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Woman reclines; man punches her seat. Who is the jerk?

An American Airlines plane taxis past parked Alaska Airlines planes, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.

So, who was the jerk?

Was it the woman on the American Airlines flight late last month, later identified as Wendi Williams, a schoolteacher, who reclined her seat into the lap of a man whose own seat, because he was on the last row, could not recline?

Or was it the bearded man with glasses, earbuds and angry eyes who sat behind her, incessantly shoving her seat with his right hand the way a 7-year-old child might try annoying a sibling?

Or was it, once again, the schoolteacher, whose reaction to the shoving was not to raise her seat or to confront the man, but to pull out her phone and take a now-viral video of what he was doing?

Or, perhaps, the real culprit was the airline itself, which, like many other airlines, has crammed so many passengers onto each flight, in the name of profits, that people have precious little room to breathe, let alone move.

The answer to this latest question posed to the world is probably a little of all of the above, along with a healthy dose of realizing we have seen but a snippet of what happened. She says the man asked her to raise her seat, but rudely. She did so, but only until he finished eating. She also says he had pushed her much harder than the video shows, and that she has since needed medical attention.

We don’t have the man’s side.

Overriding this great question is the reality that passengers can’t do much about cramped seating. The only thing they can control is how they act toward each other, and there is much evidence we are getting considerably worse at that.

Writing for Psychology Today two years ago, Mariana Plata said “rudeness has become our new normal.”

On a much smaller scale, what happened on American Airlines is similar to the conflicts between nations. The United States nearly went to war with Iran because neither side seemed willing to lose face by taking a step backwards. The conflict over a reclining seat might have ended at any time with one side resorting to diplomacy, simple kindness, or standing down.

Instead, the schoolteacher’s decision was to appeal to the internet, the ultimate den of rude, insulting and demeaning conduct. A lot of people there have had bad things to say about all of those involved, including the airline.

Plata said social media exacerbates conflicts so that “it’s difficult to practice a reflective process by asking ourselves, ‘Why is this truly important? Should I really get the last word here? When a person is rude, is it about me or about her/him?’”

Rudeness, she wrote, “is almost like a neurotoxin, a poisonous substance that negatively affects our nervous system.” And because of social media, we’re exposed to it a lot more than we were before.

Which is not to say we’ve recently invented it. I’ve searched newspaper archives for examples of rude behavior on flights. In 1957, the Senate convened a hearing to explore banning alcohol on commercial planes. But at least the drunks back then had plenty of legroom.

On that subject, Popular Mechanics has an interesting description of the evolution of airline seating arrangements, which has progressed in inverse proportion to the growing waistlines of passengers. At the beginning of this century, economy passengers had about 35 inches between seats. Today, it’s 30 to 31, with some smaller planes offering only 28. The average male traveler (generously assumed to be rather thin) has only 2 inches of legroom, the magazine said.

As for width, our rear ends now have 17 inches, instead of 18.5, on most flights.

On a flight a couple of years ago, my aisle seat was almost overtaken by a center-seat passenger so large he literally was wedged in place. Getting there wasn’t easy. He scraped his knuckles in the process, which bled onto the back of the seat in front of me. His torso overflowed partly onto my seat. An extra few inches would have been merciful to both of us.

But does any of this give people license to recline, shove or otherwise act rudely?

In the middle of this debate, the CEO of rival Delta Air Lines weighed in. “If you’re going to recline into somebody, you ask if it’s OK first,” he said.

So maybe he’s the jerk. After all, he actually could do something about cramped quarters.

I’m not sure, but I do know that the rest of us have no control over the dimensions of our seats, and politely asking permission to recline sounds a lot better than what unfolded on American Airlines.