rather than picking up the phone, we begin by exchanging calendars, then scheduling the session, and finally, going to the online meeting where most people will feel unnatural while trying to look professional in their improvised offices (my favorite is the man who meets from his wife’s sewing room surrounded by the ironing board, scissors on peg boards, sewing boxes, and fabrics). This morning I watched a presenter’s Zoom PowerPoint while listening to his kitty meowing emphatically. It was all I could do to not say, “Let’s pause so you can feed your cat.”

New research hints that job candidates interviewed on Zoom score less favorably than those who interview in person. My guess is that’s because most of us aren’t polished TV personalities and being on Zoom requires us to invest energy in worrying about whether or not we’re Zooming properly. Being a tiny head in a tiny onscreen box removes much of the informal information we gather from body language such as eye contact, nodding, and responsive conversation. Most of us aren’t good at not watching ourselves on screen, knowing how to look into the camera, or quickly finding the “unmute” button to respond to another square’s comment. Video conferencing kills natural rapport because it eliminates spontaneity. We feel uncomfortable so we simply sit in silence and stare like we’re stuffed.

The opposite problem is Zoomers who behave as if they are invisible and that no one else can see that they aren’t prepared, appropriately dressed, or actually paying attention. Last week I was on a committee Zoom when a woman wearing a “dog mommy” tee shirt very distractedly cuddled and cooed over her designer pooch while we tried to discuss a software purchase. Or how about the professional-dresser-only-from-the-waist-up who was wearing a jacket and dress shirt but who absentmindedly leaned back in his chair hoisting his hairy bare leg into the camera’s view? If we had been talking on a phone neither of these unfortunate images would now be lodged in my brain.

Texting doesn’t substitute for a phone call, either. I admit that the volume of my texting has grown tremendously thanks to Covid-19, but texting for all but the most brief messages is incredibly inefficient. Conversations that if done verbally would be complete in a few minutes, drag out over silly spans of time while each of us types the words, sends, waits for the recipient to reply, and then repeats the process. Meeting texting has increased dramatically since everyone has moved to Zoom. Bored or frustrated participants now engage in robust private text conversations with their fellow Zoomers, the 2021 equivalent of passing notes during class. Another disadvantage of texting: It’s easy to misinterpret meaning because we don’t see a facial expression or hear voice inflections to know if the sender is serious, facetious, or angry.

And then there’s e-mail. Whose inbox isn’t overflowing with threaded, long, “reply all,” messages that no one will actually read? My iPhone reminds me constantly that my various inboxes are overflowing with hundreds of messages. Who has time to read all that stuff?

This week I’m picking up the phone and calling people. Talking on the phone gives us a chance to build the informal social connections that help facilitate business by engaging in a bit of polite “chat,” and enable us to better ascertain the other person’s meanings and intentions by hearing voice inflections.  Even more important, a phone call gives us all what we need most right now—practice dusting off our mothballed social skills and a live connection to another human being.

Let’s talk.

 

 

 

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Parliamentarians Know the Rules

Last week Americans got a lesson in the important role parliamentarians play in ensuring that organizations do things according to their established rules. Elizabeth MacDonough, parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate, ruled that a proposal to raise the minimum wage could not be part of a COVID-19 relief bill because including it would violate Senate rules. As parliamentarian, her job is to be an expert on the Senate’s complex rules and to render non-partisan recommendations to ensure that actions are legal and accurate.

Although seldom seen in the spotlight, parliamentarians are important because they are responsible for ensuring a fair, democratic, and effective decision-making process. They must have an in-depth understanding of multiple accepted codes of practice such as Robert’s Rules of Order or Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure and be experts on the specific rules of a group’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and procedures. On campus, becoming a parliamentarian would be a useful adjunct to the skills of chiefs of staff, top executive assistants, or for people who work with boards of trustees, university foundations, or alumni associations.

Parliamentarians don’t just operate in the non-profit world. Corporations and entities such as the NCAA often employ them to be present during board of directors’ meetings to be certain rules are followed so that decisions made by elected officials, whether they are corporate leaders running an annual shareholders meeting, officers of local civic groups, or members of boards of trustees, will hold up under scrutiny.

Becoming a parliamentarian doesn’t require a specific degree, but it does demand experience in working with democratic bodies, completing an intense course of study, passing an examination, adhering to a code of ethics, and possessing a talent for memorizing and recalling detail.

The American Institute of Parliamentarians http://aipparl.org has an extensive web site of resources including courses and information about how to attain the Certified Professional Parliamentarian credential. Of particular use at this moment is a document they have posted entitled, “Opinions for Electronic Meetings,” that addresses how to handle numerous of the unusual governance situations many groups are currently facing.

Other training resources include the National Association of Parliamentarians http://parliamentarians.org and several U.S. universities, including some that offer classes online as part of continuing education programs.

 

 

 

 

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Revoking A Recognition

Revoking an honorary degree is a very serious and highly unusual occurrence but that is exactly what Middlebury College, an elite private school in Vermont, did in January.

Rudy Giuliani, the college’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient in 2005 was presented the honor for his leadership as mayor of New York City after the September 11 World Trade Center attack. He was stripped of this recognition by the school’s trustees as a result of his role in the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol (http://middleburycampus.com).

Things like that are never supposed to happen, but humans being human, sometimes they do. When a recipient’s behavior reflects poorly on the school and becomes a public relations liability, revoking a recognition can become necessary. This is especially true in the case of honorary degrees, academia’s highest honor, one of the purposes of which is to enable the school to voluntarily affiliate with a prominent person and thereby bask in the reflected glory of his or her achievements.

Human behavior can also cause problems with a variety of other prestigious recognitions. One school is currently dealing with how to disassociate from a well-known alumnus who was recently arrested for running a child pornography ring, being involved in human trafficking, and dealing drugs. As a prominent businessman, frequent and generous major donor, and former alumni president, his name is on plaques, pavers, and the rolls of distinguished award recipients across campus.

Another school faced the embarrassing removal of the name of an alumnus who was a beloved high-profile sports celebrity from its new alumni center after the man reneged on a multi-million-dollar pledge. His bravado had ignited and led the campaign to design and build the center, a project that while needed, was far beyond the reach of institutional budgets. The school saluted his enthusiasm by prematurely naming the building in his honor. Turns out he never had the money and the university was stuck trying to pay for a building it could not afford.

While the vetting process for honorary degrees is usually careful, and selection committees deliberate thoughtfully before choosing recipients of annual awards, past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee that today’s honorees will be the enduring positive examples that trustees and committees hope for.

Give Yourself an Out

Just like well-crafted emergency plans for use in case of disaster, every set of award criteria should include a written mention about if, why, and how recognitions could be rescinded. This practice can also be extended to job descriptions for members elected to campus governing bodies and advisory boards. Craft such statements in the hope that they will never be needed and set a high bar for implementation. Having a way out should never be so easy that the process could be overused for reasons of politics or petty disagreements.

With spring commencement only a few months away, now is a good time to review honorary degree, award, and board member criteria and consult with campus counsel to be certain you are covered in the unlikely event that yesteryear’s hero becomes today’s disgrace.

For more information about honorary degrees, see my blog post “Alexander Hamilton to Get Honorary Degree,” or order my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol available from the online bookstore at http://case.org.

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The Mace Was Missed

Eagle-eyed ceremony planners no doubt noticed a traditional symbol was missing from the platform at President Biden’s inauguration. The Mace of the Republic which symbolizes the authority of the House of Representatives was not present.

On a typical inauguration day, the House of Representatives goes into session, then recesses to walk as a group to witness the ceremony. The sergeant of arms, carrying the mace, leads a procession of the members of the House and stands behind them holding it throughout the inauguration. This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the House did not go in to session on January 20 so the mace was not used in the ceremony.

Crafted in 1841 after the British destroyed our country’s original mace when they burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, the mace has 13 ebony rods representing the 13 original colonies. It is topped by a silver eagle perched on a silver globe. It symbolizes the authority of the House and is always present when the House is in session. It is carried in to the chamber each legislative day and posted on a green marble pedestal on the rostrum to the right of the Speaker. It is occasionally presented in front of an unruly member to restore order.

Academic Mace

The tradition of mace as symbols of authority dates to the Middle Ages when mace were used as war clubs. The roots of the practice can be traced as far back as ancient Rome. An academic mace symbolizes the authority invested in the president by a school’s governing body. Much like the Mace of the Republic and the House of Representatives, when the authority is present, the mace is present. This is why the mace is an integral part of commencement exercises, when students are invested of degrees by the lawful authority of the university, and why the mace plays an important ceremonial role in academic presidential inaugurations.

While some schools possess an ancient mace, the article can be created at any time in a school’s history. Maces are often commissioned to commemorate a milestone anniversary or presidential inauguration, frequently incorporating artifacts, precious stones, and rare wood.

When to Use the Mace

The mace is used only on formal academic occasions, such as commencement, convocations, and presidential inaugurations, when participants are in full regalia and the president is involved.

Because the mace is a symbol of presidential authority as the university’s legal representative with the right to govern, it is carried in procession immediately before the president. When the mace is present, the authority of the university is present.

More information about how to use a mace on campus is available in my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol, available from CASE at case.org.

 

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Resolve to be Civil

January had already begun and I hadn’t decided on a New Year’s resolution. After last week’s violence in Washington, D.C., I now know what it is: To conscientiously practice civility.

I believe the uncivil, nasty, screaming, name-calling, suspicion-building, “cancelling” devolution of our culture that has been on display for the past year is a large contributor in bringing us to this moment. We have lost the important ability to listen and treat others respectfully, when we don’t agree with them and even when we do.  “I’m right, you’re not.” “I can’t win unless you lose,” is the new operating standard.

I think the little things we do personally every day add up to show a much bigger picture of who we are as a society. Our nation’s current incivility and intolerance is death by a thousand cuts because it validates and enables more of the same. This is evidenced not only by the behavior of politicians and anonymous people on social media, but in our everyday interactions with family, friends, and those in our communities.

Incivility is the check-out clerk who vigorously snarled when I absentmindedly got in the “10 items or less” grocery line with 13 things even though I was the only customer in the store. It is the aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic waving a third-figure salute as she speeds away. It is people who leave litter in our parks and pubic places. It is the customer service representative who simply hung up on me when she didn’t know the answer to my question. It is the use of crude and demeaning language that has become ubiquitous, even among our leaders. When we engage in uncivil behavior, we contribute to eroding the foundational principles of our democracy.

I’m not suggesting that practicing civility is the magic answer to solving our serious national problems, but committing to being respectful of our fellow human beings would go a long way toward helping. We can’t make progress if we don’t or won’t listen to one another.

While I can’t control what happens on a national level, or what other people do, I can work to control myself. This year I resolve to practice civility.

 

 

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Jumping Into What’s Next

Jumping off the high dive was the final test to earn an advanced swimming certificate and I was determined to get mine, a prerequisite of my goal to become a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor so that I could qualify for future summer jobs teaching swimming lessons. At 5 meters high (16.4 feet) just the thought of climbing the diving board’s ladder (let alone jumping off) was terrifying to me but I was determined not to “chicken out.” It was the 1960s and we were in middle school. I was the only girl in the class. The boys had teased me about the test for most of the summer, certain the instructor would have to climb up to retrieve me after I burst into tears.

The jump day came and we all lined the pool deck watching our classmates and waiting our turn. I was trying to look brave but in truth, but my stomach was churning. I climbed the ladder on wobbly legs and tried not to look down. The board was longer and much more springy than I anticipated and even my slightest movement made an exaggerated bouncing motion. I edged out to the end and stood for what seemed like an hour, as my classmates stared in silence. The blue sparkling water looked to be a mile below and I felt dizzy. Suddenly, from somewhere deep inside, I felt an invisible push and I jumped myself into our town’s small group of “certified advanced swimmers” and in to an assured summer job.

Covid-19 has once again brought me to the high dive. As the person responsible for a university president’s events, an official residence, high-profile meetings, conferences and special events, the virus has stopped my job in its tracks. With nothing but uncertainty looming on the horizon and the announcement that we won’t have any major events for the coming year, I’ve decided it is time to jump into my “what’s next.” I wasn’t thinking about leaving, but being parked at home with nothing to do feels like being locked in a cage. Gone is the addictive adrenaline rush of my previously hectic lifestyle and the accompanying satisfaction of working hard to help advance the university. So, after contemplating the situation, I jumped. I resigned my position, sold my house, and relocated to another state.

In the coming months, I will be devoting full attention to my own company, Harris Etiquette, Events, Protocol. I’m converting my popular business etiquette and protocol courses to virtual applications, will be adding new training and resources for people in business and academics, releasing my new book about managing an official residence, and writing my blog. I’ll also serve as the Vice President for Membership of Protocol and Diplomacy –International Protocol Officers Association (PDI-POA). When the world returns to large public gatherings, I will resume my on-site consulting services advising schools on how to stage board of trustees’ meetings, presidential inaugurations, commencements, and milestone events such as capital campaign kickoffs. I look forward to once again being invited to speak at professional conferences. In the meantime, I am available to answer questions and to serve as an argument-resolving resource when debates arise about arcane topics like what regalia is appropriate for an academic marshal. I invite you to visit my web site at correctoncampus.com, e-mail me at april.l.harris@icloud.com, or find me on Facebook or LinkedIn.

I’ve made the jump and I’ll work hard to become an advanced swimmer in the sparkling new waters in which I’ve landed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hybrid Commencement Needs Essentials

Hastily conceived hybrid commencement ceremonies were implemented by most schools last spring as the pandemic was building at the precise time spring exercises were about to happen. Many schools promised graduates that later in the summer, or perhaps this fall, they could return to campus to walk in a traditional ceremony. Some schools mailed diplomas with no ceremony, and others held virtual ceremonies and mailed diplomas later. Things like awarding honorary degrees and hosting notable speakers were put on hold. Now, with the Covid-19 all-clear still not happening, schools are left wondering how to fill the promises of postponed in-person ceremonies and how to go forward safely without creating a backlog of graduates who are waiting to be recognized.

As the author of Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol (available at www.case.org) I have received numerous inquiries about to handle sticky situations like diplomas that were mailed with no degree conferral being spoken, whether or not to virtually award honorary degrees to people who should have received them last May, and, how to accommodate the graduates whose in-person ceremonies were postponed from May, to August, to maybe December, which in truth, looks doubtful.

The best answer is to be certain your ceremony, whether virtual, in-person, or a combination, includes what the “Academic Costume Code and Academic Ceremony Guide,” calls “the essential elements of the ceremony.” The guide, agreed to in 1895 by a committee appointed by the American Council on Education, is the authority on such matters. (You can see it on this website by clicking on the “academic ceremonies” tab.) According to the code, the essentials of commencement are “the conferring of degrees and the commencement address.”

Conferral 

Excited to get their diplomas, most students don’t realize the conferral—the actual speaking of the words that award their degrees—is the true highlight of the ceremony. This happens when the president, or whomever is designated by your school’s governing body, confers the degrees by reciting a formulary, usually something like, “Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power invested in me by the Board of Trustees, I confer upon each of you the bachelor’s degree with all the rights and privileges there unto pertaining.” This step is repeated for each level of degree. Without it, the degree technically isn’t official.

Unfortunately, quickly formatted commencement alternatives sometimes left this critical step out. If you are planning a virtual ceremony, be certain the president or chancellor, says the degree conferral language for each group of recipients. Once done, diplomas can be mailed with total peace of mind.

While deans can properly distribute diplomas and congratulate graduates, it is not appropriate for them to host ceremonies that give the impression they are awarding degrees unless they have specifically been given authority from your school’s governing body to confer them. If this power has been granted, they need to say the conferral words.

Degrees Were Conferred, Now They Want to March

Some graduates will want to return to participate in a commencement ceremony, craving the sense of accomplishment and closure that comes with it. If degrees were properly conferred and diplomas mailed over the summer, and now graduates are returning to march in a ceremony, it is incorrect to call them “candidates.” They are graduates. In such a case, it would be more accurate to refer to the ceremony that includes them as a “commencement celebration,” or similar. It would be improper to read the conferral language again, but correct to read their names and have them march across the stage for congratulations and a photo with the president.

Commencement Address

While the commencement address is a much-maligned tradition, I think it is especially important to include words of inspiration from your school’s highest authority in this time of disconnectedness. Even if the address isn’t from a famous person, words of encouragement from the president should absolutely be included in your virtual or hybrid ceremony. Commencement is one of life’s major milestone celebrations and the feelings the school imparts to graduates on their way out the door will likely greatly impact their alumni and donor attitudes going forward.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Honorary degrees are higher education’s most prestigious recognition. They are reserved for eminent individuals with national or international reputations. One of the main reasons for awarding honorary degrees is so that the school can highlight the prestigious people with whom it is associated and host them on campus. Not doing so in person diminishes the stature of the honor, deprives students of the chance to meet them or hear them speak, and robs the university of the opportunity to host them.

For these reasons, it would be preferable to postpone the presentation of honorary degrees until the person or persons, can be present and take part in all of the pomp and ceremony of commencement. Simply mailing honorary degrees to last spring’s recipients as has been suggested by a group of one school’s deans, is not an adequate representation of the occasion.

For more information about honorary degrees, see my blog post, “Alexander Hamilton to Get Honorary Degree.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smiling Voices, Smiling Eyes

A simple trip to the grocery story while wearing a face mask is a lesson in how much we rely on smiles and friendly nods to communicate with others. Our facial expressions send potent non-verbal messages that convey everything from friendly greetings to subtle traffic-directing acknowledgments that keep the flow of carts and people moving without colliding. Facial expressions communicate wordlessly when two people reach simultaneously for the same cooler door, they help us share a quick giggle at a silly situation, or as any Mom knows, send a powerful, but silent “stop that right now” to a misbehaving child.

I live in the south where established custom indicates a slight smile and little head bob extended to strangers is just plain good manners. It’s our way of acknowledging the presence of another human being and extending a touch of the polite courtesy that is so essential to a civil society. Having our faces covered because of Covid-19 removes the most important part of this tool—our smiles.

While eyes and eyebrows play an important role in communication, they only tell half the story. We need the mouth to get the full version. The mouth shows happiness, anger, fear, scorn, sadness or confusion. We learn early on that the non-verbal messages we get from seeing the entire face are a clue to the sincerity and trustworthiness of the words we hear.

There are many ramifications of having one’s face covered such as:

Sarcasm and pithy remarks can be misinterpreted because the listener can’t see the wry smile that says, “I’m joking;”

My son works with a man who is deaf but reads lips very well. With mouths covered, work has become a frustrating experience for both him and his colleagues;

Meeting new people is more challenging because we can’t see and remember the person’s face;

Masks muffle words making it difficult to hear and understand, especially when compounded by six-feet of social distance;

Masks confirm some things we prefer not to think about, for example, if you’ve ever wondered if your breath offends people the day after Pad Thai, there is no longer any doubt;

And sadly, masks have become the new American litter, dropped in parking lots and left in public spaces.

I Can “Hear” the Smile Behind Your Mask

Perhaps we need to practice an established sales training tip, putting a smiIe in our voices by smiling as we speak, even though no one can see our mouths.  Call center operators, fund-raisers, sales professionals and radio broadcasters are all schooled in smiling even though their audiences often can’t see their faces. We can definitely “hear” the smile in the speaker’s voice and we certainly notice when it’s missing. As a bonus in this face mask era where we can see eyes, smiles help give another clue to meaning because they have a way of “lighting up” a speaker’s eyes and making the person seem sincere, kind, and happy.

For the moment, wearing a face mask is essential and while lots of us are frustrated and cranky because we miss our normal lives, perhaps each of us could help lighten the mood by practicing what Leslie Lautenslager, president of Protocol and Diplomacy-International Protocol Officers Association (http://www.protocolinternational.org) said in a recent post. She signed off with having “smiling eyes and smiling voices.” I’m going to work on my technique.

 

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Flying is Squeaky Clean

I flew last weekend for the first time since Covid-19 upended life. It’s a strange new world, but one that I believe we’ve got to engage with if we are ever going to move forward. I flew Delta, and I must say, I’ve never felt so clean!

The first big change is the absence of the frenetic pace that typifies airports and the entire arrival process. No traffic congestion in front of the terminal, no security people shooing lingerers away from the loading/no waiting zones. Inside, the check-in counters were empty with one lone agent standing at Delta. All those frequent flier perks that we work so hard to accumulate so that we can skip the lines, were suddenly irrelevant. No one was there but me.

The biggest change? Each time you move from one step of the flying process to the next, someone is sanitizing you and your surroundings.

It starts with the Clear line. No more putting your fingers on the touch pad, instead, with mask on, you stare in to the just-wiped screen for an eyeballs-only scan. No full-face scan because they don’t want you to lower your mask. That finished, a chubby bottle of hand sanitizer is plopped in your hand. Next, step up to the TSA agent who does not touch your ticket or ID. It is do-it-yourself scanning. That done, use sanitizer again.

In Delta’s frequent flier lounge, the Sky Club, the always friendly hosts are now ensconced behind Plexi-glass walls making them seem less approachable. It’s like looking at them through a store window display. The normally jammed club is usually filled with passengers bustling to all points of the globe and the energy always fires me up and makes me feel like I’m part of something special. This visit, I was seated alone in an empty lobby, so quiet that I could hear a man’s food wrapper rattling from the other side of the room.

The Sky Club’s big draw is the always delicious hot and cold, self-serve buffet that makes the weary traveler whole without having to go to a restaurant. On this day, hot soups, fresh salads, side dishes and baked goods were replaced by a space-age looking, carefully organized selection of wrapped, labeled foods arranged on a grid by someone who must be an engineer, not a chef.  Everything was encased in protective plastic from vegetables to tiny individually wrapped pita breads. As soon as you finish eating, attendants whose hands are covered in black safety gloves swoop in to whisk away your debris and swab all surfaces you may have touched with disinfectant. Guests are spaced so far apart, it’s as if you are there alone. The local newspapers that I love to read are gone (you can learn a lot about a place by reading its newspaper) as are the slick travel magazines that never fail to fire my vacation fantasies.

As we stepped on board the jet, a masked, gloved flight attendant handed each passenger another sanitizing wipe and encouraged us to use them. We were all assigned a luxurious amount of room with no one in the dreaded middle seats. Once airborne, the chance to ponder whether my snack should be Biscoff cookies or Cheetos, and if it is too early for a glass of wine, is gone. Curated refreshments now arrive in little plastic bags and include a small bottled water, packaged snacks, and tiny individual one-squirt packets of hand sanitizer accompanied by a note about keeping clean and safe (as if we had forgotten).

Even the cabin safety announcements have changed. Passengers are now asked to refrain from placing used sanitizing wipes in the seat pockets in front of us. Instead, the attendants will come through the aisles to collect them. Ugh.

Now that I’ve had my first taste of protective flying in the Covid era, I’ll definitely do it again, but I long for the good old days of traffic jams, big crowds, rushing people, smiling flight attendants, overflowing overhead bins, and rubbing arms with some stranger who is crammed in the middle seat beside me.