Dog or Cat. Coffee or Tea. Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
There are two types of people in the world: people who use the armrests in public seating areas and people who don’t. Certain people are inclined to use shared armrests whenever they sit down. While I won’t go as far as to say they use the armrests every single time they find themselves in an auditorium — extraordinary circumstances and preventive situations always exist — armrest types prefer to support their chests and necks whenever seated, elbows splayed on either side of their torsos. For argument’s sake, people who use only one armrest belong to this group as well.
Armrest people are confident and comfortable with themselves. At the very least, armrest people keenly understand personal property, believing it must be claimed or earned rather than given. Armrest people don’t shy away from confrontation; they act boldly, decisively and with a strong awareness of their own needs.
The second group of people is content to sit unbraced, arms at their sides, under their bottoms or in their laps: non-armrest people. This collection of individuals evades as specific a description as their armrest counterparts: They harbor a range of motives for choosing not to rest their arms. Some “non-armresters” do not wish, or lack the conviction, to battle over a mutually desired object. Others feel uncomfortable placing their arms in such close proximity to strangers. Still, others fear judgment from those on either side of them: “Will they think I’m too pushy if I claim an armrest? Perhaps. It’s okay, my hand is actually comfortable here in my lap.”
Skeptics might argue the two groups are not mutually exclusive! Whether one uses an armrest or not depends on the seating situation and the person sitting next to them. This is false! In my experience, true armrest people set their forearms on the central platform regardless of whether the person next to them already placed their arms there. An armrest person myself, when I would arrive late to a seated event (pre-pandemic) and find myself bound on either side by elbows on armrests, I did not lose heart. Nearly every time — again, extraordinary circumstances and preventive situations always exist — the people next to me were content to slide their arms forward, allowing me to rest my elbows on the armrests behind theirs. With two acquiescent parties, armrest people could reside in adjacent chairs!
The first explanation for this cohabitation of elbows is that people are fundamentally good and willing to share. Cynics, however, may choose to believe a second reason: It is simply too ridiculous to argue over the use of three by four square inches of plastic. It is simply too ridiculous when a compromise can be achieved through just the slightest bit of nonverbal communication and a desire to be comfortable with one’s neighbor for the duration of the seated event.
Armrest people and non-armrest people abound in societies across the globe, even today when social distancing in most venues has graciously ensured full-access to armrests without contention. One National Geographic issue features the unique town of Harar, Ethiopia, where human inhabitants peacefully coexist with hyenas. In every other part of the country, humans deem these “beasts” carnivorous assailants, and for many years, the people of Harar did as well. The community’s legend tells the hyenas and humans killed each other until two centuries ago when in the 1960s, a farmer began feeding the hyenas scrap meat to keep them away from his livestock.
Today this role has been formalized in the position of the town’s official “hyena man.” The village also currently allows the hyenas free access to its labyrinth of alleyways; they effectively act as “garbage collectors,” cleaning up scraps of organic waste. Even further, residents cut holes in the walls surrounding the city to throw meat to the animals living outside. In the rest of Ethiopia — and much of the world — hyenas searching for food terrorize human settlements and humans retaliate with force. Both species live in constant vigilance and turmoil. In Harar, human and beast use the same armrest. Rather than rain hellfire down on the “beasts,” the people maintain a system of mutual benefit for both parties without shedding a drop of blood. Harar devised a solution because it was simply too ridiculous to try and kill off the hyenas one by one and lose their numbers in the process.
The fact that this story of mutual cooperation between man and animal seems to represent exception rather than the rule, speaks volumes about human society. History demonstrates just how quickly powerful people resort to the escalation of conflict over compromise. Admittedly, today’s leaders cannot solve today’s problems with solutions as uncomplicated as sliding one’s arms forward. Then again, maybe they can. Maybe instead of spending money and time on guns, (synthetic?) germs and steel, we can look for places to cut holes in our walls and communicate, now — in the midst of a global crisis — more than ever. Armrest behavior is a vestige of the evolutionary truth that human beings were, at one point, creatures of compromise. If we can dedicate ourselves to a culture of cooperation, we can open the doors for big change. I have hope for the future because I believe that as long as we can share armrests, we can share the responsibility for a healthy world and for peace.