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The Tuesday Rant: Trouble Afoot

Scott Vogel

"What's with people thinking that an airplane is their family room?"

The Travel section recently received a letter that began with the above question, one that proceeded to call out airline passengers thus:

"After takeoff recently, the disgusting person next to me removed his shoes and leaned his feet up on the bulkhead, forcing me to see and, um, smell his feet."

Given that air travel demands the shoving of hundreds of strangers into cramped metal boxes, it's surprising that we don't hear this complaint more often. But we hear it often enough, and more importantly, we experience it often enough. And stinky feet is just one of a growing class of problems that have arisen now that the line between public and private seems to have been permanently blurred.

I mean, I get that flying is supposed to be intolerable these days, but come on. We have to draw the line somewhere.

As reported in Sunday's Q&A column, etiquette experts like Letitia Baldrige have their own ideas for dealing with neighbors who reek. She told us:

I've always found that muttering something under my breath, while deeply engrossed in official papers being worked upon on my lap, is very effective in upending my seatmate, and he soon puts his feet down on the floor. I will say sarcastically, in a low, soft voice, "Great socks. Are they by Armani?"

That usually upsets and embarrasses them, because they had purchased them, of course, on sale at Wal-Mart.

It's unclear how successful Baldrige's strategy is at getting targeted offenders to put their shoes back on (although it works terrifically as a withering insult, which I guess is a decent consolation prize). But anyway, I'm guessing that the Travel Log's clever and creative readers have developed their own ways of dealing with problems like this. Have you or someone you love been forced to endure olfactory torture? What did you do about it?

By Scott Vogel |  May 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
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Of course we know that only people who buy their socks at Wal-Mart have smelly feet, and folks who buy Armani socks are above such olfactory issues. While I certainly don't mean to excuse the rudeness of some one who would take their socks off on the plane, Baldridge's comment says more about her than it does about the person with foot issues. Perhaps whe whould ask for a seat in the Armini-only section.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 27, 2008 8:04 AM

Thats an very interesting etiquette "expert" you have. She prefers passive agressive insults to polite, but direct, requests? What would Miss Manners say?!

That said, I was tormented by stinky feet recently on a plane. The guy was wearing flip-flips, sliped them off, then crossed his legs so that his bare foot was staring at me. The smell was terrible, and it was gross to see. I think I would have preferred it with a sock! (And before anyone tells me to not look at it, I tried, but there are only so many places to look - even with a book. I pulled my hair down over the side of my face so it wasn't asaulting my periphial vision)

Posted by: RT | May 27, 2008 8:48 AM

Oh, and another bit about the muttering.

Recently, someone thought I cut in front of him in the boarding line (I did a zipper merge like everyone else). From the time we merged until my boarding pass was scanned, he was muttering under his breath things like "thinks she is better than me" and "just has to get on the plane first." I turned around, looked him in the eyes, and asked if he had a problem. He sputtered and said "no no no... wasn't talking about you." If you are going to be passive agressive and mutter under your breath, you need to be able back it up.

On the other hand, I had someone in the security line specifically go around me (no, I wasn't being extra slow, I fly enough that I am speedy). I looked at him and said "Was I too slow?" He stared straight ahead and refused to look at me or acknowledge me. Oh that annoyed me.

Posted by: RT | May 27, 2008 8:55 AM

So, for folks that have issues with socks, are you also offended by sandals? Right now, I'm waiting in an airport, wearing my Birkenstocks. I wear them while flying because they're easy to slip on and off while crossing through security. My toenails are trimmed (and painted, I'm a gal), the shoes are clean, my feet are clean. If socks are offensive, what about a mostly-bare foot? Is that worse? I know the specific question referred to olfactory issues, but the response suggested seems to imply that any visible foot/sock is incorrect.
Honestly, I'd rather be seated next to someone with clean socks (or clean feet for that matter), who is pleasant and non-intrusive, than sit next to someone that feels it necessary to judge folks based on their footware.

Posted by: AG | May 27, 2008 9:36 AM

Flying is wretched enough without having to keep your shoes on. If the feet stink, well, that's too bad but it's a fact of life. Now crossing your legs, putting your feet up or otherwise shoving them in someone else's face? That's rude.

Posted by: csdiego | May 27, 2008 9:39 AM

I'm a fan of Birks myself and wear them in the airport. My specific issue was the guy's dirty, stinky, unkept foot. If I hadn't been put off by the smell, I might not have even minded seeing the foot.

But its one thing to take your shoes off and leave your feet under the seat, its another to have a stinky foot at eye level

Posted by: RT to AG | May 27, 2008 10:45 AM

Oh dear - I almost always take my shoes off on the plane. I figure it's part of my anti-blood-clot strategy. (Well, I leave them on for short flights, but if we're going transatlantic, they're definitely coming off.) On the plus side, they don't generally stink too much.

Posted by: h3 | May 27, 2008 11:01 AM

I think carry on Macdonalds and overly-perfumed passangers are far worse than shoe-removers.

Posted by: Liz | May 27, 2008 11:07 AM

So far, I've been spared the sight and smell of other flyers' feet, but I did spend the better part of a Miami to Chicago flight with a(drunk) woman in the row behind me repeatedly poking her toes between the seats and into my armpit. For the record, "Please stop sticking your foot into my armpit" is no more effective than it is clever.

Posted by: Macha | May 27, 2008 11:10 AM

I second the comment on overly perfumed passengers. I would rather naturally occuring body odor to harsh chemical ordors that come with perfume.

On the feet issue, I take my shoes off. But I'm sure to wear clean socks and keep my feet in my personal space - under my seat. Unless I'm sitting with a close family member who dosen't mind my feet on/near them.

Posted by: FfxGal | May 27, 2008 11:57 AM

I bet his dogs were barkin'. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles anyone? Anyone?

Posted by: Steve Martin feels your pain | May 27, 2008 12:09 PM

Evidently the Nationals' general manager, Jim Bowden, feels strongly about people who fart on planes:

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/nationalsjournal/2008/05/afternoon_tea_chitchat_with_bo.html


Regarding foot issues, I like the little socks that Virgin Atlantic hand out in Upper Class, and if I'm going on a flight where I think I might want to take my shoes off, I'll bring those. They're clean because I don't often wear them at home. But I don't ever stick my foot up where someone else has to see or smell it.

Posted by: Rich | May 27, 2008 2:53 PM

Might be time to "accidentally" spill a drink on them. Or just look them in the eye and sing Happy Birthday:

Happy Birthday to you.
You belong in a zoo.
You look like a monkey.
And you smell like one, too.

Posted by: Bull Durham | May 27, 2008 3:18 PM

Much like the floor in a movie theater, I cringe at the thought of bare skin coming in contact with the floor of airports or airplanes. (Hell, I feel the same way about seats, as well.) Who knows how often they clean those surfaces? It amazes me that anyone would go barefoot in places like this at all.

I'm not sure about the Men's department, but at Target, you can get a 3-pack of lightweight, breathable ankle socks for a few dollars in the Women's accessories section. When I fly in the warmer months, I put them on under my Crocs or Merrell Sports sandals (the latter are more like sneakers with cut-outs on the sides than sandals).

Is it fashionable? No. But my feet stay clean and out of direct contact with the floor when I go through Security or just have that rare, sole-of-my-foot scratching impulse.

Actually, I'll extend this beyond planes to any public places. I went to a Borders once a few years ago and got a sandwich to kill some time before an appointment. Because the cafe area was crowded, I snagged a "comfy" chair near a small coffee table that was on the fringe of the eating area. Other people were already eating their lunches there - it was a bit awkward, but at least it was a table.

As I received my sandwich from the staff, a woman sat down in a recently vacated seat on the other side, took off her shoes to reveal *sweaty* and stinky blue socks with straw and other farm-like debris on them and plopped her feet on the table, in the middle of people's coffee cups and plates.

When asked politely to put her feet down by several of us, she wouldn't. She insisted she had the right to do it. (not sure where that is in the Constitution...) It was just the grossest thing - I ended up eating my sandwich from my lap, as did those who didn't abandon their food and drink entirely.

Unless there's some sort of emergency, shoes-on in public, folks...really. I can see quietly and privately slipping your feet out of shoes while you're sitting down. But if you're going to walk around or invade other people's space, just put 'em back on. It's not like there aren't some damned comfy and attractive shoe options these days.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | May 27, 2008 3:19 PM

Chamosaur, after Ms. Grossorina had forced everyone to clear out, someone should have walked around behind her and farted just behind her head.

Posted by: Sasquatch | May 27, 2008 4:27 PM

Just want to say, sometimes it is not just the socks that get sweaty and smelly. Sometimes it is the insides of the shoes that are the main culpret. I would never take my shoes off in a plane, but I am glad I work alone in my office overnight. I am the only one that can be bothered by my shoes or socks airing out!

Posted by: rja112 | May 28, 2008 12:15 AM

My approach:
"Excuse me sir,Isn't flying these days rough? and there is so little room.. I feel like your foot is in my personal space".- {demonstrate the area where you think is your space and their space}."I am sorry but I feel very claustrophobic and I need every inch of my fair share. Could you please keep your foot (there}."

Goal: to emphasize fairness and shared pain to elicit empathy. Most humans can empathize and value fairness. One needs to confront so the message is heard.

Posted by: Jean | May 28, 2008 12:53 AM

Why do feet stink!? Not washed well? Shoes that do not let air thru and close the feet up? I guess I am lucky---mine do not smell. And, I do take my shoes off on a very long flight.

Posted by: Channah | May 28, 2008 11:54 AM

It amazes me what people will do in public!! I've never had that happen to me on an airplane, however, one time I was riding the Metro and the woman sitting next to me pulled out a nail clipper and started cutting her nails. Also have seen women putting on their make-up -- I don't mean refresh w/just a powder puff, I mean the whole foundation, blush, mascara, lipstick, etc.

People should not use public spaces such as airplanes and trains as they would their own personal space at home. I would have no problem asking the flight attendant to handle this for me if I asked the person politely and they didn't comply.

I also think most people who are reading this column probably wouldn't do these things, it always seems to be people who are oblivious to other people's feelings that do this type of thing.

Posted by: falls church | May 28, 2008 12:06 PM

Olfactory torture, toes in armpits, and other things that infringe on personal physical space can be dealt with by firmly but gently reclaiming it. A foot almost in your face? Drop something on it. Twice if you have to. Toes? Twist around. If your arm or shoulder blade is there the toes are going to have to retreat. Repeat with increasing firmness and/or abruptness as needed. (Just don't break them.) No matter how much someone deserves it insulting them isn't going to get you anywhere, or at least not without smelly feet in your face.

I've also done things such as saying in a polite tone that just happens to carry, "I'm sorry but I believe that I was here first." Even if they don't respond you've scored major points with the people around you. If you want to go for the insult be sympathetic: look them in the eye, smile gently, and let the voice carry as you say, "It's okay, if you lost track of time go on ahead." Suddenly they're not so important that they don't have time, they don't have time because they just weren't paying attention.

Posted by: Not Miss Manners | May 28, 2008 11:20 PM

I think I'd rather deal with the smell of someone's feet than an elbow in my ribs the whole flight. I've had that problem more than once. I'll surrender the whole armrest if I have to, but next time I'm going to prop up a book or magazine on my side of it, as a wall to protect my seatspace.

The worst I've encountered was a woman who decided to use the flight time to polish her nails. The polish was especially fume-y and immediately became overpowering. Just as those of us around her were looking at each other to see who would speak up first, a flight attendant swooped in and made her stop.

Posted by: jane | May 29, 2008 10:59 AM

I once had a woman who was wearing one of those neck pillows, next to me during the flight.
I was in the middle seat, she was on the aisle. I have no problem with the fact that she was wearing the pillow, they can be quite comfortable; however, she decided she needed to eat a yogurt she had brought on board with her.

Again, this was not a problem; however, instead of taking off the pillow and sitting upright to move the spoon from her yogurt to her mouth, she sat as she was with the next pillow on but had to swing her elbow way out in front of me to get to spoon to her mouth.

Well, as I caught onto this, I decided to time it so I had to lean forward and grab something from my bag that was under the seat in front of me. Her elbow hit my head, the spoon and yogurt fly all over the place, covering her shirt, forehead and neck pillow.

She had the nerve to be angry at me, I told her, in the nicest way possible that she shouldnt be so lazy next time and take off the pillow before stuffing her face. She didnt wear the pillow the rest of the flight and she leaned as far out into the aisle as possible.

It was a moral victory for me.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 29, 2008 1:09 PM

I (female) always take off my shoes on a plane, but I wear thin clean socks or have very clean bare feet and I am always up to date on my pedicure. I never stick my feet in to someone else's space --something I always have to remind men not to do (they always sit with their feet parallel but their knees stuck way out to the sides in to my space). I always put on my shoes when I stand up in the aisle or go to the restroom.

Posted by: Shoeless traveller | May 31, 2008 5:03 PM

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