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This question was inspired by the events that took place on the Southwest flight from Portland to Sacramento where a woman became unruly and threatened to kill everyone on the plane when she was caught smoking a cigarette mid-flight.

In one of the comments on the linked article, a person noted how calm the person sitting next to her was even as she made these threats and other people on-board and the crew had to restrain her for the remainder of the flight.

Now, if I were the person next to her I don't know what I'd do but I don't think I'd just sit there. I feel my first reaction would be to try to reason with her and calm her down but from my experience, when someone is in such a state (clearly not making logical or reasonable actions/decisions) this approach would just make her and yourself more frustrated and agitate the situation.

What is the best ways to interact with a person in an unreasonably hostile state in a situation where keeping out of it is just not an option? The goal would be to calm the person down until someone of authority can come in and handle the situation (waiting to land the plane or for a police officer to show up).

I'd equate her behavior to that of someone acting drunk and disorderly so I'm looking for answers that could be used in this aspect as well, essentially how to communicate with and calm someone who is in an immature, illogical state of mind.


A reported followed up with an interview of the woman and she could give no reason to her actions so it's still unclear if she suffers from mental illness or was intoxicated from drugs and/or alcohol.

  • @Wildbagel Please do not post answers in comments. Comments do not have the features necessary to edit or vet whatever you say here, so "...not confident in the answer" is all the more reason not to post it in comments. Thank you. – Robert Cartaino Dec 11 '17 at 23:19
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The thing is that if someone is truly being unreasonably hostile, there's a strong chance that interacting with them at all puts you at risk of being the target of their current state of mind.

If you want to say anything at all, it's probably wisest to approach them sympathetically first, so that they don't immediately shut you out. Maybe saying something like:

It's so unreasonable they're trying to kick you off the plane for smoking. I don't see why it's this big of a deal, either.

It's really important that after you address them at all that you analyze their reaction to your acknowledgement. If they still appear hostile or uncaring of what you're saying, again, continuing to interact with them further puts you at risk of painting a target on yourself.

However, if they seem to grow a little less tense feeling like someone is understanding of their plight, try to hear them out. Let them vent why they're upset. It's either going to allow them to calm down, or buy enough time for security to show up.

I'd still emphasize that saying little to nothing is the safest thing to do. If you must engage pay strong attention to their body language. You won't have the knowledge of what this person is under the influence of (mental health issues, drugs, alcohol, etc.), and incorrectly assessing the situation can put you in harms way. You even noted at the end of your own post:

A reporter followed up with an interview of the woman and she could give no reason to her actions so it's still unclear if she suffers from mental illness or was intoxicated from drugs and/or alcohol.

This seems to indicate that even the woman was likely not in control of her own behavioral state. Interacting with someone in this state is like Russian Roulette, and any IPS route you choose should be taken very cautiously.

  • +1 great answer, I would add it's very important to be genuine. (ie. honest), many people even when drunk can spot B.S. Since I find it perfectly reasonable to kick some one off a plane for smoking, I would say something like "Gee, it's a real bummer they won't let you smoke." – Dan Anderson Dec 12 '17 at 16:29
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If you don't feel confident in your ability to handle a hostile situation, don't.

One of the things that tends to escalate a bad situation is having too many novices involved, particularly in crowded public places. If you don't feel confident in your ability to handle the situation, stand aside and let someone else take care of it. Having a half dozen people jump in and trade remarks, empathize, shout down, or otherwise "help" usually makes things much worse.

There's no one size fits all solution to dealing with hostile people. Some can be talked down, some can be bought off with a beer or two, some will continue to lash out regardless of what you say or do, and on rare occasions physical restraint becomes necessary. Gauging these situations comes with experience and practice.

If you absolutely must be involved and no one else will take the lead, try approaching the situation like an uninvolved third party, with no personal stake in the outcome. Your only goal is to keep things from escalating towards violence. If that means the person chain smokes and shouts till the plane lands, that's better than physical assault. Keep calm regardless of what's said. As long as nobody gets hurt it's a happy ending.

In high stress situations it's really easy for things to get out of hand. It's not uncommon for people to respond to hostile situations with disproportionate violence. Violence should always be a last resort. Wrestling or punching a mentally unstable person doesn't make you a hero. When you escalated towards violence when it isn't completely necessary you become the aggressor.

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