KneeDefender, Mediation, and Miss Manners

A friend of mine, Ira Goldman, is the inventor of the KneeDefender, a small plastic device that fits on the tray table in an airplane and limits the ability of the seat in front of you to recline. His reason for creating such a device was the number of times his knees had been crushed by a sudden recline while penned within the claustrophobic confines of a coach class seat (and I thought “cruel and unusual punishment” had been outlawed by the Constitution).

The KneeDefender is one of those items about which no one seems to be neutral. To some it is their salvation; to others it is an outrage; to many it is a horrible sign of moral degeneracy and social decay — but one that they nonetheless find too useful to foreswear.

Since I am not very tall I don’t find the problem of legroom as acute as some. Even so I have often been prevented from opening my laptop, or even from leaning forward to fish a book out of the carry-on at my feet, by a fully reclined seat. And four hours with a seatback hovering twelve inches before my eyes does tend to make me come out feeling like I’ve been trapped in a cave. Further, on the rare occasions that I have found it intolerable enough to request — gently — that the person in front of me perhaps recline a bit less, I’ve as often as not been rebuffed, and often rebuffed rudely.

Still, using a KneeDefender seems too likely to incite conflict to make me comfortable with it, so I’ve never used mine for real. But, since being bi-coastal means I fly quite often, I did test (for short periods, just to see how they worked) many of the early prototypes as the design was being tuned, and I did contribute some engineering analysis to the design effort.

I also, on several occasions, penned responses to critiques of the KneeDefender in the media which I felt were too dismissive of the plight of those stuck behind a selfish recliner. Two of those responses are presented here.

In the first, an interviewer on the public radio segment The Savvy Traveler spoke to an expert on “conflict resolution” whose best and considered advice for resolving a conflict between those in front and those behind was…to live with the status quo; simply to let the person in front have his way. In the second, the San Jose Mercury News ran a commentary in which they invoked Miss Manners to condemn the KneeDefender as horribly rude — as if reclining your seat back into someone else’s knees or face were not. Neither letter was published.

And now for the pitch: if you want to know more about the KneeDefender, you can read about it (or order one) online at www.KneeDefender.com. There is even an entire section there about what Miss Manners actually has to say about reclining airline seats.

1 November 2003

I was happy to hear the interview with my friend Ira Goldman about the KneeDefender, and I thought the follow-on interview with a conflict-resolution expert was an inspired touch. However I take a slight exception to one of your mediator/guest’s comments, and would request that you give an alternative view some consideration if you have an opportunity to address this product and issue in the future.

Let me say up front that I am not only a friend of Ira Goldman but contributed some engineering analysis to the design of the KneeDefender and tested various prototypes on many flights between New England and California. That said, I am also short — not his target market — and somewhat conflict-averse, so I would probably never use the product myself.

What struck me about the mediator’s comments was his belief (unchallenged in your interview) that use of the KneeDefender should require the buy-in of the person in the seat in front — that they must agree to it’s use before you should consider using it. It seems to me that attitudes like that are exactly why the KneeDefender exists in the first place.

Prior to KneeDefender, the person in front had all the options and all the power. No one ever suggested that the person behind him/her should have “buy-in” before reclining the seat. It was just assumed that the person in front could recline or not, and the person behind had to live with it. The power relationship was completely asymmetrical, and the person in front had no incentive to take the interests of the person behind into account.

If the front-seaters were generally willing to discuss reasonable compromise — rather than simply asserting their “right to recline” — then KneeDefender would be unnecessary: instead of jamming the seat you would simply work it out. But most of us who’ve requested such consideration have been rudely rebuffed, not accommodated. As your professional mediator should know, in such an asymmetrical power relationship compromise rarely happens.

To me, the best way to think of KneeDefender is as a mechanism for equalizing the power between the front-seaters and the back-seaters — thus facilitating the opportunity for negotiating a compromise. From a mediation standpoint, having a KneeDefender in use means both parties have something to gain from a mediated settlement, whereas without the KneeDefender the front-seater has nothing to gain and no incentive to engage.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

3 November 2003

KneeDefender may not pass the Miss Manners test for civility but, as someone who has occasionally (and politely) asked the person in front of me to consider reclining a bit less to accommodate my claustrophobia and/or my laptop, I can tell you that the most common response is no closer to Miss Manners’ ideal. The recliners have traditionally had it their way and, with no incentive to accommodate the needs of those behind, most don’t.

The KneeDefender may be uncivil, but it falls into the category of incivility in defense of civility: it moves some of the power to the rear-seater and makes it more likely that the person in front, who now has something to gain from the process, will negotiate a mutually agreeable (and civil) compromise rather than simply — and rudely — assert his or her “right to recline”.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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