How to not be an asshole when traveling #3: don't demand they put you in danger

You know how when there’s a car wreck you can’t help but look, even though you really sympathize?  That’s how it was at the airport on Friday with the gate right next to mine.  They had to swap out a plane to Atlanta because of mechanical problems which meant a huge delay, which means everybody was going to miss their connecting flights, which meant the poor woman at the desk was having to re-book everybody.  It was a shitty situation all around.

Well, there was one lady who was understandably displeased and, for some reason I cannot fathom, was laying into the woman hurrying to re-book her flight.  It did not matter to the screeching woman that there was a big line behind her or that the poor airline employee was obviously rushing to try and mitigate the inconvenience to the extent she was able.  Nope!  She just stood there berating the woman trying to help.

I just wondered what this woman wanted.  Did she think the gate worker has the power to fix the plane?  Does shit never break in her life?  Did she want them to put her on a plane that was fucking broken?  I almost wished they would!  Maybe it was just that, for some people, nothing helps a sour mood like sharing it with others.

It got to the point where I couldn’t stand it.  I hate watching people abuse service workers by exploiting the fact that those workers are bound to smile and nod no matter how poorly they’re treated.  People who are mean to service workers are the most prominent bullies in the adult population.  So I put down my laptop and trotted over, since nobody in the line behind her (y’know, the ones likely annoyed at having to wait longer while she was on her tirade) looked willing to defend the poor worker.

“Excuse me ma’am, I think I may be able to help you.”

That got her attention.  I continued…

“You seem to think yelling at the woman behind the counter will make things better.  It won’t.  This woman didn’t break the plane, and she’s doing her best to make things better as fast as she can, which is what you want.  And, frankly, it’s what all the people behind you want.  Now, I’m not Delta’s biggest fan, but they’re doing you a favor by not putting you on a plane that’s broken.  So maybe be grateful you’re just going to get where you’re going late instead of not at all, stop making this innocent woman’s job more difficult, and use this as an opportunity to gain some perspective on life.”

I turned to walk away so I wouldn’t get into an argument, thus slowing down the works even more.  Behind me, in a calmer voice, she was starting to tell my backside how she needed to get to where she was going for x, y, and z reasons.  I lost most of it beneath mild applause from some of the other people in the line.  After I sat, the woman continually shot me her best glare and occasionally mumbled a gripe about me to the person behind her, but she laid off the gate worker.  I was hoping that after she got her new flights she’d come over and tussle with me when the people behind her would no longer be penalized, but she didn’t.  She just went and plopped down and waited.

I just don’t get it.  Why are people so afraid of confrontation?  Why did none of the people who applauded me speak up themselves?  Why did none of the people who sympathized with the service worker go to her defense?

I wonder if it’s the same quality that keeps people from saying “Hey, your beliefs are silly and dangerous.”

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person. -Bill Swanson

    • Janstince

      A very smart man I used to work with once told me the most telling indication of a person is how they treat the people under them, whether that under is employment or merely a service function. Because everyone kisses the boss’ ass, but few take the effort to treat those they have power over as useful human beings.

      I’m not perfect, in any way, but I’ve tried to live that way, even when frustration has my fight-or-flight (mostly fight) instincts screaming.

  • WithinThisMind

    Berating the service worker often doesn’t help, but I can understand the frustration. Often, the problem is one that would not have cropped up if the company was run with some semblance of rationality, logic, and/or integrity.

    Take, for example, the scenario you described. If Delta actually gave a damn about customer service, there would have been more than one beleaguered individual dealing with all those customers, which would have made the entire situation run more smoothly.

    And having worked logistics a few times, I must admit, when a mechanical problem is discovered at this kind of last possible minute with no alternative around, it’s a mark of very bad management and I have fired maintenance personnel over such things. And yet for Delta, it seems to be a daily occurrence at each airport. And you just know people’s luggage got lost and their only response was a shrug and ‘we can’t do anything about that’, even though that’s a bald faced lie on most occasions, lost luggage is a result of careless handling rather than some sort of inevitability.

    Her frustration was understandable. Especially considering the price of a ticket and the additional expenses that will probably be incurred due to a delay. I know what she wanted – she wanted the careless bad management to not happen.

    She did, however, take her frustration out on the wrong person – the only person trying to help her and trying in spite of how difficult Delta likes to make it on customer service agents. Now, if you tell me she was yelling at someone on the board of directors for Delta, then yeah, I’m solidly in her court and would probably have handed her a paintball gun or water balloon launcher or something like that.

    Last time I flew Delta, it was the day after I got the phone call telling me my sister’s body had been found. They left me stranded in the airport, shipped my luggage on the wrong flight, finally got me in so late I had no one able to come get me and had to pay what little money I had on hand to take a cab or stay in the airport overnight with a way over-stimulated 4 year old and no way to resupply. I managed not to yell at any customer service people until the flight home where they tried to put my son and I half an airplane apart and the smarmy customer service agent there said ‘in the future, you should plan ahead and reserve your seats sooner’. I am still extremely grateful for the very nice young men who immediately stepped up to give us their seats and thus prevented the incipient homicide from occurring.

    So, you are right, she shouldn’t have yelled at the customer service person. But at the same time, it’s possible there was a lot else going on and that she may not be a bad person. It may have just been a straw on a camel’s back.

  • IslandBrewer

    I think it’s somehow instinctive for most people to avoid confrontation. Either that, or they’ve been subtly trained throughout life that it’s easier just to ignore something than to try to confront the problem because, after all, there are times when confrontation doesn’t actually do anything but make people more incensed. Not all the time, but frequently enough to make people ignore the problem and wait until it goes away.

    Not that the people in line were necessarily conscious of this, but I’m sure they felt that the woman at the head of the line would turn her tirade on them if they spoke up.

    I like to think in chemistry or enzymology terms – most people lack the activation energy to achieve the desired state.

    Yeah, I’d likely be one of those people in line who applauded you, and then afterwards kick myself because I didn’t do what you just did.

    Kudos to you, JT.

  • James

    The folks in line also had 2 “conflicts of interest” which could allow an intervention on their part to be seen as less than purely noble. First, they want the woman to shut up so the agent can finish re-booking her flight and they can move forward in the line. Second, speaking up on behalf of a person who will soon be performing a service for you might be seen as currying favour.

    I wonder how that may have influenced each individual’s breaking point for intervening? Was it higher than JT’s because they didn’t want to be perceived as being motivated, even partly, by self-interest? If so, would their propensity to intervene decrease (because their own delay and the possible “white knight” benefits were increasing) as the abuse lengthened and potentially escalated?

  • anthonyallen

    I just don’t get it. Why are people so afraid of confrontation? Why did none of the people who applauded me speak up themselves? Why did none of the people who sympathized with the service worker go to her defense?

    Here’s something I don’t get. How can people be so ready for confrontation?
    I can answer all 3 of your questions, though, from my own perspective. It’s because whether I am right or wrong makes no difference: in my heart of hearts, I truly believe that I’m wrong, in pretty much any given situation.

  • Dave Churvis

    So this is a pretty wild coincidence, but you mentioned a plane to Atlanta with a mechanical failure. My partner’s boss’s mother was supposed to be flying from Wichita to Atlanta but was delayed by a mechanical failure, and my partner spent a good part of Friday evening helping his boss get her rebooked and going where she was supposed to go. Were you flying out of Wichita, by chance? If so, that was almost certainly the same plane!

  • Graham Shevlin

    The best course of action would have been for the gate agent to have told the woman to lay off. When I was in Gatwick many years ago checking in for a holiday flight (always a fraught process because many vacation flyers are amateurs and act in a kind of la-la-land way in airports) we had a entire checkin line being held up because a guy was ranting at the gate agent about his seat assignments. Eventually he must have said something out of line, because the gate agent suddenly said in a very loud voice..”I’m sorry sir, what was that you just said about me?”. At which point the guy grabbed his tickets, swore at her and walked back down the line, past all of us. I thought about tripping him up, then decided to not do it, but the guy behind me DID trip him up deliberately, which sent him sprawling against all of the baggage in the aisles. We all killed ourselves laughing once he was out of earshot…

  • fastlane

    Berating workers is silly, unless they are the ones who specifically caused the problem, and it was through negligence.

    As for confrontation, I pick my battles, but I’m not shy about it if it seems the opportunity warrants. My wife and I were recently waiting at a restaurant to be seated, when a group of young twenty-somethings (I would guess) nearby, who were also waiting for a table, started playing some kind of handheld game that was bloody LOUD. Loud enough that, from about 20 feet away, it completely drowned out the conversation that my wife and I were having.

    It took several tried to get their attention (because they couldn’t hear me) and ask if whatever it was they were playing had a volume control. The guy holding the game looked briefly like he was going to tell me to fuck off, but he noticed every other person in the area also glaring at him, and decided to go outside with his friends.

    Several people nodded or silently mouthed ‘thank you’ to me after they left. But the people right next to him didn’t speak up otherwise, even though they were obviously grateful.

    People don’t like confrontation. It makes them uncomfortable, and people don’t like being uncomfortable.

  • P Smith

    I’ve never experienced nor seen such an overreaction in an airport nor missed a connection, so no comment there.

    But when it comes to mechanical problems, I’d rather they find it and I miss a connecting flight. I’d rather be late (as in time) than late (as in dead).


  • Ben Finney

    > I just don’t get it.

    Reading your other articles, I think you get it pretty well.

    > Why are people so afraid of confrontation?

    Because it’s more difficult than the option of not getting involved. We’re lazy, and we’re short-term thinkers.

    In that particular situation, I’d say there’s also the effect of authority: the airport encourages everyone to be docile and obedient, lest their inconvenience become more unpleasant.

    > Why did none of the people who applauded me speak up themselves? Why did none of the people who sympathized with the service worker go to her defense?

    That’s a nasty condition known as “diffusion of responsibility”. The good news is that one person speaking up, as you did, can embolden observers to do so in future.