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A guide to approaching troops at the airport

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
Travelers clap for service members at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Travelers clap for service members at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
  • Don't get too personal or force a gesture on a service member
  • Do nod or smile or say, "Thank you for your service"
  • Approach service members as you would other travelers: Respect boundaries and time

(CNN) -- Encountering members of the military at the airport inspires many travelers to express appreciation. Is there a right way for civilians to show gratitude in one of the only places many Americans rub elbows with uniformed service people?

Military and civilian worlds meet at the airport

CNN asked Anna Post, an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute, for some tips. Following is an edited version of that conversation:

Is there a rule of thumb for showing appreciation to members of the military?

It could be anything from sort of a nod of acknowledgment and a smile. It can be as simple as that if you catch their eye in passing. You can also always flat-out say, "Thank you for your service."

Those are probably the two classics that won't serve you wrong. It's not that you can't engage someone in conversation, but you do need to be mindful of respecting someone else's time and in some cases privacy, too.

Their life is not an open book for you just because they're in the service. It doesn't mean that you can't strike up a chat, "Oh, where are you headed off to? Where are you based?" Just be mindful that some military personnel can't answer that question and others may, just like the rest of us, want a little time to themselves while traveling.

Is there a wrong way to do this?

I think the best way to do it is not to force it. Don't elbow your way through four people to do it. Try to let it happen naturally if you're passing them or if you're seated next to them on an airplane.

I was in the San Antonio airport waiting for a flight recently and a service member was returning home and his family was all there. And when he got off and they were hugging, everyone started clapping. And I thought that was really lovely.

If you want to strike up more of a conversation, in many ways it's almost like any other traveler: Respect boundaries, time and privacy.

I think a wrong way of going about it would be to get very personal or to get opinionated about some of the politics of military engagement. I think we've learned not to take out our political frustrations on those who are serving their country at risk to their own lives. I think we've learned to respect that and treat that separately from anything else.

And I think that that's appropriate. These are not people with whom you need to be venting your political views. And I have not heard stories of this ... I'm just saying that would be one place I could see a riled-up, frustrated traveler going, and it would be the wrong place to go!

What about giving up a first class seat to a service member or paying for a meal? Is there any awkwardness to skirt there?

I think it's always a lovely gesture if you would like to do that. But it needs to be a gesture and it also needs to be a question not a fait accompli, not 'I've already done this for you.' Because they may feel uncomfortable accepting or in some cases they may not be allowed to accept.

If this is something you think they might appreciate, you can offer. Just be prepared that they may say no, and leave it at that.

Are there signals that travelers should pick up on from military personnel who don't want to be bothered?

I think avoiding eye contact or turning away. You know, maybe if you're on a plane and they immediately turn and look out the window and their shoulder is to you. Those are all signs that someone is looking for a little quiet time.