“Wait until you stop screaming”: Shades of sensemaking with Southwest Airlines

One of my photos from Southwest Flight 812.

After a 35+ minute boarding process, sitting in a metal tube, roasting in the 114-degree Phoenix heat, sweating in the stagnant air, I admit, I wasn’t in the best mood. The flight attendant crabbed at me about my suitcase not fitting in the overhead (for the first time in 80+ trips). A bin the back of the plane wouldn’t shut so maintenance was called. Steam seemed to rise along with tempers in the cramped cabin.

Finally, problems mended, doors shut, engines on, air flowing, mood mellowing. Until the flight attendant began her safety spiel. Now, I love me some humor, don’t get me wrong. I especially appreciate flight attendants who can poke fun of protocol and insert some energy into the speeches that they must give hundreds of times each month. But for some reason, I felt very uncomfortable yesterday particularly when she got to the part about oxygen masks.

Commonly I hear flight attendants joke about securing masks. It usually goes “Please secure your mask first and then secure masks on any children flying with you, or any adults acting like children.” Sometimes they add if you’re flying with two children, pick your favorite. (That does make me laugh.) Yesterday, however, she said something like, “If the oxygen masks drop, wait until you stop screaming and then secure them…”

Wait until you stop screaming.

Me thinks she’s never experienced a significant emergency event before. I was so bothered* by the comment, that I contemplated talking to her after the flight and disclosing my intimate knowledge of in-flight oxygen mask securing. I didn’t, but it got me to thinking about sensemaking (see here for the long definition).

Research with emergency workers shows that people often use humor to make sense of their jobs. Sometimes humor helps folks to understand horrifying circumstances (think gallows humor), distance themselves from others, or deal with boredom. In my experience yesterday, I think the humor functioned not only for the flight attendant to make sense of a monotonous task like the safety demonstration but also to help passengers through an uncomfortable boarding process. For me, the comment triggered visceral memories of Southwest Flight 812, which I still continue to make sense of almost five months on.

From a sensemaking perspective, this scenario highlights “triggers” for sensemaking and how individuals choose or bracket which events to pay attention to. I would gather that no one else but me latched onto that one sentence in the safety demonstration. Instead their meaning making was guided by the flight attendant’s jovial performance and sensegivingSo what if the plane is a hot sticky mess? This is still Southwest and we can still have fun. In that short speech (and subsequent interactions with passengers) she offered a preferred interpretation of the scene and also helped emphasize–whether intentional or not–the identity of Southwest as the “fun” airline.

More on Southwest and sensemaking later today… In the mean time, questions or comments?


* Please note that while I was bothered, this is NOT a complaint about flight attendants. I would hate to see their humor be curbed. Funny flight attendants are one of my favorite parts about flying Southwest!

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