Be nice to hospitality workers


By now everyone in the US must have heard about the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who got so fed up by the way he was treated by a passenger that he used the intercom to curse her out and left the plane. Grabbing a beer and using the emergency chute to make his dramatic exit was an inspired touch. Slater has become something of a folk hero for his take-this-job-and-shove-it action and I would not be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie about disgruntled flights attendants soon. Slater even became Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week.

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Slater was arrested and is now out on bail, facing charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief that could put him in prison for up to seven years, which seems excessive to me. His lawyer has provided more details of what happened.

Flight attendants in general have expressed great sympathy for him, saying that he did what many of them have only fantasized about. My niece worked as a flight attendant for a few years and has her own share of stories about rude and obnoxious people on planes. The following apocryphal story describes the kind of pettiness and self-indulgence that airline workers have to routinely deal with:

In my youth, I was friends with a TWA flight attendant who used to tell this tale: A fellow attendant had just finished serving dinner (so you know how long ago this was), and a woman rang her call button. “This potato,” she said to the attendant, pointing to a small baker on the tray, “is bad.”

He calmly picked up the potato, placed it in the palm of his left hand and shook his right index finger at it, saying in a scolding tone, “Bad potato. Bad, bad potato.” His attempt at humor won him a suspension, my friend said.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Slater should have done what he did and deserves the adulation he has received from some quarters, the whole episode illustrates the inequality and tension that exists between workers in the hospitality industry and the customers.

A couple of years ago my flight was cancelled due to bad weather and there was chaos at the check-in counter as a large number of people tried to find alternative flights. There was only one person to serve all the coach passengers and naturally there were long lines and delays and tempers became frayed, and some people started berating this poor woman although she was not responsible for the mess. Things got so bad that a policeman had to come in to keep some order. I was there for over six hours because I was trying to make an international connection and so was able to observe the fact that this woman did not leave her position even to get food or go to the bathroom but kept a pleasant and smiling face throughout the ordeal, never raising her voice, and standing all the time. It was only late in the evening, after everyone had left and I was the only person remaining that she confided in me that a co-worker had called in sick that day, which was why she was alone, and that she was totally exhausted. I asked her if tough days happened to her often and she ruefully said yes.

One reporter worked as a flight attendant for two days to see what it was like and wrote about her experiences. Her co-workers told her that working first class was harder than coach and that did not surprise me. Airlines themselves are partly responsible for this. In order to get people to fork out extra money for these more profitable upgrades, they have pandered to them that they are so special, giving them all manner of little perks, including laughably ridiculous ones like the little carpet near the boarding gate that ordinary coach passengers are not supposed to step on. It always cracks me up when the person at the gate announces that the proletariat is forbidden to step on that rug. Should we be surprised that some of the pampered people treat flight attendants as their personal servants?

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat those who they perceive as subordinate to them. As Dave Barry once wrote, “A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.” The notorious John Bolton, hysterical warmonger and George W. Bush’s choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations, was known to berate his staff while being ingratiating to those he felt were his superiors. He was described by an observer as the “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”, adding, “I’ve never seen anyone quite like Secretary Bolton in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people… The fact is that he stands out, that he’s got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he’s kicking.”

It is true that modern airline travel is frustrating for passengers. But that does not excuse being nasty to the people who are the public face of that industry because they are not responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, they are as much victims as we are because airlines have cut back on personnel to the minimum, requiring those remaining to work much harder and longer. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who work in the hospitality industry like waiters, flight attendants, hotel employees, and the like. These people are on their feet almost all the time, for pay that is not that great, and are required by their employers to be smiling and friendly and obsequious to everyone. And while most people are polite and considerate, because these workers deal with so many people every day, the odds are that they encounter a fair number of jerks in the course of their work day, people seeking an outlet for their own personal frustrations and demons, who take advantage of them by being abusive and rude, knowing that they have to take it and still keep smiling.

Ideally, we should treat everyone equally and well but that is hard to do in practice. But a good rule-of-thumb is that the less power that people have, the greater effort we should put in to swallow our own irritation and annoyance and be nice to them and show consideration and respect, because they have likely had a much harder day than we did.

POST SCRIPT: Anthem for Steven Slater

I remember when this song was released in 1978 that it struck the same chord with fed up workers that Slater’s actions did.

Comments

  1. Scott says

    I used to work in a hotel, but luckily was spared a lot of the abuse my co-workers got. I also delivered pizza for a few years, and was amazed at the abuse people would heap on people who handle their food. People who handle your food are the last people you want to upset, trust me!

  2. says

    I may be old fashioned but the Golden Rule is and has always been the way to go. I also think that if everyone had had to work as a waiter at some point in their lives the world would be a better place :)

  3. Peter LaFond says

    The behavior of people like John Bolten is just a reflection of the shrinking middle class. My wifes’ homeland THe Philipinnes is good example- there is no middle class quite like here, so the well off demand servitude from the not so well off. Now in the Philipinnes there is an emerging ” middle classs,” and these are the sorts of people that the upper class “hire,” to so things ie accounting, lawyer, physician- all of the college trade.
    Now these middle class people in turn will hire the next level down to do the mundane menial labour of the day ie – building and fixing things. And for some reason the middle class tends to respect the next level down and together the lower and middle class can more or less demand decent treatment from the upper class. A sort of balance of power.
    NOw here in America we see the exportation of middle class style jobs and well here were are now- pamnpered sissies demanding people bow down to them. The ironic thing is that the people who ” honor the values of the working person,” are the ones killing them reall neat

  4. says

    Who hasn’t wanted to have their own “take this job and shove it moment”? I know that I have especially during this difficult real estate market. On the flip side we’re all in this together so we much pick and choose our battle and be wise about it.

  5. says

    I heard this morning that the whole thing may have been planned in advance. If so then that is absolutely terrible. I want to believe that it was all real. Thoughts? or have you heard anyting?

  6. says

    Gulf Shores,

    I don’t know about advance planning but it seems that investigating authorities are beginning to doubt that there ever was any confrontation with a passenger.

    Let’s see how this story develops, not that it is of any real importance in the grand scheme of things.

  7. says

    I can totally understand why Steven Slater did what he did. I work 3 jobs to make ends meet. I work with animals and granted, most people I meet in the course of my day are pleasant and understanding, but there is always the one who thinks their needs are paramount and that I am a lower life form than their cat or dog. I’m no different to these people, I just happen to have a job that is perceived by some as lower status.

  8. says

    I have no time for people who are rude to other people just because they think they can get away with it.It shows that they are really not nice people. Anyone of good character treats others with due respect, no matter what job they are doing.Sometimes people in this type of job are left in very difficult situations that they have little control over.

  9. says

    People just need to relax a little. What’s the problem for being nice to people instead of being rude to each other. What do you possibly have to gain from it? Isn’t it better to smile and be nice to people instead of growling and being mean to each other? What is this world coming to? I applaud Steve for standing up and showing the world what we are all missing.

  10. says

    Now, I am not a religious person, but I do believe in morals and common-sense standards of behavior.

    Where and when it all went wrong is irrelevant.

    Perhaps it is the fast-paced lifestyle that is so prevalent that is to blame, patience have worn thin.

    I still find it easier to be happy and pleasant, than it is to be grumpy and miserable. Far less energy is expended!

  11. says

    I agree with Steve and Nancy above. We have got to use some common sense. The world is a way better place when people are courteous to each other. It is easier to smile than frown so let’s get back to the golden rule people.

  12. says

    I am constantly amazed at how many hospitality workers thank ME, when I am polite to them during some minor crisis, like the plane being late, or food delivered late or the bathrooms being out of order. If they are that appreciative of someone being polite, I can only imagine the guff they must be having to take.

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