What We Can Learn from the "Elan Gale and Diane in 7A" Hoax
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.