What We Can Learn from the "Elan Gale and Diane in 7A" Hoax
On the morning of November 28, The Bachelor producer Elan Gale boarded a US Airways flight from New York City on his way back to Los Angeles via Phoenix. A maker of entertainment on television, Gale couldn't resist the impulse to pull the world into a story of conflict, drama and ultimately, justice.
Gale's fib began with a tweet about his flight being delayed. Soon, he introduced his story's antagonist, a woman who would become known to the world simply as Diane in 7A.
"A woman here is very upset because she has Thanksgiving plans. She is the only one obviously. Praying for her," he wrote. "She's telling the flight attendants that it is Thanksgiving. She wants them to know she wants to have dinner with her family."
Diane, Gale told us, had a connecting flight to Sacramento and was stressed that the delay was going to cause her to miss her connection.
Image by Rudi Riet (Flickr).
The flight attendant listening to Diane told her, "I understand, ma'am. I'm looking forward to seeing my family, too." To this, our antagonist rudely responded, "This isn't about you."
In our times, the number of people who have never seen an adult throw a fit that would put a toddler to shame are few, and at an airport, whether it's a holiday or not, the probability that we will witness such a meltdown increases exponentially. I have seen the longest fuses go nuclear before my eyes under the combined pressures of delays, lost luggage, missed opportunities, and shattered hopes. It's ugly, embarrassing and deeply unpleasant to experience and to witness, but it happens. And it happens to more of us than we'd like to admit.
I didn't pause to question the account unfolding before me because I knew it all too well. Since Thanksgiving, many commenters have questioned whether the events even happened or if Diane even exists. And Gale has now admitted he made up the whole Diane story. But I don't think it matters that we were played. As with any fiction, there is a lot we can learn about what went on between the characters in this story.
"She has been muttering 'about DAMN time,'" Gale posted after he tweeted that he and Diane had been seated for take-off. "I can hear her breathing from five rows back."
Gale decided to send her a glass of wine -- a gesture that might have caused even the angriest person to stop and consider the rest of the world around her. Unfortunately, Gale included a note.
I sent the lady a glass of wine and a note pic.twitter.com/GttnmQI25P
— elan gale (@theyearofelan) November 28, 2013
"Dear Lady in 7A," it read. "It has come to my attention that today is your 'Thanksgiving.' It must be hard not to be with your family! Please accept this glass of wine. It is a gift from me to you. Hopefully if you drink it, you won't be able to use your mouth to talk! Love, Elan."
Diane responded by frantically summoning the flight attendant. Gale too was summoning the flight attendant as well, asking for more alcohol for Diane in 7A. Gale told us that the flight attendant complied, bringing him two small bottles of vodka, but that refused to hand them to the other passenger, who was clearly becoming more upset as a result of Gale's "gestures."
"I'm going to do it," Gale tweeted next. He pretended he was going to the bathroom, but instead stopped and put the small bottles on Diane's tray. She eyed him firmly, breathing through her teeth in absolute disbelief.
The feeling of control over another person's emotional state -- a feeling known to anyone who has ever trolled anyone else on the internet, ever -- washed over Gale. He felt like he was on a roller coaster, "scared and super excited."
Diane wrote an immediate response, telling Gale, "The wine wasn't funny. The vodka wasn't funny. You're an awful person with no compassion. I'm sorry for your family that they should have to deal with you."
"Well I don't know what I'm going to so [sic] next but I've got two hours left on this flight and I'm going to retaliate," Gale wrote. He went on to describe Diane as a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, wearing "mom" jeans and a surgeon's mask over her "idiot" face. He noted he'd photographed her but wouldn't post the image until he was safely on the ground.
What he did post was a photo of the sign indicating her row and seat number, and he tweeted that he made sure that she noticed him taking this photo.
Gale considered putting his next note in his mouth and spitting it on Diane's tray as a means of delivery. We were never told how this note was delivered, but we soon learned its contents as well: "Thank you for your lovely note. The person who lacks compassion is you. We all want to get home particularly the nice men and women who fly your lazy ass around and serve you drinks (you're welcome!). Next time you're in a bad mood, stay home. I hate you very much. Eat my dick."
Once again, Gale tweeted that he heard heavy breathing and no one following the account stopped to wonder whether this might signify a person under an undue amount of stress.
The story didn't end there. In the next act, Diane wrote back, warning Gale she'd contact the authorities about his harassment. The 30-year-old producer engaged in some more name-calling and then there was silence.
Our humble narrator eventually tweeted that upon arriving in Arizona, he'd waited at the gate for Diane to disembark so he could give her yet another note, and that upon deplaning, Diane walked right up to him and slapped him in the face.
We were then told that she was restrained by gate staff and Gale was asked if he wanted to press charges. Our narrator magnanimously said he didn't, but he took pleasure when reporting the response the panicked Diane received when she asked whether she would still make it to Sacramento that day. The answer, of course, was no: she had assaulted another passenger.
The last scene showed Gale handing Diane in 7A one last note, telling her how to find him on Twitter, and issuing warning, "Maybe next time you'll be nice to people who are just trying to help,"
And with that, Gale went to spend Thanksgiving with his mother. For several days, not knowing it was a hoax, the internet discussed this story, with sites from BuzzFeed to Jezebel portraying Gale as some kind of hero, unafraid to stand up against rude people. Links to Gale's final Tumblr post on the incident were passed around, with a lot of nodding to his alleged point: "Be nice."
Again, I don't think it matters whether this event happened or not. Our reactions are telling. When the tweeting started, Gale had fewer than 60,000 followers on Twitter. Today, he has over 176,000. That's a lot of people rallying behind "be nice."
But this "be nice" we're all agreeing to doesn't apply to everyone – it certainly didn't apply to the fictional Diane.
So let's take a moment and consider what being nice really means. I offer for you an anecdote, which begins in a fashion not altogether different from Gale's narrative.
Several months ago, I was stranded in Costa Rica when the only American Airlines flight out of Liberia that day -- my flight -- broke down. None of the passengers sitting at the gate were told what was happening or why. We sat there for an hour, then another, waiting -- long after the airline had determined that they would have to fly a mechanic out to Central America to take care of the problem, something that wouldn't be possible until the next morning.
Because I know that kindness and understanding get people further than rage and because I am fortunate enough that I never have to be anywhere at any given time because I'm a writer who doesn't even need a sturdy internet connection to get the job done, I stood around talking to the flight crew in my slightly impoverished Spanish, who let me in on what was going on.
They were going to have us collect our exit visas and wait for buses to take us to a hotel, where we would remain until they sorted the issue. The flight crew warned me the hotel's rooms would go fast, and told me to book it, so I grabbed my visa and hailed a cab instead of waiting for the bus. This is why you are nice to the airline and airport crew. Because, most of the time, when they can help you, they will help you.
We were stranded far longer than anyone expected -- without luggage -- but eventually got a flight out to Texas. From there, American assured us, our group would be able to get one to California -- if we cleared customs and ran from one end of George Bush Intercontinental Airport to the other in less than ten minutes.
Imagine twenty people, many of whom haven’t had a change of clothes after being in a balmy, tropical country, running through an airport like a herd of wildebeest. That was us, the sorriest bunch you'd ever seen. Many of us were ill from the buffet that had been offered to us as a compliment at the hotel, but no one dared say a thing for fear of giving the airline an excuse to leave us behind. We just wanted to get home.
All along IAH, American Airline crews waved us through, with bright flags marking our expedited status. Until we got to the American terminal, that is. Somehow, the communication had broken down from one end of the airport to the other. Everyone working for American knew that these passengers that were being rushed through the airport were supposed to board the flight that was departing -- with the exception of the American gate agents.
We arrived breathless, on the brink of passing out, and were told that the stand-bys had already gotten aboard, that no one had told them we were coming, that there wasn't room, tough luck, we'd have to wait and see, no hotel and no buffet, not even an apology or some consolation. A passenger who exclaimed "damn it!" in dismay at no one in particular was berated by a gate agent about using "inappropriate language." He was threatened that failure to employ non-offensive language would result in his removal from the gate and subsequent American flights.
This story goes on for several miserable chapters but what stands out the most to me as I was standing at that gate desk with my composure collapsing, was the woman who came up to me with a bottle of water. She was a passenger that had come to the gate to get on the next flight. She had no reason to care about the crazed-looking woman who'd arrived at the desk like a weird cartoon running with too-long legs only to detonate like an impotent little firecracker.
That woman didn't tweet anything. She didn't write out a passive-aggressive note. She got up, walked over to me and handed me her bottle of water. "You probably need this more than I do," she said and gave me an encouraging smile.
As long as I live, I will never forget that gesture. By interjecting generosity into my life, that stranger reminded me that the situation wasn't about me, that the key thing was to calm everyone down and try to work out a solution. Her generosity enabled me to take a breath and help other passengers.
It's very easy, when one becomes stressed, to be overwhelmed with sensory and emotional input, which eats up any bandwidth we may have to look beyond ourselves. The practice of deescalation is all about helping a person transition back from that overwhelming place and into one where he or she can operate with more empathy for other people involved.
But deescalating someone to a place of empathy requires empathy. Shame and passive-aggression are not ways to do this effectively.
I am reminded of a drive up to San Francisco from Silicon Valley very recently with my partner. We had been stuck in gridlock for several minutes when he exhaled loudly and cursed under his breath.
"Are you feeling very stressed?" I asked, reaching over and lightly touching his hand. I wanted to be sure it didn't sound like a judgment or reproach.
He responded in a flurry of words about how much he hated being late, how we were meeting a group who would be waiting for us, how we only had so much time to check into the hotel before going to dinner, how being late meant possibly missing dinner and the first act of the show, which would never admit us if we were even a moment late, and so on.
I listened, letting him vent. He could have been reminded that I was in the same car and would also miss dinner and the first act due to our delay, but I recognized this reminder could be interpreted as a dismissal of his emotions, which, however unpleasant to experience while I was trying to be patient, were quite valid. It is stressful to be stuck in traffic when you have somewhere to be, with that clock on the dash looming over you, marking how little progress you've made despite the passing of time.
I asked him what behaviors he considered soothing in highly stressful situations. I'm a lot like Gale portrayed himself in his account -- when I'm stressed, I turn to Twitter. My friends on social media entertain me, distract me, and -- when the going gets bad -- they read and respond to my rants, helping me feel heard. The sense that we are being heard, especially in times of difficulty, is invaluable.
Venting and seeking distraction are two of many things we do to regulate our emotions, whether on Twitter or live. Since my partner couldn't play on his phone while at the wheel, I let him know it was okay to vent to me, or tap his fingers, or sigh melodramatically, or do whatever he wanted to do. We all know that none of these things help a situation, but we often ignore that these behaviors aren't so much about helping the situation as they are attempts to internally reduce anxiety.
One of the most important things we can do when we encounter the Dianes of the world is recognize that they are people who are having a difficult time regulating their emotions. We have several choices when we encounter such people, ignoring them being the chief among them. But if we really believe in being nice every day, as Gale stressed over and over, then what we need to do is help people feel heard first and foremost.
How differently would this story have played out if instead of sending out a tweet, Gale had described walking up to a yelling woman and saying, "I overheard that this delay may result in you missing a connection and seeing your family this holiday. I can relate to your anxiety. I have a connection in Phoenix, too. I wish there was more we could do to ensure everyone on this flight gets home for the holidays! When was the last time you saw your family?" I'll tell you how: it wouldn't have gone viral.
That's something it would do us all some good to think about.