Other People

I endured an interesting but disappointing lunch today on the terrace of Aromi, one of Prague’s finest restaurants, just a stone’s throw from my own kitchen in Vinohrady. One of my closest friends had invited me to meet two American IT entrepreneurs who are developing a business software system here in Prague, as we do at systems@work. Our common interests might have drawn us together, perhaps to mutual advantage.

They were two energetic, humorous, good-looking, middle-aged men just a few years younger than me, and they buzzed with excitement about what they were doing. They were eager to tell me and my friend everything they possibly could about themselves – how they came to be living in Prague and how they came to be developing their software. Clearly the project interested them hugely, but I can’t say that I was very much the wiser, after half an hour or so, as to what they are actually doing, except that it is revolutionary and awesome, and everyone absolutely loves it as soon as they see it.

But if I was only a little the wiser as to what they are developing, and what their ambitions are for their product, they must have left the lunch table knowing absolutely nothing at all about me, simply because they asked me no questions at all.


Perhaps I am dull. But surely politeness demands that we show a balanced curiosity about other people as we chatter about ourselves and our own achievements. I know that cocktail party chit-chat becomes ever more insufferable as we get older, but showing no interest at all in others makes the experience even worse than it needs to be. If you have no curiosity about other people you might as well join a queue in Zurich and end it all. You certainly shouldn’t go to parties, or, indeed, to lunches.

From time to time I popped a question, such as about database performance issues, that suggested I might know at least a little bit about the development of scalable business software, but these questions were swatted away in favour of yet another monologue about how great their own ideas, achievements and prospects are.

I cannot think of another recent occasion when I felt so purposeless. I might as well have been a blown-up balloon instead of a living human being. I don’t think they would have noticed. I don’t think that an inability to speak, listen, even nod, would have been any discouragement to them.

But, I wonder, how can you learn anything if you never listen, if you have no curiosity about others?

It ruined my day -that, and getting soaked when the rain poured on me as I made my way home.

Sadly, I couldn’t resist a little barbed email when they wrote a follow-up note to suggest we might meet again sometime (for another purposeless monologue?).

Thanks for your note. It was interesting to hear about your various ventures, including the bicycle story, and especially how your software came into being. It sounds as if the opportunity is a great one and that you’re working with very competent people. I wish you every success. 

And I know very well how it feels to be an entrepreneur and how one’s own immediate concerns and achievements leave little time for curiosity about others’!

One might was well call a spade a spade.


Other People – Other Passengers


‘Hell is other people,’ Jean-Paul Sartre is frequently, but mistakenly, said to have quipped, probably on a particularly nauseous day in a moment of trademark existential anxiety. He would have said it in French, of course, if he’d said it at all – ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres.’ Naturally, it sounds more profound in French and, if delivered with a good accent and sufficient conviction, doesn’t invite explanation – the sound or the look is sufficient to convey a sophisticated dissatisfaction with life and all others who live it. But if you’re curious, look it up on the internet and you’ll find the usual unilluminating squabble about what Jean-Paul really meant. Such is continental philosophy.

In actual fact, as the web tells us, it’s a character in one of Sartre’s plays (No Exit) who delivers the line, and it’s longer and more qualified –  ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’

Well, one knows what he means. We’re always at our most existentially vulnerable at breakfast, too sensitive to cope with the mundane or to deal with idle chatter. Better silence, a harp, a serious newspaper, a railway timetable, or a large utility bill. Best of all, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

But if Sartre had travelled as much as I do and spent as much time in airports and planes, he would have written it differently. ‘Hell is other passengers.


If you’re a frequent traveller you’ll recognise these unlovable traits, perhaps in others, perhaps in yourself.

Check In

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who argue about baggage or check-in charges. They can’t win. They should have read the terms and conditions.
  • Whose bags are too heavy and they’re repacking their intimate items in front of you
  • Who hang around for pleasantries or details of their connecting flights when they should simply take their boarding cards and leave


I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who take off their shoes when they haven’t been asked to
  • Who ignore all the signs and start taking out their laptops or taking off their jackets only when they actually get to the machine
  • Who walk through the x-ray arch with a watch or a necklace on
  • Who push their way to the front of the queue on the mad pretext that their flight is about to leave. You usually find they’re leaving on a later flight than yours
  • Who are just slow in their movements

On the Way to the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who amble at an elderly pace along the middle of the moving walkway, or, worse still, stand entirely still and block you with their luggage

At the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who’ve put their passport or boarding card in an inner pocket or a bag and can’t find them when they’re needed
  • Who are queuing for the wrong flight
  • Who queue. What’s the point?

In the Plane

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who obstruct the aisle whilst they stow their bags and coats. Stand in a row. We want to leave on time.
  • Who won’t sit down until the seatbelt signs go on – they’re usually Italian. It’s not a party.
  • Who get up for the toilet the moment the seatbelt sign goes off. Why didn’t they go before they boarded?
  • Who take complete possession of an armrest that’s partially yours
  • Who tip their seat back when you’re eating your lunch
  • Who let their children kick the back of your seat
  • Who talk
  • Who clap when you’ve landed safely. Don’t they know how easy it is to fly a plane? Nowadays you just type in the coordinates.
  • Who push their way up the aisle when it’s time to get off, instead of letting everyone exit row by row

Passport Control

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who stand in the electronic passport queue when they haven’t got an electronic passport
  • Who put their passport into the passport reader in unintelligent ways
  • Who don’t know they’re not citizens of the European Union, and, worse still, those immigration officers who don’t direct them to the longer queue
  • Who stand on the STOP line until they’re beckoned to approach the booth.

At the Carousel

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who wait at a point that’s a minute or two from where the bags come out. Stupid.


Sorry about this peevish and existentially anxious rant. Yes, I had a tiring day, and no, I can’t yet afford my own plane.