It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

As you may know, I practically live at the airport. I fly home every other week when I’m lucky, and I spend a significant amount of time observing my friends at Southwest. I’m even doing an airport-based research project this semester so I’m spending a-LOT of time with my brain engaged with all things airport. 

After 40+ flights in the last year, I am keenly aware of how things work. I know how to quickly and efficiently get through security, when and how to line up for boarding, and the rules and regs that go along with being a passenger. That is not to say that I follow every rule to a T. For instance, I think the liquids and gels requirement is asinine. I admit keeping my hand lotion and sanitizer snugly in my purse during security screening instead of in a clear quart-sized Ziploc bag. (I am quite the rebel.) I’m also aware of carry-on luggage requirements–one carry-on, plus one personal item like a purse or a laptop bag. I conveniently ignore this one, too. And the thing is, for 39 flights out of 40, I’m fine. But not today…

Although my Southwest gate agent friends tend to look the other way on personal items, today the grumpy blonde bystander decided to call me out for having a purse AND a laptop bag.
Conjure up a nasal, irritated and huffy voice: “Excuse me ma’am. You’re going to need to consolidate or I’m going to have to check that red bag.”
I tried to explain that both my purse and laptop would fit neatly under the seat in front of me, thus not taking more than my allotment of overhead bin space. Unmoved, she barked at me to step out of line and figure it out. With a huff, I gave my best steely voiced “FINE” and proceeded to cram my purse into my suitcase, praising the good lord that I didn’t pack extra shoes this trip.
As I stood aside, I watched (in horror) as person after person preceded me on the plane, potentially taking MY window seat. As an obsessively punctual check-in person (I set alarms and clock in PRECISELY 24 hours in advance), I pride myself on the ability to get an A boarding group at least 96% of the time. To see those Bs walk by was just heart wrenching.
I vacillated between mad, embarrassed, chagrined and irritated as I slid myself back into line, suitcase just bulging. With a glance over my shoulder, not making eye contact with fellow passengers who had the good sense not to comment, I removed my purse and walked down the gangway. THAT’ll show her for trying to actually enforce the rules for once.
Now, I realize I’m being completely ridiculous. She *was* just doing her job and I quite knowingly tried to break the rules (as I do every other freaking flight). But she could have accomplished her task differently? Yup. Did she need to get my back up by barking at me? Um, no. Did she need to holler and give me attitude? Not really at all.
How often do we default to cranky or bitchy in interactions like this? As I am acutely aware of the potential repercussions for mouthing back (clearly she could have detained me until the very last passenger had boarded), I stayed quiet, but it would have been SO easy to sass back. And then what? In the end, I found myself surprised that an airline that so prides itself for customer service and “fun” would treat passengers in such a manner. A please and a thank you and a neutral tone of voice could go a long way here!
And so, my research project continues. I am examining emotional displays between airport/airline employees and passengers. After days like today, it’s no wonder I have something to study!
P/S Care to share your flying experiences (or want to kvetch)? I am looking for research participants! Just e-mail shawna.malvini (at) asu (dot) edu.

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