Looking at air hostesses

On the flight from Dhaka to Delhi there are only three of us in business class, but the law requires the air hostess to do her safety performance. The other two never look at her, and I’d rather not. But being British and so never walking on the grass when told not to, switching off my phone on the flight (which the others don’t do), and always going to the back of the queue, I feel I must look at her, intermittently. It’s surely rude not to look. I remember a flight from Brunei to Melbourne when I was the only one in a twenty-seat business cabin: how could I look away?

(This is, I reflect, a version of the well recognised psychological phenomenon that if a a person is attacked in a crowd nobody may do anything, whereas if only one person is present he or she feels obliged to act.)

But on the flight from Delhi to Bengaluru I’m even more conscious of the obligation to look at the air hostess, but there’s extra tension. She’s a beautiful woman, with a warm not a cold beauty. When she brought me a cold towel she smiled at me as if seeing me filled her with sunshine. Plus she’s about two feet from me, with me seated and her standing above me.

She begins her act, and nobody is watching her. Perhaps this is the way she prefers it. It’s an empty ritual: the chance of it saving us as we plummet to the ground is tiny; and surely in the panic of the moment we’ll forget the ritual no many how times we have seen it. But I feel I ought to watch, just as you feel obliged to stay and watch when you are in an audience of three people, an experience I’ve had at the Edinburgh Fringe and at conferences. The experience of watching her dutifully is similar to that of praising a young child’s poem or dance.

But the tension stems from her beauty. We are taught in Britain not to stare. So I must watch her but not stare. Plus I like looking at beautiful women, but I don’t want to seem lascivious or lecherous. If she were a painting in the National Gallery, which she could well be, I could stare and examine her closely without any fear of being misunderstood. But she’s a living woman, two feet away. So I look but make sure that I concentrate on her actions, avoiding her face and body. This is a very British middle-class problem and solution.

Again I wonder how she feels. If she were an actor or dancer, she’d want my full attention, drawing no distinction between watching and staring. But here, I suspect, she’s happiest when nobody is watching. I think that next time I won’t watch, no matter how rude it seems.

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