Understanding How Context Transforms Your World
By Sam Sommers
Published by Riverhead Books
ebook ISBN: 9781101553794
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sommers
I took a figurative step back from the counter to assess as objectively as I could the context I was in, something that I’m pretty sure sunglasses guy and makeup lady hadn’t done. They simply saw Marta as the enemy—the flesh-and-bones representation of the faceless airline that had screwed us. And make no mistake: the airline had screwed us. They knew that a dozen of us were in the airport, making our way to the gate from another terminal. They knew this was the last flight out. Yet they still closed the boarding door ten minutes before the posted departure time, and then had the nerve to tell us we were on our own for the night.
So I understood my fellow passengers’ anger, and I could see why, in their minds, Marta deserved our wrath. Who else was there to take it out on?
But I also knew there was more to this situation. And besides, the whole righteous indignation bit didn’t seem to be working too well. The setting called for more than just a knee-jerk emotional response. This was a social puzzle waiting to be solved.
From the wide-lens view of the situation, Marta didn’t look to me like a heartless automaton. In her mid-to-late thirties, she wore a wedding band and a heart-shaped locket—at least somebody somewhere found her lovable. She looked haggard; she had probably spent a full day being berated for gate decisions she hadn’t made and policies she hadn’t created, and the job was becoming even more difficult as the night grew long and the passengers more agitated. She was the airline’s sacrificial lamb, designated to stand there and absorb our abuse so that the rest of the company didn’t have to. Accordingly, she eyed me warily, resigned to the verbal and emotional onslaught that I would inevitably bring as the next person in line.
I recognized that I needed to shake things up, to exaggerate the contrast between my approach and that of the passengers before me. I started by acknowledging the unpleasant circumstances in which we both found ourselves. “Hi, how are you?” I asked in the friendliest voice I could muster. “Look, I know that this isn’t your fault and that you’re having just as long a night as we are.”
Marta blinked, unmoved. She said nothing.
“But put yourself in my shoes, too,” I continued. “The airline gave us an itinerary with a tight connection. They knew our first plane was a few minutes late and that this was the last flight out, and they still made a conscious decision not to hold the plane. Fine. I get that.”
Marta’s eyes widened just a bit. She looked confused by the direction the conversation was taking.
“I really do,” I said calmly. “It costs money each minute the plane is at the gate, so it’s cheaper to pull away than to wait for a handful of passengers. We came out on the short end of the financial analysis, and I can live with that. But now the airline has to deal with those of us on the short end, right? I’m not asking for a refund. Just a hotel room. It’s the right thing to do and the airline still comes out ahead.”
“Mr. Sommers,” Marta interjected as if on cue, “the issue is that we can’t provide a hotel because your first flight’s delay was weather-related.”
“I understand that policy,” I responded in as rational a tone as I could. “And it even makes sense to me in most cases. But what happened tonight was a little different, no? Our first plane was only a couple of minutes late. We got to the gate here before the scheduled departure time. The airline just didn’t feel like waiting for us, and weather really had nothing to do with it,” I offered.
Marta had softened a tad, but she remained unbowed, sticking to her script: “I’m sorry, sir, but that’s our policy. My hands are tied.”
Methodically, I probed further. “Well, there must be something you can do. You must have some discretion. I can’t believe you’re going to make the older woman behind me spend the night in the airport,” I argued, conveniently overlooking that this purported concern for my elders hadn’t been enough to compel me to offer said woman my spot at the front of the line.
“Well, we make exceptions in special cases, of course. If you were in a wheelchair or were ill, I could give you a voucher,” she admitted. “But you don’t seem ill, Mr. Sommers,” she said with the knowing smile of someone who realizes that she’s winning the argument.
I smiled back. I wasn’t ill. But I did now have a better grasp of the situation. Marta wasn’t hard-hearted or even unreasonable. In fact, I was even starting to like her a little. In a different setting—next to her on the bus or at the grocery store—I would have found her to be pleasant or at the very least innocuous. But tonight she was an employee toeing the bottom line. She was just following procedure. And our civil conversation had gone on long enough to reveal one of the loopholes in that procedure.
“No, I’m not sick,” I agreed. I took a deep breath and then plunged forward. “My wife, however…” I said, pointing to the bench where she was now waiting with our bags. “She’s…two months pregnant,” I stammered, my voice now in a near whisper.
part three of Situations Matter appears here tomorrow. If you’re enjoying this selection from the Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club, go to your local library or better still, Buy the Book