Man, interrupted

Image of Tyler Brûlé

What on earth is that sound?” you ask yourself. It’s slightly tinny, a little bit staticky and hard to place.

It might be coming from the aircraft’s public announcement system (you’re on board a Cathay Pacific A330, in case you’ve lost your bearings) or maybe it’s a set of headphones (with the volume cranked too high) connected to the in-flight entertainment system.

You try to ignore it by getting back to your beaten-up copy of the New Yorker, but after reading the same paragraph for the seventh time you raise yourself slightly off the seat and look around the cabin.

It’s clear a couple of other passengers are also annoyed by the sound but no one seems to be focusing on a particular source – a young woman dressed as if she’s going to a school prom and sporting pigtails looks particularly irritated, but she might just be unhappy with her get-up rather than the crackly din. Hoping it will go away when the aircraft levels out, you punch the small pillow to fluff it up, jam it between the seat and sidewall and try to nod off.

You’re almost at the edge of falling asleep, in fact you might well have been in blissful slumber for about 30 seconds, when the noise gets a little louder and maybe even slightly closer. Through one eye you survey the aisle and the seats in front but it seems it’s coming from somewhere behind you.

Once again you rise out of your seat and turn around but there’s no one sitting behind you.

How strange. You become convinced it’s a pair of rogue headphones that need to be found, so you turn around to kneel on your seat and rummage through the seat pocket behind to find them.

At this point you’re slightly startled because there is in fact someone occupying seat 8a – a little toddler (boy? girl? hard to say) with the tray down and a full media centre set up in front of them.

The child is momentarily surprised by your presence but then goes back to watching Bananas in Pyjamas in Cantonese on their tablet with the sound blaring out of the speakers.

Sizing up the situation, you reckon there are a couple of ways to go about this. First, you don’t really want to add to the noise by saying something. Second, it could all become a little bit complicated with hand gestures and you mouthing English words while you try to communicate to the extended family seated around you.

Third, and you’ve seen this happen before in the cramped environment of a steel and carbon fibre tube hurtling through the sky, tempers can easily get out of control and you don’t want to start a fight that will end with the captain having to divert to a lonely airstrip in Vietnam.

Fourth, it’s not really worth pressing the call bell to gently ask the flight attendant to deal with the situation. And fifth, you absolutely do not want to aggravate an already delicate situation by having the rest of the cabin turn on you because you end up making the child cry for the next 55 minutes until touchdown in Hong Kong.

Feeling like you’ve been well and truly beaten by the forces of invasive technology and slack parenting, you assess the situation one more time in search of a solution and decide that actions (amateur dramatics in your case) are going to speak louder than words.

Focusing for a moment on the child (narrow, piercing eyes that could burn through the screen), you then shift your gaze to the woman seated in 8b – it’s most likely Mom (but could be an auntie or even a very big half-sister) – who is flipping through the duty-free catalogue.

After a quick, distracted double- take, she locks eyes with you, at which point you shift your focus back to the child and then rapidly back to her and, without saying a word, you raise your eyebrows and blink at her – fast, slightly intimidating yet warmly expressive.

In an instant your message is transmitted:

What on earth are you thinking by letting your child watch a TV programme on a tablet device in the middle of a public environment where people are trying to work, sleep and read?

If you have headphones, you should pull them out now, plug them in and stuff them in your child’s ears.

If not, you should turn the volume off and let your little one figure out for themselves why the Australian men dressed up like fruit are chasing each other around in nightwear.

Message received, the woman nods in acknowledgment and starts to scrabble around in her royal blue Michael Kors nappy bag and you settle back down into your seat.

A few seconds later the sound stops and you brace yourself for the child to start wailing but all seems fine. Silence – save for the churning engines, the whirr of the air conditioning and the comforting drone of someone snoring a few rows back.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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