I have a rule: I won't talk to people who sit next to me on airplanes. Nothing personal, it's simply that there's too much downside and not enough upside.
Some colleagues say they procure clients from plane trips, particularly when sitting in business or first class. But I've done the strategic analysis and it's just not worth the risk. I mean, it is possible you could land a million-dollar customer, but you also might get stuck next to a Chatty Cathy who believes her dental issues are on par with the spine-tingling suspense of a John Grisham novel.
The few times I have broken my rule have been fairly disastrous. One morning I was set to fly to San Francisco when I noticed the woman in front of me in security was having trouble. She kept dropping things, seemed a bit disheveled, and was as nervous as a Chihuahua.
As she fumbled with her bags, her plane ticket fell to the floor. I gallantly picked it up, handed it back to her, and proceeded to break my cardinal rule.
"You don't want to lose this," I said with a smile.
"Oooh, I am so nervous," she replied. "This is only my second trip. The first time I flew it was with my sister, and she makes me crazy. My name's Janice." She prattled on, with clearly no understanding of the security process. I patiently explained that she had to throw away her water bottle, take off her shoes and jacket, and put her purse and bags on the conveyor.
"That is so helpful," she said, "I don't know what I would have done."
I helped her reassemble her accoutrements after exiting security, and bade her goodbye.
"By the way," she added, "I'm going to San Francisco. You?"
I reluctantly admitted that I too was going to San Francisco. "Oh, good," she replied, "we can sit together. I like traveling with you, you're so much calmer than my sister."
I accompanied her to the gate, had the agent seat us together on the plane, and sat down with my new best friend to await boarding. After about 15 minutes, I was summoned via loudspeaker to the check-in desk.
I ventured to the counter with Janice at my side to see what was up. "Mr. Spetner," the attendant said, "you've been upgraded to first class." I looked at the boarding pass, looked back at Janice, started to silently rejoice, then suddenly envisioned Rabbi Eichler, my third-grade Hebrew school teacher.
In one of his many lectures, Rabbi Eichler told us that angels will sometimes arrive from heaven dressed as poor beggars and ask for food and shelter to see if people will truly act righteously or not. Those who accommodate the beggars receive great rewards.
With the thought that perhaps Janice represented some sort of divine test, I handed back the first-class upgrade and slunk back to await boarding.
"You were gonna sit up there in first class drinking champagne and caviar," said Janice. "You were gonna leave me in the back of the plane!"
Mid-flight to San Francisco, I turned to look at Janice, who was hogging our shared armrest, listening to her headphones, and smiling away. She was in Janice Heaven. I was silently assessing my commitment to righteousness. Would Rabbi Eichler have accepted the upgrade? Janice removed the headphones briefly to confirm that I was indeed a better traveler than her sister, and we parted at the airport.
Over the course of many subsequent flights, I've sat next to celebrities, rich businessmen, and fetching 20-somethings, but I have never opened my mouth. Too much downside.
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.