Family matters: too close for comfort

BikoJackson Biko wonders how to deal with sleeping passengers who intrude into his personal space

What code of conduct governs when the passenger on the next seat falls asleep and rests his head on your shoulder? Because some shampoos really stink. Because some heads weigh a brick. Because some people will drool on the sexy leather jacket that you were planning to wear to a party in Cape Town the next evening. And then there are the snorers. What do the laws of social etiquette for air travel dictate on these behaviours?

I always somehow sit next to people who want to sleep on me. Or rather, lay their heads on my shoulder. I have studied the structure of my shoulders keenly and yes, I have come to admit that it must be my wide, strong shoulders that a tired passenger boarding might look at and think, “Hmm, I hope I sit next to that gentleman with those broad native shoulders. I could use them as a pillow.”

Passengers sleep on me all the time. I used to think that I’m just always unlucky to find myself next to such characters but recently, on a local 35-minute flight, I realised that it’s not my lack of luck but the overwhelming attractiveness of my shoulders. Five minutes after take-off and this chap was snuggling in my neck. Local flight!

Now, let me declare that I really don’t mind if it’s a lady – especially if they have wide hips, full lips and smell of flowers. It makes me feel protective and strong. Like a rock. My problem is with the men, who, as fate would have it, I always share seats with, and when that happens it gives the impression that we are a couple.

I remember on a flight to O R Tambo this college-looking chap fell asleep on my shoulder and the flight attendant passed by and smiled sweetly and said, “He must be so tired, will you wake him up to eat something?” And I remember protesting quickly, “Oh no, no, no… Oh, no – you are mistaken! We are not together, he sort of fell asleep… I couldn’t… oh no… it’s not what it looks like… I have wife…” She laughed and said (in the way that cabin attendants do before they serve you a cold sandwich), “Oh, it’s OK, Mr Jackson. It’s just fine.”

I shoved him away from me and he rolled to the window and hit his head and when he woke up startled I shrugged, “turbulence.”

So, what is the right thing to do when someone is napping on your shoulders and you are uncomfortable with it? How do you politely tell them not to, without embarrassing them or coming across as a gimp? How does one man with the curse of strong shoulders ward off potential sleepers? I have spent countless nights mulling over this.