BEHIND THE SUPPLY OF ACTING: SELECTION
Even before an applicant for a flight attendant’s job is interviewed, she is introduced to the rules of the game. Success will depend in part on whether she has a knack for perceiving the rules and taking them seriously. Applicants are urged to read a preinterview pamphlet before coming in. In the 1979—1980 Airline Guide to Stewardess and Steward Careers, there is a section called “The Interview.” Under the subheading “Appearance,” the manual suggests that facial expressions should be “sincere” and “unaffected.” One should have a “modest but friendly smile” and be “generally alert, attentive, not overly aggressive, but not reticent either.” Under “Mannerisms,” subheading “Friendliness,” it is suggested that a successful candidate must be “outgoing but not effusive,” “enthusiastic with calm and poise,” and “vivacious but not effervescent.” As the manual continues: “Maintaining eye contact with the interviewer demonstrates sincerity and confidence, but don’t overdo it. Avoid cold or continuous staring.” Training, it seems, begins even before recruitment.
Like company manuals, recruiters sometimes offer advice on how to appear. Usually they presume that an applicant is planning to put on a front; the question is which one. In offering tips for success, recruiters often talked in a matter-of – fact way about acting, as though assuming that it is permiss – able if not quite honorable to feign. As one recruiter put it “ I had to advise a lot of people who were looking for jobs, and not just at Pan Am… . And I’d tell them the secret to getting a job is to imagine the kind of person the company wants to hire and then become that person during the interview. The hell with your theories of what you believe in, and what your integrity is, and all that other stuff. You can project all that when you’ve got the job.”
In most companies, after the applicant passes the initial screening (for weight, figure, straight teeth, complexion, facial regularity, age) he or she is invited to a group interview where an “animation test” takes place.
At one interview session at Pan American, the recruiter (a woman) called in a group of six applicants, three men and three women. She smiled at all of them and then said: “While I’m looking over your files here, I’d like to ask you to turn to your neighbor and get to know him or her. We’ll take about three or four minutes, and then I’ll get back to you.” Immediately there was bubbly conversation, nodding of
heads, expansions of posture, and overlapping ripples of laughter. (“Is that right? My sister-in-law lives in Des Moines, too!” “Oh wow, how did you get into scuba diving?”) Although the recruiter had simply asked each applicant to turn to a neighbor, in fact each woman turned to her nearest man “to bring him out.” (Here, what would be an advantage at other times—being the object of conversational attention—became a disadvantage for the men because the task was to show skill in “bringing out” others.) After three minutes, the recruiter put down her files and called the group to order. There was immediate total silence. All six looked expectantly at the recruiter: how had they done on their animation test?
The recruits are screened for a certain type of outgoing middle-class sociability. Sometimes the recruitment literature explicitly addresses friendliness as an act. Allegheny Airlines, for example, says that applicants are expected to “project a warm personality during their interview in order to be eligible for employment.” Continental Airlines, in its own words, is “seeking people who convey a spirit of enthusiasm.” Delta Airlines calls simply for applicants who “have a friendly personality and high moral character.”
Different companies favor different variations of the ideal type of sociability. Veteran employees talk about differences in company personality as matter-of-factly as they talk about differences in uniform or shoe style. United Airlines, the consensus has it, is “the girl-next-door,” the neighborhood babysitter grown up. Pan Am is upper class, sophisticated, and slightly reserved in its graciousness. PSA is brassy, fun – loving, and sexy. Some flight attendants could see a connection between the personality they were supposed to project and the market segment the company wants to attract. One United worker explained: “United wants to appeal to Ma and Pa Kettle. So it wants Caucasian girls—not so beautiful that Ma feels fat, and not so plain that Pa feels unsatisfied. It’s the Ma and Pa Kettle market that’s growing, so that’s why
they use the girl-next-door image to appeal to that market. You know, the Friendly Skies. They offer reduced rates for wives and kids. They weed out busty women because they don’t fit the image, as they see it.”
Recruiters understood that they were looking for “a certain Delta personality,” or “a Pan Am type.” The general prerequisites were a capacity to work with a team (“we don’t look for chiefs, we want Indians”), interest in people, sensitivity, and emotional stamina. Trainers spoke somewhat remotely of studies that indicate that successful applicants often come from large families, had a father who enjoyed his work, and had done social volunteer work in school. Basically, however, recruiters look for someone who is smart but can also cope with being considered dumb, someone who is capable of giving emergency safety commands but can also handle people who can’t take orders from a woman, and someone who is naturally empathetic but can also resist the numbing effect of having that empathy engineered and continuously used by a company for its own purposes. The trainees, on the other hand, thought they had been selected because they were adventurous and ambitious. (“We’re not satisfied with just being secretaries,” as one fairly typical trainee said. “All my girlfriends back in Memphis are married and having babies. They think I’m real liberated to be here.”)
The trainees, it seemed to me, were also chosen for their ability to take stage directions about how to “project” an image. They were selected for being able to act well—that is, without showing the effort involved. They had to be able to appear at home on stage.
The training at Delta was arduous, to a degree that surprised the trainees and inspired their respect. Most days they sat at desks from 8:30 to 4:30 listening to lectures. They studied for daily exams in the evenings and went on practice flights on weekends. There were also morning speakers to be heard before classes began. One morning at 7:45 I was with 123 trainees in the Delta Stewardess Training Center to hear a talk from the Employee Representative, a flight attendant whose regular job was to communicate rank-and – file grievances to management and report back. Her role in the training process was different, however, and her talk concerned responsibilities to the company:
Delta does not believe in meddling in the flight attendant’s personal life. But it does want the flight attendant to uphold certain Delta standards of conduct. It asks of you first that you keep your finances in order. Don’t let your checks bounce. Don’t spend more than you have. Second, don’t drink while in uniform or enter a bar. No drinking twenty-four hours before flight time. [If you break this rule] appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, will be taken. While on line we don’t want you to engage in personal pastimes such as knitting, reading, or sleeping. Do not accept gifts. Smoking is allowed if it is done while you are seated.
The speaker paused and an expectant hush fell across the room. Then, as if in reply to it, she concluded, looking around, “That’s all.” There was a general ripple of relieved laughter from the trainees: so that was all the company was going to say about their private lives.
Of course, it was by no means all the company was going to say. The training would soon stake out a series of company claims on private territories of self. First, however, the training prepared the trainees to accept these claims. It established their vulnerability to being fired and their dependence on the company. Recruits were reminded day after day that eager competitors could easily replace them. I heard trainers refer to their “someone-else-can-fill-your-seat” talk. As one trainee put it, “They stress that there are 5,000 girls out there wanting your job. If you don’t measure up, you’re out.”
Adding to the sense of dispensability was a sense of fragile placement vis-a-vis the outside world. Recruits were housed at the airport, and during the four-week training period they were not allowed to go home or to sleep anywhere but in the dormitory. At the same time they were asked to adjust to the fact that for them, home was an idea without an immediate referent. Where would the recruit be living during the next months and years? Houston? Dallas? New Orleans? Chicago? New York? As one pilot advised: “Don’t put down roots. You may be moved and then moved again until your seniority is established. Make sure you get along with your roommates in your apartment.”
Somewhat humbled and displaced, the worker was now prepared to identify with Delta. Delta was described as a brilliant financial success (which it is), an airline known for fine treatment of its personnel (also true, for the most part), a company with a history of the “personal touch.” Orientation talks described the company’s beginnings as a family enterprise in the 1920s, when the founder, Collett Woolman, personally pinned an orchid on each new flight attendant. It was the flight attendant’s job to represent the company proudly, and actually identifying with the company would make that easier to do.
Training seemed to foster the sense that it was safe to feel dependent on the company. Temporarily rootless, the worker was encouraged to believe that this company of 36,000 employees operated as a “family.” The head of the training center, a gentle, wise, authoritative figure in her fifties, appeared each morning in the auditorium; she was “mommy,” the real authority on day-to-day problems. Her company superior, a slightly younger man, seemed to be “daddy.” Other supervisors were introduced as concerned extensions of these initial training parents. (The vast majority of trainees were between nineteen and twenty-two years old.) As one speaker told the recruits: “Your supervisor is your friend. You can go to her and talk about anything, and I mean anything.” The trainees were divided up into small groups; one class of 123 students (which included three males and nine blacks) was divided into four subgroups, each yielding the more intimate ties of solidarity that were to be the prototype of later bonds at work.
The imagery of family, with mommies and daddies and sisters and brothers, did not obscure for most trainees the reminders that Delta was a business. It suggested, rather, that despite its size Delta aspired to maintain itself in the spirit of an old-fashioned family business, in which hierarchy was never oppressive and one could always air a gripe. And so the recruit, feeling dispensable and rootless, was taken in by this kindly new family. Gratitude lays the foundation for loyalty.
The purpose of training is to instill acceptance of the company’s claims, and recruits naturally wonder what parts of their feeling and behavior will be subject to company control. The head of in-flight training answered their implicit question in this way:
Well, we have some very firm rules. Excessive use of alcohol, use of drugs of any kind, and you’re asked to leave. We have a dormitory rule, and that is that you’ll spend the night in the dormitory. There’s no curfew, but you will spend the night in the dormitory. If you’re out all night, you’re asked to leave. We have weight standards for our flight attendants. Break those weight standards, and the individual is asked to resign. We have a required test average of 90 percent; if you don’t attain that average, you’re asked to resign. And then we get into the intangibles. That’s where the judgment comes in.
From the recruit’s point of view, this answer simply established what the company conceived of as “company control.” In fact, this degree of control presupposed many other unmentioned acts of obedience—such as the weigh-in. Near the scales in the training office one could hear laughter at “oh-my-god-what-I-ate-for-dinner” jokes. But the weigh-in itself was conducted as a matter of routine, just something one did. The need for it was not explained, and there was no mention of the history of heated court battles over the weight requirement (most of them so far lost by the unions). One flight attendant commented, “Passengers aren’t weighed, pilots aren’t weighed, in-flight service supervisors aren’t weighed. We’re the only ones they weigh. You can’t tell me it’s not because most of us are women.” Obviously, discussions of this issue might weaken the company’s claim to control over a worker’s weight. The trainers offered only matter – of-fact explanations of what happens to the weight gainer. If a flight attendant is one pound over the maximum allowable weight, the fact is “written up” in her personnel file. Three months later, if the offender is still one pound over, there is a letter of reprimand; if another three months pass without change, there is suspension without pay. People may in fact be fired for being one pound overweight. Outside the classroom, of course, there was a rich underground lore about starving oneself before flights, angrily overeating after flights, deliberately staying a fraction over the weight limit to test the system, or claiming “big bones” or “big breasts” as an excuse for overweight. (One wit, legend has it, suggested that breasts be weighed separately.) Officially, however, the weigh-in was only a company routine.
The company’s presumption was supported by several circumstances. It was difficult to find any good job in 1981, let alone a job as a flight attendant. There was also the fact that. Delta’s grooming regulations did not seem particularly rigid compared with those of other airlines, past and present. Flight attendants were not required to wear a girdle and submit to the “girdle check” that Pan American flight attendants recall. There was no mention of a rule, once established at United, that one had to wear white underwear. There was a rule about the length of hair, but no mention of “wig checks” (to determine whether a worker had regulation hair under her wig), which were used by several companies in the 1960s. There was no regulation, such as Pan Am had, that required wearing eyeshadow the same shade of blue as the uniform. There were no periodic thigh measurements, which PSA flight attendants still undergo, and no bust-waist – hips-thighs measurements that formed part of an earlier PSA routine. In an occupation known for its standardization of personal appearance, Delta’s claims could seem reasonable. The company could say, in effect, “You’re lucky our appearance code isn’t a lot tighter.” Under a more stringent code, those who could be judged a little too fat or a little too short, a little too tall or a little too plain, could feel pressured to make up for their physical deviations by working harder and being nicer than others. Some veteran workers ventured a thought (not generally shared) that companies deliberately tried to recruit women who were decidedly plainer than the official ideal so as to encourage workers to “make up for” not being prettier.
The claim to control over a worker’s physical appearance was backed by continuous reference to the need to be “professional.” In its original sense, a profession is an occupational grouping that has sole authority to recruit, train, and supervise its own members. Historically, only medicine, law, and the academic disciplines have fit this description. Certainly flight attendants do not yet fit it. Like workers in many other occupations, they call themselves “professional” because they have mastered a body of knowledge and want respect for that. Companies also use “professional” to refer to this knowledge, but they refer to something else as well. For them a “professional” flight attendant is one who has completely accepted the rules of standardization. The flight attendant who most nearly meets the appearance code ideal is therefore “the most professional” in this regard. By linking standardization to honor and the suggestion of autonomy, the company can seem to say to the public, we control this much of the appearance and personality of that many people—which is a selling point that most companies strive for.
At the other extreme, workers were free of claims over their religious or political beliefs. As one Delta veteran put it: “They want me to look like Rosalyn Carter at age twenty, but they don’t care if I think like she does. I’m not going to have power over anyone in the company, so they lay off my philosophy of life. I like that.”*
Between physical looks and deeply held belief lies an intermediate zone — the zone of emotion management. It was particularly here, as the head of in-flight training put it, that “we get into the intangibles.” The company claim to emotion work was mainly insinuated by example. As living illustrations of the right kind of spirit for the job, trainers maintained a steady level of enthusiasm despite the long hours and arduous schedule. On Halloween, some teachers drew laughs by parading through the classroom dressed as pregnant, greedy, and drunk passengers. All the trainers were well liked. Through their continuous cheer they kept up a high morale for those whose job it would soon be to do the same for passengers. It worked all the better for seeming to be genuine.
Trainees must learn literally hundreds of regulations, memorize the location of safety equipment on four different airplanes, and receive instruction on passenger han – dling. f In all their courses, they were constantly reminded that their own job security and the company’s profit rode on a smiling face. A seat in a plane, they were told, “is our most perishable product —we have to keep winning our passengers back.” How you do it is as important as what you do. There were many direct appeals to smile: “Really work on
* Delta does officially emphasize “good moral character,” and several workers spoke in lowered voices about facts they would not want known. They agreed that any report of living with a man outside marriage would be dangerous, and some said they would never risk paying for an abortion through the company’s medical insurance.
t Most of the training in passenger handling concerned what to do in a variety of situations. What do you do if an obese passenger doesn’t fit into his seat? Make him pay for half the fare of another seat. What do you do if the seat belt doesn’t fit around him? Get him a seat-belt extension. What do you do if you accidentally spill coffee on his trousers? Give him a pink slip that he can take to the ticket agent, but don’t commit the company to responsibility through word or action. What do you do if you’re one meal short? Issue a meal voucher that can be redeemed at the next airport.
your smiles.” “Your smile is your biggest asset —use it.” In demonstrating how to deal with insistent smokers, with persons boarding the wrong plane, and with passengers who are sick or flirtatious or otherwise troublesome, a trainer held up a card that said “Relax and smile.” By standing aside and laughing at the “relax and smile” training, trainers parried student resistance to it. They said, in effect, “It’s incredible how much we have to smile, but there it is. We know that, but we’re still doing it, and you should too.”
Beyond this, there were actual appeals to modify feeling states. The deepest appeal in the Delta training program was to the trainee’s capacity to act as if the airplane cabin (where she works) were her home (where she doesn’t work). Trainees were asked to think of a passenger as if he were a “personal guest in your living room.” The workers’ emotional memories of offering personal hospitality were called up and put to use, as Stanislavski would recommend. As one recent graduate put it:
You think how the new person resembles someone you know. You see your sister’s eyes in someone sitting at that seat. That makes you want to put out for them. I like to think of the cabin as the living room of my own home. When someone drops in [at home], you may not know them, but you get something for them. You put that on a grand scale—thirty-six passengers per flight attendant—but it’s the same feeling.
On the face of it, the analogy between home and airplane cabin unites different kinds of experiences and obscures what is different about them. It can unite the empathy of friend for friend with the empathy of worker for customer, because it assumes that empathy is the same sort of feeling in either case. Trainees wrote in their notebooks, “Adopt the passenger’s point of view,” and the understanding was that this could be done in the same way one adopts a friend’s point of view. The analogy between home and cabin also joins the worker to her company; just as she naturally protects members of her own family, she will naturally defend the company. Impersonal relations are to be seen as if they were personal. Relations based on getting and giving money are to be seen as if they were relations free of money. The company brilliantly extends and uses its workers’ basic human empathy, all the while maintaining that it is not interfering in their “personal” lives.
As at home, the guest is protected from ridicule. A flight attendant must suppress laughter, for example, at seeing a passenger try to climb into the overhead storage rack, imagining it to be a bunk bed. Nor will she exhibit any idiosyncratic habits of her own, which might make the guest feel uncomfortable. Also, trainees were asked to express sincere endorsement of the company’s advertising. In one classroom session, an instructor said: “We have Flying Colonel and Flying Orchid passengers, who over the years have always flown Delta. This is an association they’re invited to join. It has no special privileges, but it does hold meetings from time to time.” The students laughed, and one said, “That’s absurd.” The trainer answered, “Don’t say that. You’re supposed to make them think it’s a real big thing.” Thus, the sense of absurdity was expanded: the trainees were let in on the secret and asked to help the company create the illusion it wanted the passengers to accept.
By the same token, the injunction to act “as if it were my home” obscured crucial differences between home and airplane cabin. Home is safe. Home does not crash. It is the flight attendant’s task to convey a sense of relaxed, homey coziness while at the same time, at take-off and landing, mentally rehearsing the emergency announcement, “Cigarettes out! Grab ankles! Heads down!” in the appropriate languages. Before takeoff, safety equipment is checked. At boarding, each attendant secretly picks out a passenger she can call on for help in an emergency evacuation. Yet in order to sustain the if, the flight attendant must shield guests from this unhomelike feature of the party. As one flight attendant mused:
Even though I’m a very honest person, I have learned not to allow my face to mirror my alarm or my fright. I feel very protective of my passengers. Above all, I don’t want them to be frightened. If we were going down, if we were going to make a ditching in water, the chances of our surviving are slim, even though we [the flight attendants] know exactly what to do. But I think I would probably — and I think I can say this for most of my fellow flight attendants — be able to keep them from being too worried about it. I mean my voice might quiver a little during the announcements, but somehow I feel we could get them to believe… the best.
Her brave defense of the “safe homey atmosphere” of the plane might keep order, but at the price of concealing the facts from passengers who might feel it their right to know what was coming.
Many flight attendants spoke of enjoying “work with people” and adopted the living room analogy as an aid in being as friendly as they wanted to be. Many, could point to gestures that kept the analogy tension-free:
I had been asked for seconds on liquor by three different people just as I was pushing the liquor cart forward for firsts. The fourth time that happened, I just laughed this spontaneous absurd laugh. [Author: Could you tell me more about that?] Part of being professional is to make people on board feel comfortable. They’re in a strange place. It’s my second home. They aren’t as comfortable as I am. I’m the hostess. My job is really to make them enjoy the flight. The absurd laughter did it, that time.
Others spoke of being frustrated when the analogy broke down, sometimes as the result of passenger impassivity. One flight attendant described a category of unresponsive passengers who kill the analogy unwittingly. She called them “teenage execs.”
Teenage execs are in their early to middle thirties. Up and coming people in large companies, computer people. They are very dehumanizing to flight attendants. You’ll get to their row. You’ll have a full cart of food. They will look up and then look down and keep on talking, so you have to interrupt them. They are demeaning… you could be R2 — D2 [the robot in the film Star Wars]. They would like that better.
This attendant said she sometimes switched aisles with her partner in order to avoid passengers who would not receive what the company and she herself wanted to offer. Like many others, she wanted a human response so that she could be sincerely friendly herself. Sincerity is taken seriously, and there was widespread criticism of attendants who did not act “from the heart.” For example: “I worked with one flight attendant who put on a fake voice. On the plane she raised her voice about four octaves and put a lot of sugar and spice into it [gives a falsetto imitation of‘More coffee for you, sir?’]. I watched the passengers wince. What the passengers want is real people. They’re tired of that empty pretty young face.”
Despite the generous efforts of trainers and workers themselves to protect it, the living room analogy remains vulnerable on several sides. For one thing, trainees were urged to “think sales,” not simply to act in such a way as to induce sales. Promoting sales was offered to the keepers of the living room analogy as a rationale for dozens of acts, down to apologizing for mistakes caused by passengers: “Even if it’s their fault, it’s very important that you don’t blame the passengers. That can have a lot of impact. Imagine a businessman who rides Delta many times a year. Hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars ride on your courtesy. Don’t get into a verbal war. It’s not worth it. They are our lifeblood. As we say, the passenger isn’t always right, but he’s never wrong.”
Outside of training, “thinking sales” was often the rationale for doing something. One male flight attendant, who was kind enough to show me all around the Pan American San Francisco base, took me into the Clipper Club and explained: “This club is for our important customers, our million-mile customers. Jan, the receptionist, usually introduces me to some passengers here at the Clipper Club. They go in the SIL [Special Information Log] because we know they mean a lot of money for the company. If I’m the first – class purser for one leg of the journey, I note what drink they order in the Clipper Club and then offer them that when they’re seated in the plane. They like that.” The uses of courtesy are apparently greater in the case of a million-mile customer—who is likely to be white, male, and middle – aged —than in the case of women, children, and the elderly. In any case, lower-income passengers are served in segregated “living rooms.”
“Think sales” had another aspect to it. One trainer, who affected the style of a good-humored drill sergeant, barked out: “What are we always doing?” When a student finally answered, “Selling Delta,” she replied: “No! You’re selling yourself. Aren’t you selling yourself, too? You’re on your own commission. We’re in the business of selling ourselves, right? Isn’t that what it’s all about?”
In this way, Delta sells Southern womanhood, not “over their heads,” but by encouraging trainees to think of themselves as.^//Tellers. This required them to imagine themselves as self-employed. But Delta flight attendants are not making an independent profit from their emotional labor, they are working for a fixed wage. They are not selling themselves, they are selling the company. The idea of selling themselves helps them only in selling the company they work for.
The cabin-to-home analogy is vulnerable from another side too. The flight attendant is asked to see the passenger as a potential friend, or as like one, and to be as understanding as one would be with a good friend. The if personalizes an impersonal relation. On the other hand, the student is warned, the reciprocity of real friendship is not part of the if friendship. The passenger has no obligation to return empathy or even courtesy. As one trainer commented: “If a passenger snaps at you and you didn’t do anything wrong, just remember it’s not you he is snapping at. It’s your uniform, it’s your role as a Delta flight attendant. Don’t take it personally.” The passenger, unlike a real friend or guest in a home, assumes a right to unsuppressed anger at irritations, having purchased that tacit right with the ticket.
Flight attendants are reminded of this one-way personalization whenever passengers confuse one flight attendant with another (“You look so much alike”) or ask questions that reveal that they never thought of the attendants as real people. “Passengers are surprised when they discover that we eat, too. They think we can go for twenty hours without being allowed to eat. Or they will get off the plane in Hong Kong after a fifteen-hour flight —which is a sixteen – or seventeen – hour duty day for us —and say, ‘Are you going on to Bangkok?’ ‘Are you going on to Delhi?’ Yes, right, sure —we go round the world and get sent back with the airplane for repairs.” Just as the flight attendant’s empathy is stretched thin into a commercial offering, the passenger’s try at empathy is usually pinched into the narrow grooves of public manners.
It is when the going gets rough—when flights are crowded and planes are late, when babies bawl and smokers bicker noisily with nonsmokers, when the meals run out and the air conditioning fails —that maintaining the analogy to home, amid the Muzak and the drinks, becomes truly a monument to our human capacity to suppress feeling.
Under such conditions some passengers exercise the privilege of not suppressing their irritation; they become “irates.” When that happens, back-up analogies are brought into service. In training, the recruit was told: “Basically, the passengers are just like children. They need attention. Sometimes first-time riders are real nervous. And some of the troublemakers really just want your attention.” The passenger-as-child analogy was extended to cover sibling rivalry: “You can’t play cards with just one passenger because the other passengers will get jealous.” To think of unruly passengers as “just like children” is to widen tolerance of them. If their needs are like those of a child, those needs are supposed to come first. The worker’s right to anger is correspondingly reduced; as an adult he must work to inhibit and suppress anger at children.
Should the analogy to children fail to induce the necessary deep acting, surface-acting strategies for handling the “irate” can be brought into play. Attendants were urged to “work” the passenger’s name, as in “Yes, Mr. Jones, it’s true the flight is delayed.” This reminds the passenger that he is not anonymous, that there is at least some pretension to a personal relation and that some emotion management is owed. Again, workers were told to use terms of empathy. As one flight attendant, a veteran of fifteen years with United, recalled from her training: “Whatever happens, you’re supposed to say, I know just how you feel. Lost your luggage? I know just how you feel. Late for a connection? I know just how you feel. Didn’t get that steak you were counting on? I know just how you feel.” Flight attendants report that such expressions of empathy are useful in convincing passengers that they have misplaced the blame and misaimed their anger.
Perspectives elicit feeling. In deep acting, perspectives are evoked and suppressed in part through a way of speaking. One way of keeping the living room analogy alive is to speak in company language. In a near-Orwellian Newspeak, the company seems to have officially eliminated the very idea of getting angry at the passenger, the source of revenue. Supervisors never speak officially of an obnoxious or outrageous passenger, only of an uncontrolled passenger. The term suggests that a fact has somehow attached itself to this passenger— not that the passenger has lost control or even had any control to lose. Again, the common phrase “mishandled passenger” suggests a bungle somewhere up the line, by someone destined to remain lost in the web of workers that stretches from curbside to airplane cabin. By linguistically avoiding any attribution of blame, the idea of a right to be angry at the passenger is smuggled out of discourse. Linguistically speaking, the passenger never does anything wrong, so he can’t be blamed or made the object of anger.
In passenger-handling classes, one trainer described how she passed a dinner tray to a man in a window seat. To do this, she had to pass it across a woman sitting on the aisle seat. As the tray went by, the woman snitched the man’s dessert. The flight attendant politely responded, “I notice this man’s dessert is on your tray.” The dirty deed was done, but, the implication was, by no one in particular. Such implicit reframing dulls a sense of cause and effect. It separates object from verb and verb from subject. The passenger does not feel accused, and the flight attendant does not feel as if she is accusing. Emotion work has been accomplished, but it has hidden its tracks with words.
Company language is aimed not only at diffusing anger but at minimizing fear. As one Pan Am veteran recalled:
We almost turned upside down leaving Hong Kong. They call it an “incident.” Not an accident, just an incident. We went nose up and almost flipped over. The pilot caught the plane just before it went over on its back and made a big loop and dropped about 3,000 feet straight down and then corrected what happened. They pulled out at 1,500 feet over the harbor. We knew we were going to die because we were going nose down and you could see that water coming. I was never really afraid of flying before, but turbulence does shake me up now. I’m not as bad as some people, though.
The very term incident calms the nerves. How could we be terrified at an “incident”? Thus the words that workers use and don’t use help them avoid emotions inappropriate to a living room full of guests.
Finally, the living room analogy is upheld by admitting
that it sometimes falls down. In the Recurrent Training classes held each year for experienced flight attendants, most of the talk was about times when it feels like the party is over, or never began. In Initial Training, the focus was on the passenger’s feeling; in Recurrent Training, it was on the flight attendant’s feeling. In Initial Training, the focus was on the smile and the living room analogy; in Recurrent Training, it was on avoiding anger. As a Recurrent Training instructor explained: “Dealing with difficult passengers is part of the job. It makes us angry sometimes. And anger is part of stress. So that’s why I’d like to talk to you about being angry. I’m not saying you should do this [work on your anger] for Delta Airlines. I’m not saying you should do it for the passengers. I’m saying do it for yourselves!’
From the beginning of training, managing feeling was taken as the problem. The causes of anger were not acknowledged as part of the problem. Nor were the overall conditions of work—the crew size, the virtual exclusion of blacks and men, the required accommodation to sexism, the lack of investigation into the considerable medical problems of flight attendants, and the company’s rigid antiunion position. These were treated as unalterable facts of life. The only question to be seriously discussed was “How do you rid yourself of anger?”
The first recommended strategy (discussed in Chapter Two) is to focus on what the other person might be thinking and feeling: imagine a reason that excuses his or her behavior. If this fails, fall back on the thought “I can escape.” One instructor suggested, “You can say to yourself, it’s half an hour to go, now it’s twenty-nine minutes, now it’s twenty – eight.” And when anger could not be completely dispelled by any means, workers and instructors traded tips on the least offensive ways of expressing it: “I chew on ice, just crunch my anger away.” “I flush the toilet repeatedly.” “I hink about doing something mean, like pouring Ex-Lax into his coffee.” In this way a semiprivate “we-girls” right to anger and frustration was shared, in the understanding that the official axe would fall on anyone who expressed her anger in a more consequential way.
Yet for those who must live under a taboo on anger, covert ways of expressing it will be found. One flight attendant recalled with a grin:
There was one time when I finally decided that somebody had it coming. It was a woman who complained about absolutely everything. I told her in my prettiest voice, “We’re doing our best for you. I’m sorry you aren’t happy with the flight time. I’m sorry you aren’t happy with our service.” She went on and on about how terrible the food was, how bad the flight attendants were, how bad her seat was. Then she began yelling at me and my co-worker friend, who happened to be black. “You nigger bitch!” she said. Well, that did it. I told my friend not to waste her pain. This lady asked for one more Bloody Mary. I fixed the drink, put it on a tray, and when I got to her seat, my toe somehow found a piece of carpet and I tripped—and that Bloody Mary hit that white pants suit!
Despite the company’s valiant efforts to help its public – service workers offer an atmosphere perfumed with cheer, there is the occasional escapee who launders her anger, disguises it in mock courtesy, and serves it up with flair. There remains the possibility of sweet revenge.