Why you should talk to the plane passenger you're sitting next to

Unless you're up the pointy end, in a half-empty plane or travelling with your own posse, flying involves being pressed right up against strangers. These days it's all the rage to avoid engaging with your seatmates - to slide on headphones, start the movie, bury your nose in a magazine or be otherwise occupied straight after buckling up to avoid conversation. I'm here to say everyone should be a little more neighbourly – because you never know what might come of it.

For one, you learn the most interesting things. Once, while waiting for a full Sydney-Los Angeles flight to push back from the gate, I briefly chatted with my military seatmate who was returning to North Pole, Alaska. He told me his little town, just outside Fairbanks, didn't have much to it but boasted a year-round Christmas store. I pricked up my ears – in all my globe-trotting, I'd never heard of this speck on the map – and determined to get there. A year later, I popped into Santa Claus House, North Pole's main attraction. (The young man also didn't own a passport and was travelling on movement orders, so I learned two new things).

Secondly, aren't we travelling to have encounters with new people? Instead of waiting to hit the ground to do so, make a head start on the plane. That's probably a local sitting next to you. Ask him or her for a little advice about their home town. Where do they eat, drink coffee, hang out or dance? Bonus points if it's an off-the-radar place that isn't swarming with other tourists.

If you two really hit it off, you might make a new friend, fall in love or simply share a ride from the airport. On a flight from Melbourne to my home city of Sydney, it turned out my seatmate – a publicist - was heading to a business meeting a block from my house. She had a driver waiting and kindly gave me a lift to my door.

Finally, a flight becomes a million times more pleasant when you've broken the ice early. My seatmates have donated desserts, offered gum, mints and chocolates, flagged down attendants when I can't catch their attention from the window seat and organised drink top-ups for me without even asking. When people let their guard down and embrace the possibility of a little human connection, it transforms a journey and can make the heart soar.

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