The list of the stresses, indignities, and perceived injustices airline travelers are expected to accept as a matter of course these days can be overwhelming. Rigorous security procedures, flight delays and cancellations, anxiety about flying — any one of these makes it difficult to maintain one’s cool. But the real test of civility comes at 34,000 feet in the air. The days when airlines enticed passengers with the promise of comfort — meals, blankets, pillows, reading materials, movies — throughout their flying journey are long gone. Passenger, comfort thyself.

More than the lack of meals and creature comforts, the shrinking space allotted passengers sparks in-flight contretemps, as we learned this week with the fight aboard United Flight 1462. Most Americans are not comfortable being up close and personal with strangers. We prefer two to three feet of personal space around us. But the average airline seat is just 17-18 inches wide, making physical contact with the stranger next to you almost inevitable. Legroom averages 30-31 inches, a one-size fits all solution that practically guarantees discomfort for most passengers. Many of us grin and bear it, keep a sense of humor, and — even in the small space allotted to us — try not to impact the comfort and space of fellow passengers who are in the same boat — er, plane.

Enter the anti-recline device. It’s a clever solution in theory, but a really bad idea in practice.While there is no Federal Aviation Administration rule banning these devices, there should be. Most major airlines rightfully have taken that step. Anti-reclining devices infringe on the rights of a passenger to use the full range of the paid-for seat. There is no polite way — despite the little “etiquette” cards that come with the device — to assume control over another passenger’s seat. Attaching such a device to inhibit the use of the recline feature is rude and almost guaranteed to start hostilities.

The bottom line is this: It’s your seat to recline if you wish. But how you go about it can make a big difference in the reaction of the passenger behind you. It is considerate to recline your seat only partway, or ask whether the affected passenger minds if you recline all the way. Engaging the person behind you may be all that’s needed for a friendly takeover. In either case, recline slowly to avoid banging his knees or tray table. Slamming your seat back the minute it’s permitted is the airplane equivalent of a slap in the face. If you’re the one being squeezed, calmly and pleasantly ask the person in front of you if she could move her seat back up a little or recline later. “Would you mind not reclining all the way?” A little communication, a little negotiation — reasonable people will usually work out an acceptable compromise.

None of this happened on United Flight 1462. Instead, two passengers lost it after a man attached an anti-recline device to the seat in front of him. The woman in that seat complained to a flight attendant (appropriate move), who asked the man to remove the device, which is not permitted on United flights. He refused, clearly spurning the “follow all posted signs, placards, and crew member instructions” rule. The woman then dumped water on the man (inappropriate, childish and inflammatory move, needless to say). The passenger with the device brought us to a place where we never needed to be, and the aggrieved traveler escalated things far beyond where they needed to go.

The upshot? The pilot diverted and landed the plane at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and the two unruly passengers were booted and delivered to airport security, as they should have been. The bigger picture here is that the galling rudeness of those two passengers affected and inconvenienced an entire planeload of people. (Several planeloads, in fact, when you consider the plane was expected at another airport.) Unacceptable. Two wrongs don’t make a right; two rudes don’t make behavior polite.

Inconsiderate choices and petty bickering among adults is bad enough, making this story worth our collective disgust. But the crux here is about retaliation — not just the retaliation of the woman passenger, but also of the man, who preemptively retaliated against her reclining seat. He had no right to do so when a reclining seat, while sometimes annoying, is permitted by the airline and, with the exception of a few exit and end rows, offered to all passengers.  Good etiquette is about opting in to your environment, and by showing up with this device, this traveler was opting out as if the collective norm shouldn’t have to apply to him.

Presumptions that “I don’t have to put up with what I don’t like!” and “You were rude to me so now I’m justified in my terrible behavior toward you!” extend beyond this incident. True, this was an egregious example, but these days, too many people turn small insults into reasons to take off the gloves and get nasty with one another.

It’s tricky to advise how to handle another person’s rudeness. It’s not fair that you have to deal with it, but we all know life isn’t always fair. More important, you can’t control someone else’s behavior. But here’s the key: You are only powerless to control their behavior, not your own. Take the high road. Take a deep breath and be the bigger person. Is it unfair? Yes. But you will own the satisfaction of knowing that you upheld the decent standard, the one their failure to uphold caused you grief. There’s power in that. Falling to their level never works out well. Just ask the passengers on United Flight 1462.