Why has the JetBlue flight attendant story captured everyone’s imagination? Because the whole country wants to take the emergency chute.
You know the story: A steward named Steven Slater, after a difficult flight, apparently got fed up, grabbed the intercom, cursed out passengers, and made a speedy and unauthorized exit, activating and sliding down the emergency chute, some say with a beer in each hand. Then he drove home. He says passengers were unruly; two Wall Street Journal reporters, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Sean Gardiner, tracked down passengers who said he was unruly.
However it turns out, the story struck a chord and hit a nerve. MySpace and Facebook pages sprang up, t-shirt makers peddled T-shirts saying “Quit Your Job With Style” on one side and “I’m With Slater” on the other. On one of the Slater pages on Facebook a thread asked “What job should Steve do next?” and ironic answers flooded in: “talk show host,” “anger management counselor,” “air traffic controller.” A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll suggested Mr. Slater’s act reflected broad public anger, and pundits seized it as a political story: “JetBlue nation” will throw the bums out in November.
But it doesn’t strike me as a political story. I think it’s a cultural story. American culture is, one way or another, business culture, and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial nation. Now we are a service economy. Which means we are forced to interact with each other, every day, in person and by phone and email. And it’s making us all a little mad.
I’m not sure we’ve fully noted the social implications of the shift from industry to service. We used to make machines! And steel! But now we’re always in touch, in negotiation. We interact so much, we wear each other down. We wear away the superego and get straight to the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.
Here’s why. At the same time we were shifting, in the past 30 years, to the more personal economy of service, we were witnessing and took part in a revolution in manners. We tore them down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore.
The result is that everyone is getting on everyone’s nerves. We’re all snapping the bins shut on each other’s heads. Everyone wants to tell the boss to take this job and shove it. Everyone wants to take a good, hard, last look at the customer and take the chute.
Some extremely small examples from my own experiences the past few weeks. I see something in the window of a store, walk in planning to daydream and scan the merchandise. The minute I walk in the door, the onslaught begins—the salespeople with their fierce, insistent smiles. “How are you today?” They are taught that if they engage, they will make a sale. But no one taught them to take a courteous tone. “What are you looking for today?” I can’t go that quickly from my thoughts to her reality, if that’s the word. “Are you looking for anything?”
I’m looking for the exit. I’m looking for the chute.
I wrote of the same experience a few years ago and got a letter from a saleswoman in a big department store. She said, I paraphrase: “You misunderstand, it’s not that we haven’t been taught how to behave, it’s that we have. We are trained to make and maintain eye contact, we are taught to intrude, we are instructed to act in a way that people used to recognize as rude behavior.”
Thank you, service economy.
This week there was the woman on Madison Avenue holding that dread thing, the clipboard. They want you to sign something in favor of a cause, or sign up for something. She was a big girl, 6 feet tall, with 10 arms. She saw me coming 15 feet away and placed herself in the middle of the sidewalk so I’d have to speak or go around her. “How are you today?” she barked, demanded. It was embarrassing not to reply and made me feel vaguely guilty, which is the way they want you to feel so you’ll give up and engage. As I passed I smiled and wordlessly shook my head. She did a mock eye rolling. “Oh. Sorry!”
She was not, I think, unaware of her aggression. She just wasn’t embarrassed by it.
In a hospital waiting room this week, there was a woman at the desk with 13 cowed patients sitting in rows of plastic chairs along the wall, I among them. She was on the desk by herself, and was very busy. She was also not in a good mood, clipped to the point of curt, unwilling to give people a sense of when she might turn to their requests. She gave everyone Dead Face. Dead Face is expressionless, impassive, immovable. You cannot push around Dead Face. She will lose your records. We bowed to Dead Face. She’s in the service economy too.
Longtime readers know how I feel about air-security theater, but it’s gotten worse recently, and I mention it because this is the public service part of the service economy. Ten days ago in Washington, at Reagan National, I was put through the new machine, the X-ray thing that also seems to function as a mammogram—arms up, stand up straight. This was followed by the TSA agent who was inappropriately familiar as she patted me down.
When I’d first gone through the machine and then been manhandled, a month before, I was so taken aback that I blurted “Wow, that was embarrassing.” I said it softly, in a way that invited mild commiseration of the “I know, I’m sorry I have to do this” sort. Instead, with full Dead Face, the TSA woman said, “Have a nice day.” As I walked away I thought: She has been taught by consultants how to “handle” people like me. Her instructions are that if anyone accepts her ministrations with anything but passive surrender, she is to show she is impervious and keep the line moving. She is probably taught this in a class given by government contractors who are paid by taxpayers to handle taxpayers. Meaning I pay her to be rude to me.
“I pay them to be rude to me” is kind of an anthem of the service economy.
To an unusual degree now people now feel they have to protect themselves from each other. You have to put forward the rules of behavior, every day. When the person from the bank on the phone says, “Margaret, I’d like to talk to you about your account,” you have to say, “I’m sorry but I didn’t invite you to call me by my first name.” Or perhaps it’s, “I didn’t really want a freelance mammogram, and I’m not sure it’s right that you give me one,” or, “I have to tell you that it’s not polite to block my path and attempt to force a conversation.”
But such vigilance is tiresome. Most of us give up and accept the thousand daily breaches and violations.
In a service economy in the age of no manners, everyone gets on everyone’s nerves. Everyone wishes they could take the chute. Everyone understands someone who did.