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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

What You Learn From Airports

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

Airports are magical places. Sure, there are the inevitable inconveniences: shoe removals and testy TSA agents, gate changes and flight delays, bathroom lines and early morning scrambles. However, when you truly take a moment to think about it, airports are magic: we leave one and can end up in another, hundreds or thousands of miles away and often containing different cultures, unique foods, strange coins, and unknown languages. They're places of heartfelt goodbyes and teary-eyed reunions, grieving and gratitude, love and longing. They're places where no rules exist, with patrons eating Chinese take-out at 6am or wearing outfits that would cause second stares outside airport walls. They're unique bubbles of our world and microcosms of society. And for these reasons and many more, they're also GREAT spots for people watching, which is what this article is all about.

(Full disclosure, we currently hail from Atlanta so most of our airport time is coming and going from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on a Delta flight. However, as a frequent business traveler [Chuck] and a former digital nomad [Jillian, who has lived in or visited nearly 70 countries in the world], we have spent our fair share of time in airports far and wide.)

On a recent business trip with several hours of observation, two slices of New-York-style pizza, and a hoppy adult beverage at JFK airport, we found the following observations to be noteworthy:

Non-verbal communication

Airports, especially hubs like ATL or JFK, are ripe grounds for observing the rich tapestry of non-verbal communication. From the hurried nods between business associates traveling to and from clients' offices to the silent negotiations of couples that state, "Are you leading the way, or am I?”, we see that words can often just be unwanted noise if they are not matching what we are already communicating.

Then there's the non-verbal communication rampant throughout the TSA line: 'the look' of the TSA agent to the ‘someone’ who is not ready with the proper identification or the 'someone' who asks, “Do I need to take my shoes and belt off?” is a look that demonstrates to us that distain can be communicated using no words at all, letting us bystanders understand that this 'someone' is messing up the system and the rest of us better not do the same! Without words, many travelers - including, often, these 'someones' - signal to us how rushed they are feeling. Some show us how confused and lost they are just by the squinting of their eyes and the furrowing of their brows. Some radiate with joy because they are going on vacation, a honeymoon, or a COVID-delayed adventure! Without words being said, people are communicating very clearly who is with whom while waiting in a line: who are coupled up, who are mere business associates, and everything in between.

With our COVID masks long ago removed, people are now screaming at the top of their lungs through the use of non-verbal communication! All you have to do is take some time and pay attention. Here are some things to look for:

  • Facial Expressions: Observing facial expressions can give a lot of insight into a person’s emotional state. You might notice smiles, frowns, surprise, or confusion on the faces of the people passing by. And definitely be on the lookout for ‘the look’!

  • Body Language: The posture and gestures of people can convey information about their feelings and intentions. Look for relaxed postures, tense shoulders, or hurried walking paces. If someone is running through the airport or really moving it through security, give them some space because they may be trying to get to a plane that is about to take off and it is their last flight out of NYC! Believe us, it happens!

  • Eye Contact: People who make and maintain eye contact may demonstrate confidence and engagement, while those avoiding eye contact might be feeling shy or anxious. If you want to be chatty and talk with others, then look for people that make eye contact. If they are looking away (or immediately put on their headphones when you approach), that is a good signal they don’t want to engage with you! You can also get the attention of the flight attendants or the ticket counter personnel even when you are in the back of the line just by waiting for them to make eye contact. It is a great way to say something from a distance without having to say it or having anyone hear your thoughts.

  • Proximity: The distance people maintain from others can indicate their comfort level or their relationship with those around them. Remember in a place like this, JFK, there are all sorts of cultures, nations, and ethnic groups represented here, so personal space is not what you may think it is or what it means to you normally.

  • Gestures: Watch for gestures people use when communicating with others, like hand movements, head nods, and other signs of active listening or engagement. You can almost hear a conversation that is going on 200 feet away, not because you can actually hear it, but because you can see it through the arm and hand movements. Some cultures and people are just much more expressive with their appendages than others. In fact, most experts agree that between 70 and a whopping 93% of communication is non-verbal!

  • Touch: Observations about how people use touch, like hugs, handshakes, or pats on the back, can signal various emotions or the nature of their relationships. But don’t forget that JFK is a hustle-and-bustle kind of environment in close quarters, so a bump here or a brush there could either mean you are being pick-pocketed, it was an accident, or maybe it is what you think it is. But don’t assume anything on one touch!

  • Dress and Grooming: How people choose to dress and groom themselves can sometimes signal aspects of their personality, culture, or mood. The guy that just walked past with the Jets jersey and hat on is communicating loud and proud! But there is still confusion on what the person wearing pajamas - more and more prevalent over the years we've been traveling - is trying to say: perhaps they're so late that they had to roll straight out of bed so as not miss their flight, or maybe they're flying to Europe and will be sleeping for the next 10 hours!

So what learning can we take from some of these observations?

Reacquaint yourself with your own face: Make sure what you are saying with your face or body language matches what you want to say or communicate. And remember, Zoom calls and Team calls give it all away as well! So, practice your poker face if you do not want to communicate to your boss or coworkers what is really going on in your head!

Your eye contact determines what others think of you: Look at someone when you are talking to them and when they are talking to you – after all, if someone will not look you in the eye, at least in American culture, then they are not to be trusted! Or, a lack of eye contact (such as looking at your phone instead) can subconsciously signal that what someone is saying is not that important. On the other hand, if you want to be left alone, look down, look away, and don’t make eye contact. We all know that where your eyes go, so does your attention! It is true in everything from driving to conversating to looking at your email and not the others on the Zoom call.

What you wear says something about you: Do not believe that a book is not judged by its cover! Research has shown that we do judge, evaluate, and assign value in how someone is clothed and groomed. Just make sure that you are making the impression that you intend to make. It may be easier, it may be comfortable, but is it what you want to say? And you may be saying, "I don’t care what you think of me" – that's okay, too!

Be aware of your physical presence in relationship to others. The backpacks swinging around and hitting others, the crowded push of boarding an airplane, or the mob around the boarding door even before your boarding section is called is why traveling by aircraft can be such a stressful thing. (In fact, more than 9 in 10 travelers say traveling is a nerve-wracking experience.) Back up, give people some space, and see if things don’t run a little more efficiently. However, pay attention to the line, the instructions from people who have a job to do, and how your presence impacts what else is going on around you. None of us are the center of the universe and therefore don’t just stand anywhere, don’t get in a line you are not prepared to do what is necessary when you get to the front of, and do a little research to inform yourself of what the proper etiquette is while traveling.

Not just at JFK, but definitely on display there, most everyone is in a rush. Most everyone wants to get settled in. If you think about others and not only of yourself, it should make your work life, travel life, social life, romantic life, and life in general a little easier to navigate and enjoy.

We hope you enjoyed this somewhat offbeat blog post, and if you want more information on how to observe people or how to be more effective in your non-verbal communications, please contact us at If you want tips on how to travel faster, better, smarter, cheaper, or more efficiently, contact!

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