ENTERTAINMENT
20/01/2019 1:00 AM AEDT | Updated 20/01/2019 1:25 AM AEDT

The Great Movie Theatre Mystery: Which Armrest Is Yours?

The question induces panic just thinking about it, and as far as I can tell, there’s been no consensus on the subject. So I set out to find one.

Getty Images and HuffPost

Throughout history, humans have engaged in great debates about public behavior, invoking fury on both sides. For example, is it rude to recline your seat on an airplane? [Cue loud arguments and hand flailing. “Yes, the mechanism is there for a reason!” “No, for God’s sake, it begins a sick cycle of inconvenience!”]

Lately, I’ve been fixated on a similar question, one that gets down to the very core of consideration. I believe hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people face the conundrum every day, sweat dripping down their backs, tension building in their arms as they participate in silent standoffs with strangers around the world. The question, to my knowledge, has remained unanswerable for too long:

Which movie theater armrest should you use?

There are several set rules governing behavior in a theater. First, you need a ticket to enter. Once you’re inside, an ominous voice usually barks at you to turn your cellphone off and shut the hell up. Smuggling in outside food, especially fast food in your coat pockets, I’ve found, is seriously frowned upon. You could’ve been arrested ― arrested! ― for recording something like 2018′s “Robin Hood” reboot in theaters, a movie you’d think they’d be happy for anyone to see.

But there’s really no set of rules, no real code of conduct, to dictate how you jockey for elbow room once you’re quietly seated, all recording devices out of sight, with absolutely no Taco Bell in your pockets. With two armrests on either side of your seat, you’re just meant to guess which one ― the right? the left? both? neither? ― is yours to claim.

The question induces panic just thinking about it, and, as far as I can tell, there’s been no consensus. So I set out to find one.

Chaos everywhere!Quora user Neil Dutta

Upon Googling theater armrest conduct, you’ll find a variety of attempts to answer the question “Which movie theater armrest is yours?” — from Reddit threads to Quora forums — but you’ll find far less than agreement.

Answers range from “both” to “it depends” to even “Chaos everywhere!

So I turned to the masses. I asked my colleague Ariel Edwards-Levy to conduct a YouGov poll, asking 1,000 willing participants about movie theater manners, including the simple question, “If you’re sitting in a movie theater between two other people, which armrests do you think you’re entitled to use?”

The result was less a consensus and more a grinding and gnashing of teeth:

In terms of left and right, just over a quarter of the people surveyed preferred the right armrest to the left, a result that could reflect the fact that more people are right-handed than left-handed. Twenty percent of participants felt they were entitled to both armrests, which, OK, who are you people? Meanwhile, 8 percent of respondents are just sitting with their arms crossed hoping against all hope they don’t graze another’s arm hair. They use neither armrest.

But the most popular response ― at 37 percent ― was simply that a lot of theatergoers were “not sure” which armrest to use. Investigation: inconclusive.

So I turned to the experts. The entertainers who put the butts in the seats. The movie stars. Over the course of several months, I reached out to a few dozen prominent individuals in the entertainment industry and shamelessly asked them (read: their publicists) if they could answer my question, “If you’re sitting in a movie theater between two other people, which armrests do you think you’re entitled to use?”

Surely, I thought, someone will answer the question.

Those individuals included:

Meryl Streep
Tom Hanks
Dwayne Johnson
Leonardo DiCaprio
Brad Pitt
Samuel L. Jackson
Jennifer Lawrence
Spike Lee
Emilia Clarke
Steven Spielberg
Ron Howard
Tom Cruise 
Emma Watson
Naomi Watts
Carey Mulligan
Nicole Kidman 
Sanaa Lathan
Kristen Stewart
Charlize Theron
Natalie Portman
Robert De Niro
George Clooney
Patricia Clarkson
Morgan Freeman
Helen Mirren
Danny DeVito
Jack Nicholson
Denzel Washington
Christian Bale
Harrison Ford
Josh Brolin
Sofia Boutella
Anne Hathaway
Reese Witherspoon
Mindy Kaling
Daniel Kaluuya
Jordan Peele

No one got back to me. 

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Christian Bale’s rep said he was shooting a movie, Harrison Ford’s rep asked if he could answer the question over email (before she stopped responding entirely) and Tom Cruise’s rep simply told me it’s “not something he can do.” This is perhaps the first impossible mission Cruise has chosen not to accept.

Undefeated, I tried some more experts, ones who would actually talk to me, including etiquette authorities Daniel Post Senning of Emily Post and Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick of The Etiquette School of New York.

Senning told me he wasn’t surprised there was ambiguity in the YouGov poll results, adding that he himself would’ve replied “unsure” to my question because it really depends on “all kinds of factors,” including the size of the people sitting next to you, whether you know them and if they’re positioned on an aisle side.

It turns out a movie theater isn’t as straightforward a public armrest space as, say, an airplane, where the people near the window and aisle can cede the inside armrests to the passengers squashed in the middle. But there are some guidelines to follow. Sort of.

“I’ll start from the place of ultimate practicality. You’re entitled to about half of an armrest,” he said. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable. You can even share an armrest with someone. You can kind of rest on it a little bit without sort of laying across it. I think if everybody were thinking about it like that as the place they were going to start from, I think that spirit of share and share alike would do us all well.

“It might be you use it for a little while and then you vacate it, someone else uses it for a little while,” Senning added, before admitting, “I don’t think there’s a set rule that I can give except it’s a shared space, so you want to be aware of the other people around you, and you want to be willing to share.”

In fact, according to Senning, we might need to rethink how we conceive of an armrest altogether. What if it’s not an armrest at all but more of a border between moviegoers.

Mind blown.

“In some ways, it’s more of a boundary between you and the person next to you than it is a space for you to occupy,” he said, “and if you can’t reach some accommodation where you’re both able to use it in turns or use a little part of it, maybe hold yourself accountable. If you are on that armrest, don’t sort of sprawl across that center line.”

Likewise, Napier-Fitzpatrick said it all depends on the people you’re sitting by, i.e. the following statements will also not contain a definitive answer. “I would say that if you have big people on either side of you, don’t use the armrest because you don’t want to touch another person if you’re a stranger, obviously. If you know the person, it’d be different.”

Hmm.

As a rule to keep in mind, she added that everyone “should only have one armrest,” and “it would make sense” if it was where you put your drink. 

OK, but WHICH armrest? And, wait, how do I know if I’m violating these very tenuous social mores? The etiquette experts told me to watch out for a seatmate who’s shifting in their seat or not paying attention to the movie. And what should I do if I encounter the 20 percent of people who feel entitled to not one but both armrests in their vicinity? Senning believes most people don’t mean to be rude (editor’s note: highly debatable) and that you can accomplish a lot with just a glance or a polite verbal address, the latter of which Napier-Fitzpatrick told me was her suggested solution.

The magic words are, “Pardon me. Excuse me,” Senning said.

And if worst comes to worst, just ask a movie theater employee to intervene. “There are people who have the authority or standing to address the situation in movie theaters. Those are ushers or theater attendants or ticket checkers,” he said. 

Right! They are the authorities! Reminded of their true sovereignty, I trekked down to a couple of neighborhood cinemas and asked theater employees and managers: “If you’re sitting in a movie theater between two other people, which armrests do you think you’re entitled to use?”

At both AMC and Regal theaters, they told me they weren’t allowed to talk to the press and directed me to call the corporate offices. Is this secret so closely guarded that it goes right to the top?

Eventually, I did get on the phone with an AMC representative, Sharon, who I think was trying to sign me up as an AMC Stubs member. “What’s your email address? Do you have a movie that you prefer?” she asked.

Personal cinematic preferences aside, Sharon brought me right back to where I started. She said there is no set code of conduct for armrests, adding, “If you’re sitting in the middle, then there’s two armrests — one to the right, one to the left — either one that you choose you can use.” 

Sigh. I’ll be sure to take her advice when I claim my membership rewards.

Some movie theaters are doing it differently these days, with two armrests dedicated solely to each seat. But the majority of theaters are still the Wild West in terms of public conduct. Humanity just hangs in the balance.

So, what do I suggest? Embrace the inescapable misunderstandings baked into our societal norms. Or, like the etiquette experts, I’d propose you be at least somewhat conscious of the people you’re sitting next to. You might technically be entitled to half an armrest on either side, but you should also be prepared to cede the armrest to a stranger with equally no idea what’s going on. When all else fails, the quickest hand may be the one that wins the day.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Nov. 22-23, 2017, among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.