Elbow Etiquette

There is an extremely serious design issue that continues to plague the travellers of the world. I estimate that this problem has existed for centuries — or at least since the invention of the armrest.

We often find ourselves sitting next to people. People we don’t even know. Be it a bus, a train, a movie theatre, or any public place where seats are placed side-by-side. The “situation” I’m about to discuss becomes especially relevant on an airplane, where space is scarce, and sitting is a mandatory position for any number of hours.

It’s about sharing. Something that the world has shown little interest in. It’s also about the armrest, and how it’s precious few inches of solid existence can be a war zone — a battle between two elbows jockeying for position.

The problem

Taking a look at Figure 1, you’ll notice how the scenario usually plays out (for me at least). My arm is shown in blue, while my neighbor’s to my right is shown in green. My neighbor has taken up the entire armrest that’s designed to be shared between the two of us. Rude? Yes. He or she gets the armrest, and I get nothing. I’m forced to sit as if I’m in a bobsled, with arms straight as an arrow at my sides.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Possible solutions

One solution (and there are a few of them) would be to divide the armrest in half (width-wise), where we each get to rest our elbows on the inside edges (Figure 2). This method works OK — and if you have an elbow-conscious neighbor, this is usually what happens. Consider yourself lucky if you run into this scenario. But it’s hardly ideal, with neither one of you getting a comfortable position.

Figure 2
Figure 2

But there is a better way — one that gives enough support for each elbow. It just requires some clever geometry.

Dividing the armrest into equal halves (front to back), one person places their elbow in the front half, pointing their arm diagonally in towards themselves. The other person takes control of the back half in the same manner. There’s now ample room for both — each with proper support (Figure 3). The result is a Jenga-like interlocking of arms. A yin and yang at 30,000 feet. All it takes is some cooperation between the two passengers.

Figure 3
Figure 3

In a perfect world, each airline and bus company would have these diagrams attached to the back of every seat, right alongside instructions for using your seat cusion as a floatation device. The result would be ultimate harmony — with no arm left behind. Consider yourself now an ambassador for armrest equality.


  1. joe says:

    You have FAR too much time on your hands. Also, figure 3 only works if your seat partner is willing to lean WAY forward, or backward.
    The best solution is a winner takes all rock-paper-scissors.

  2. Chris says:

    rock-paper-scissors? I vote for a fight to the death, Kirk vs. Spock style in the isle. :-)

  3. Trent says:

    I’m not sure about Figure 3. Imagine; blue gets the better part, because it is closer to the back of the chair, while green has to strain in order to be in front, unless he half-turns his back against blue.
    I just hate it when I already have my arm there, and the other person doesn’t show any discomfort whatsoever when he shoves his arm right next to mine. It’s too intimate!

  4. Chris Clark says:

    Or hey, design the seats so there are two distinct armrests. I guess that’s a First Class thing though… we schlubs back in coach get what we pay for.

  5. Jesse Wilson says:

    There’s always the option of stowing-away the armrest and placing your shoulder in a position so that it would be even more rude for your neighbor to try and use it.

  6. chet says:

    I know your pain. Airlines could simply have one armrest with a divider down the middle, turning it into two armrests.

  7. Ryan says:

    My solution would be this:
    #neighbor {
    I’m so lame.

  8. Alex says:

    Just how long will this epidemic continue to taunt society?

  9. Sam says:

    Don’t forget about the time when your sitting in the middle seat of 3 and you lose both your armrests on a trip to the bathroom!
    The winner is getting the window seat, you get the extra luxury of more armrest room but unlike the isle, the flight attendants aren’t likely to dislocate your shoulder with a drinks trolley.

  10. Mike Lorengo says:

    My wife and I recently had a similar conversation on the way back from Puerto Vallarta. If you are the poor sod who gets stuck in the center of three seats, we believe that you should get exclusive access to both armrests. Otherwise I would agree with #3. And whose to say you don’t switch halfway through the flight. I’ve been fortunate enough to do the elbow dance with a stranger were one person will remove there elbow for a period of time, and the other person will move to the back, ultimately to cycle around again depending on the length of the flight.

  11. Offer to hold hands. ;)

  12. Marko says:

    Same could be applied to city bus seats with very little space for passengers’ knees. Many times I left sitting diagonally at the edge, risking someone accidently steps on my feet, while some overweight lady possessed 1.5em of the seats with her broad rear and a million shopping bags. Thank God, we bought a car!
    Anyways, nice interface design : )

  13. JacksFilthyMethod says:

    1. Reach deep inside your pants (front or back works eaqually well)
    2. Scratch, rub, adjust, whatever (be sure to grunt to draw the attention of those around you)
    3. Remove your hand and smell your fingers
    4. Gag and then proceed to put your hand on the armrest
    I’ve found that few passengers will give you much trouble after that, sometimes this results in an empty seat (or two) permitting you to stretch out on long flights.

  14. Daniel says:

    How can we be forgetting about Option 4: the audacious handholding technique. Whether sitting next to that special someone, sharing the row with a rare travelling beauty, or just getting comfortable with the businessman in the window seat, this option promises great comfort and always a great conversation. You’ll be hitting the tarmac before you even know it.

  15. Mike D. says:

    Yes, figure three is the ideal solution and I make use of it almost every time I’m in the air. You really don’t even need a whole lot of cooperation in advance if your technique is good. You can change figure one into figure three merely by crowbarring your elbow into position near the aft side of the armrest.
    Most people feel automatically uncomfortable and their reflexes cause them to then shift their arm forward, and thus you have arrived at figure three.
    Another option: If you have a hot chick next to you (which in about 20 years of flying, I never have), you can simply place your arm directly on top of hers. The potential payoff is big and the potential downside is merely a slap in the face, which is generally only felt for a minute or so before the sting subsides.

  16. Scott says:

    I noticed you slipped in an icon from Stockholm, very nice. Personally, I won’t share an arm rest with anyone I don’t know (often even with those I do know.) I’ll just try to claim the rest on the other side and lean in the direction.
    The only solution I can think of for people like myself is a thin plastic wall at least a few inches high to divide the rest in a definitive way.

  17. Jeff Hartman says:

    What about the double-decker armrest, each slightly offset from one another?
    But hey, living in the #5 fattest city (Chicago), I don’t have to deal with the problem so much because some already have the built-in armrest – affectionately known as the “beer belly”.

  18. Hans says:

    This is only relevant if you require two using two armrests. I need only one to be happy, and wherever I may sit (in an airplane or in an auditorium), none of these problems arise.

  19. Kim Siever says:

    That’s why I get a window seat or an aisle seat. With the widow seat, I can use the window seat. With the aisle seat I don’t have to share the one armrest with anyone.

  20. Oliver says:

    Wow. And I thought the source where I get my crack from is good.
    Anyway, why not just take turns putting arms on it? It’s not like anybody wants to rest his/her arm on there forever.

  21. Anura says:

    Why not do a simple price check? The person who paid the highest fare gets the armrest. With all the different fares these days, there’s no guarantee that any two people on the same flight have paid the same fare.
    After all, if they’ve been ripped off with the fare, then surely they deserve a little something extra …

  22. Anonymous says:

    Ryan, I think that absolute position would be better.

  23. Jordan Moore says:

    I’m sorry, but I’d have to go with:

    Note: Not compatible with all flyers. ;)

  24. icez says:

    The best solution is to get your boyfriend or girlfriend to come with you on a trip:)

  25. Justin says:

    I’ve come up with another solution, complete with diagram.

  26. Enrique says:

    I like Justin’s solution…

  27. Nick says:

    Is this going to be in your new book Bulletproof Web Design?

  28. Carl says:

    I’m surprised you can’t yet purchase a portable armrest from a shop in the airport. They’ve had travel pillows for ages now. Why not a compact armrest that can be unfolded and placed over or next to the existing one?

  29. David says:

    Never travel alone. I use to go abroad with my significant other, and we share the armrest like lovers :)

  30. Pete says:

    Personally, I favour the ‘move over pipsqueak’ option. But I guess that then makes me one of the people that prompted this post!

  31. Small Paul says:

    Yup, the lovers option is definitely the way to go. In the interests of spreading peace and goodwill, just snuggle up to your neighbour, and allow each other a few hours of comfort and support in this crazy, non-stop world.

  32. Fritsie says:

    Yeah, it’s a luger alright!

  33. Waylan says:

    What about those of us with wide shoulders? I don’t mean overweight either. I have a very large bone structure and in most cases when my arms are strait against my side (bobsled style) they are still covering the entire armrest on both sides. If I am in a middle seat and have use of neither armrest, I am forced to crunch up my shoulders in some bad posture sort of position and move my arms in front of my body. Needless to say, that becomes unbearable rather quickly.
    Fortunately (or unfortunately – depending on which way you look at it), most people are at least somewhat intimidated by my height. A little lean toward them and they back off right quick. I will then try to do the right thing and offer them some armrest space along the lines of figure 3. Although, it usually takes a little while for them to overcome the intimidation and take me up on the offer.

  34. The problem: one armrest for two arms.
    The solution: two armrests for two arms.
    Even if they cut the miniscule armrest in half, it would promote sharing. Or, you could bring along a black magic markert and draw a line down the middle…

  35. jeff says:

    here’s what I do – I get on the airplane and simply drape my legs over the armrest for the remainder of the flight. it’s very relaxing for me and really, who cares about the other person? they’ll adjust.

  36. Jen says:

    Ha! I love that you pondered this – I have actually thought this through and solution #3 was what I deemed best. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that you went to the effort to make up some pretty illustrations for this concept. That’s great!
    BTW – The green person doesn’t necessarily have to lean forward. If they are tall or have longer arms than they will naturally fall further up the armrest like this. My boyfriend is 6’5″, and when we go on a plane or to the movies, this is how our arms naturally fall.
    So I guess that’s the real strategy – alternate tall and short/average people in public seating with shared arm rests.
    How about a pretty graphic for that? :)

  37. Chris says:

    That’s funny, if I buy an airline I will be sure to but these on the back of the seats as stickers…so that you and above by they air vents to make sure even when you lean back you remember to be curtious to your elbow neighbor.

  38. Chris says:

    Sorry for the post again but I couldn’t edit, Just thought of something, I think the “elbow dance” is from the childhood version of the shoulder dance, if you ever had the treat of being stuffed 5 people in a row that fits 3 people when you were a kid all the kids would fight for the right to have their arm infront of the other persons arm. I have to admit, I am the person that is in the green, in the first figure and have gotten into some arguments on the grey hound (when I flew I flew with my dad or my cousin so it didn’t matter)

  39. Darren says:

    All this is immaterial – if the person in front reclines their seat, you can’t open your laptop lid properly anyway ;o)
    There is only one solution… become rich enough to always travel business class. This can be simply achieved by winning the lottery, or starting a software compare and having it acquired. Or travel economy and also buy the seat next to you. Or become a pilot.

  40. Ryan says:

    Anonymous: Absolute positioning would not work if the airline decided to change the number of seats in a row or the width of those seats.

  41. Wil Rushmer says:

    I recently had a 5 hour flight and ran out of things to read so I turned my attention to the tv in the headrest staring at me. The only problem was the lady sitting next to me was hogging the armrest, where the controls were located on top of. Every 5 minutes it would either turn off, or change channels. I must have asked this lady about 10 times if she could keep her elbow on her side of the rest so I could keep watching tv. Finally I just got so annoyed I hogged the whole arm rest for the rest of the flight as soon as she moved.

  42. Someone else says:

    I blame Internet Explorer.

  43. levee says:

    What you need to look at now is the even thornier issue of leg room.
    I just got off a flight an hour ago (and straigh onto the Internet, I know!!!), but spent most of the flight trying NOT to rub legs with the guy next to me.
    Forget deep-vein thrombosis(?), this is THE big issue in in-flight etiquette . . .

  44. I grew up thinking there was an unspoken armrest rule — you get the armrest to your right, unless you’re on the left aisle, in which case you get both. Another perk of the aisle seat. This way, everyone gets one armrest with which to have one fully comfortable arm — and one lucky person gets a bonus.
    In fact, I think I was even told this as a kid that this is the way armrests worked. I tried taking the lefty once in a movie theater, and was told “yours is over THERE.” Or maybe I was tricked a lot as a kid?

  45. Lynne Martin says:

    No, I’d have to say screaming babies is the biggest in-flight etiquette issue. Put ‘em in baggage where they belong. ;)
    As for the armrest issue, I’m afraid that in the end it will always be every man for himself. Think of them more as “armwrests.”

  46. Adrian says:

    The problem with solution 3 is if you are both elbow back or elbow forward people. Then you end up spending the whole flight fighting to get your elbow into positon (I’m an elbow back person). I end up getting cramp in my one arm sometimes becasue I know if I move it I’ll loose my back of the arm rest spot.

  47. Troy says:

    You could use AJAX to randomly relocate relative elbow positions without having to get out of your seat and get back in again. The arm rest positions could then be controlled by the planes central arm rest positioning server eliminating any passenger incompatabilities.
    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="iso-8859-1"?>
    <passengers isle="23" positioning="simplebits_option_1">
        <passenger seat="window" armrest="no" />
        <passenger seat="isle" armrest="yes"/>

  48. clint says:

    overflow hidden is a nice one and does free up that whole armrest for you… i’d tend to want my neighbor to be comfortable to, yeah even tho they dont really care about me being uncomfortable- im a sap like that… so i’d be ok with a bit of:

    padding:0 1em 0 0;

  49. clint says:

    heh, I actually just gave my neighbor both armrests now if hes in the middle.. LOL.. doh…

    padding: 0 0 0 1em;

    *note to self, get some sleep.. these late nite code borks need to stop heh…

  50. ishai says:

    too much seinfeld reruns ???

  51. Ryan says:

    I fear you are running out of ideas for the SimpleQuiz, either that or your new office is driving you loopy.

  52. Martin S. says:

    This notebook entry just made my afternoon! Great writing and illustrating too. ;-)

  53. tirin says:

    Perhaps there is a market opportunity here. How about a spray on “extreme body odor” product. Guaranteed to keep your fellow traveller at a firm distance. Armrest, no problemo….

  54. Evan says:

    I find myself frequently leaning forward and placing my forehead on the folded up tray-table for support. This negates the need for an arm rest but looks ridiculous and may leave odd markings in your skin.
    They make those inflatable neck stabalizers, why can’t they do the same for the arms? Perhaps something that resembles those blow-up arm floatee things that young swimmers wear?

  55. Rob Crowther says:

    Honestly, it works better if everyone just uses one side.. I find that 90% of the time, I just use an armrest on one side, and everyone else does the same.

  56. Bill says:

    boy, i can’t believe so many people have commented on this.
    I think seats should be redesigned slight so that the arm rest stows away down beside your lap. Then when you need YOUR armrest you pop it up and fold it out – it extends slightly above your lap – but you have an armrest on both sides that is yours and yours alone.
    I can’t draw so I can’t provide a nice figure or three like Dan

  57. HA!!!!!! :)

  58. Jonas Rabbe says:

    The second “solution” doesn’t work in British Airways 777′s. In these planes (in coach of course) the controls for the in-flight entertainment is on the top of the armrest, just resting the arm normally on the armrest can change channels, volume, or calling the stewardess, relegating one of the users of the armrest to the front half would serve to increase the frequency of these mishaps.

  59. Keri Henare says:

    Most people don’t like to be touched too much. So I always try to fit my arm onto the arm-rest, pushing firmly up against my neighbour’s until the submit.
    I always love Dan’s diagrams.
    Justin’s Diagram is also valid

  60. Matthijs Aandewiel says:

    We, of the people with one or less arm(s) federation feel horribly discriminated.
    or something.

  61. Neil says:

    In a perfect world, each airline and bus company would have these diagrams attached to the back of every seat
    You should make stickers, like those baddesignkills.com, then we can all stick ‘em on the back of the tray-table next time we fly.

  62. John Aldrich says:

    I love it. Long live Cederholm, last bastion of armrest equality!

  63. Me says:

    Survival of the fittest, I’d say

  64. Bob says:

    tirin, this works very well. Add morbid obesity to the B.O. factor, and you’ve got yourself an armrest. I was unfortunate enough to be crammed into an already-tiny seat (commuter jet) next to a woman who was as wide as two and a half me’s (and I’m no toothpick myself), who reeked of potted meat, cumin, and Birkenstocks. I not only gave her the armrest, but as much room as I could possibly give her and not be standing in the aisle.

  65. Matt Jacob says:

    In Figure 2, what would be so wrong with both arms butting up against each other in the middle of the arm rest? Unless the person sitting next to you has some kind of infectious disease, I don’t see anything wrong with a little benign human contact.

  66. Jim Pettit says:

    Venus de Milo. Or maybe Boxing Helena.

  67. Adrian D. says:

    Think this can only be solved with CSS3 ;)

    .armrest-shared {
    width: 5in;
    column-count: 2;
    column-width: 2in;
    column-gap: 1in;

  68. Brian says:

    “I’m forced to sit as if I’m in a bobsled”
    That cracked me up!

  69. Chris says:


  70. Paul says:

    I think that the problem lies with the airline, movie theatre, exc….why couldnt they just make two arm rests side by side? In my corner of the world we have this at the theatre.
    Of course a follow-up article could be, “How do you solve the annoying loud person who talks on his/her cellphone like a licensed psyciatrist to thier pathetic friend?”

  71. Thomas says:

    My brother always flies wearing a surgical mask… he says other passengers keep their distance!

  72. LOL.
    #69 has a great solution, but what will IE say? Better nest this inside a couple container divs and wrap it with another one to be on the safe side. After that, call the stewardess and ask her if you can borrow a couple more motion sickness devices and a garlic necklace just in case he won’t move.

  73. Pat Collins says:

    You have way too much time on your hands.

  74. Pat Collins says:

    So now that you have your own office, and you are obviously concentrated on important and profitable client work at all times, are you looking for any employees to help you with these elbow-ridden endeavors?

  75. Root says:

    Awesome. Thanks a lot for the love that went into this. Really funny.

  76. Dan, if only we all could follow your value driven insight, this world would be a peacefull tranquil place for all of our children to enjoy. Or our elbows would be comfortable at least.
    Funny article, shows you have character since you took the time to make those illustrations.
    Keep on rockin in the real world, Danny boy!

  77. Chad says:

    Just use the Darwinist approach – survival of the fittest. Simply stick your arm on the armrest and shove your neighbors arm off. When they look at you give them you’re best “look of death”. People are pussies. The armrest will be yours the rest of the flight.

  78. Jeff says:

    Another possible solution would be to stagger the height of each seat slightly(less than 1 foot, there is always head room), so that there can be 2 armrests while maintaining the same physical space. A small platform at the base of the higher seat would allow easy access into the chair and we could even include a fold-out privacy screen (from between the seats) for the lower passenger so as to block any elevated view from above.

  79. Adam Thody says:

    I use option 3 all the time…or I yawn and wrap my arm around…depending on the circumstances ;)

  80. John B. says:

    Maybe the fattest man should get the armrest?

  81. Anonymous says:

    First elbow, first rest. Now you can’t get up or move or you’ll lose it…

  82. hdotnet says:

    carry a gun at all times.
    then you’ll get the whole carriage / bus / plane

  83. TC says:

    Unfortunately, the true answer is airplane manufacturers need to make slightly wider planes and accommidate double-width armrests between seats. Doubling up armrests given the current 16-17 in seat width will only cramp travelers more. We as consumers should demand 18-20 inch seats with double armrests, even in coach. Only by voting with our travel dollars will we get change.
    I have noticed that Airbus seating is slightly wider than Boeing built planes. Why is this?

  84. Tom Delay says:

    It’s all the Democrats fault!

  85. Hollobaugh says:

    Back in the ’80s comedian Rich Hall coined the phrase for this problem (or the “sniglet” as he called his terms).
    ELBONICS (el bon’ iks) n. The actions of two people maneuvering for one armrest in a movie theater.

  86. Josephine says:

    Just be happy you have elbows.

  87. andreas says:

    It was only yesterday in the tube that i came to the solution that figure 3 is the only possible peace agreement.

  88. Jono says:

    It is the perfect situation to go ahead and just arm wrestle for your position…it’s practically begging for it.

  89. Todd says:

    I just want to take this opportunity to point out this simple fact: before I posted this comment, there were 90 comments on this entry. 90. on an entry about armrests. Wow.
    So, we have a few things to take from this:
    a) Since he can create a strong enough entry so as to garner 90 comments on something as mundane as armrests, it’s clear that Dan is an amazing author who should be immediately thrust into the publishing limelight;
    b) You all have entirely too much time on your hands, more time that Dan and he had so much time on his hands that he could sit down to write this post in the first place!
    c) Armrest manufacturers, take note! Your unchecked agression will not stand!
    I look forward to your next entry about… let’s see… hairdryers? I can’t wait to see an entry about hairdryers on SimpleBits!

  90. Jens Meiert says:

    What a great thread ;)
    Well, both options 2 and 3 don’t seem suitable to me since they both are not very comfortable – option 2 gives not enough space for either arm, option 3 forces Mr Right to lean quite forward, doesn’t it?
    I think there is no real solution in this case except being happy with at least one armrest you can fully occupy. Or your neighbour ain’t interested in the borderland armrest at all so you become a happy owner of even two armrests.
    Nonetheless, option 4 is definitely king :D

  91. Graham Bancroft says:

    Maybe planes need to be fitted with arm belts/restraints.

  92. J Truitt says:

    #3 is good. Except the person on the right has to put their forearm instead of their elbow in the rest.

  93. Anelia Kostova says:

    Nice theory, huh? but i consider if your “neighbour” is a very sexy woman, you won’t think too much about the armrest possession…:-)))

  94. Mikhail Bozgounov says:

    I laughed, cried, enjoyed, too :-)))

  95. Mike says:

    I prefer the side by side method. When traveling overseas by air, this can become quite an issue.

  96. kirrasoul says:

    Just don’t shower for a couple days before. Nobody will sit beside you and you can then have the whole armrest. :)

  97. gunnar says:

    i just shoosh down, tilt my head slightly to the side and fall asleep… never had the time to check if there’s an elbow rest there… ;-P

  98. Bulk SMS says:

    Considering that airliners etc. aren’t that much interested in the comforts of economy travellers, the only solution is to either fly business/first class or revive the good old “good deed”. You know “good deed” – it became extinct some time ago, but this solution basically involves sacrificing the arm-rest.

  99. Barnaby says:

    I travel a lot, and this is my solution for the armrest hog: Drop your pillow in between your and the hog’s arm. Then you can lean on in to them (while pretending to be asleep) without feeling uncomfortable about it. 9 times out of 10 they end up ceding the whole armrest.