FEELING AS CLUE
Men are estrangedfrom one another as each secretly tries to make an instrument of the other, and in time a full circle is made; one makes an instrument of himself, and is estranged from It also.
— C. Wright Mills
One day at Delta’s Stewardess Training Center an instructor scanned the twenty-five faces readied for her annual SelfAwareness Class set up by the company in tandem with a refresher course in emergency procedures required by the Federal Aviation Administration. She began: “This is a class on thought processes, actions, and feelings. I believe in it. I have to believe in it, or I couldn’t get up here in front of you and be enthusiastic.” What she meant was this: “Being a sincere person, I couldn’t say one thing to you and believe in another. Take the fact of my sincerity and enthusiasm as testimony to the value of the techniques of emotion management that I’m going to talk about.”
Yet, as it became clear, it was precisely by such techniques of emotion management that sincerity itself was achieved. And so, through this hall of mirrors, students were introduced to a topic scarcely mentioned in Initial Training but central to Recurrent Training: stress and one of its main causes—anger at obnoxious passengers.
“What happens,” the instructor asked the class, in the manner of a Southern Baptist minister inviting a response
from the congregation, “when you become angry?” Answers: Your body becomes tense. Your heart races. You breathe more quickly and get less oxygen. Your adrenalin gets higher.
“What do you do when you get angry?” Answers: Cuss. Want to hit a passenger. Yell in a bucket. Cry. Eat. Smoke a cigarette. Talk to myself. Since all but the last two responses carry a risk of offending passengers and thus losing sales, the discussion was directed to ways that an obnoxious person could be reconceived in an honest but useful way. The passenger demanding constant attention could be conceived as a “victim of fear of flying.” A drunk could be reconceived as “just like a child.” It was explained why a worker angered by a passenger would do better to avoid seeking sympathy from co-workers.
“How,” the instructor asked the class, “do you alleviate anger at an irate?” (An “irate,” a noun born of experience, is an angry person.) Answering her own question, she went on:
I pretend something traumatic has happened in their lives. Once I had an irate that was complaining about me, cursing at me, threatening to get my name and report me to the company. I later found out his son hadjustdied. Now when I meet an irate I think of that man. If you think about the other person and why they’re so upset, you’ve taken attention off of yourself and your own frustration. And you won’t feel so angry.
If anger erupts despite these preventive tactics, then deep breathing, talking to yourself, reminding yourself that “you don’t have to go home with him” were offered as ways to manage emotion. Using these, the worker becomes less prone to cuss, hit, cry, or smoke.
The instructor did not focus on what might have caused the worker’s anger. When this did come up, the book was opened to the mildest of examples (such as a passenger saying, “Come here, girl!”). Rather, the focus was kept on the worker’s response and on ways to prevent an angry response through “anger-desensitization.”
After about ten minutes of this lecture one flight attendant in the next to last row began tapping her index finger rapidly on her closed notebook. Her eyes were turned away from the speaker, and she crossed and recrossed her legs abruptly. Then, her elbow on the table, she turned to two workers to her left and whispered aloud, “I’m just livid!” Recurrent Training classes are required yearly. The fact that a few fellow workers had escaped coming to this one without penalty had come to light only in the last ten minutes of informal talk before class. Flight attendants are required to come to the class from whatever city they are in at the time. The company provides travel passes to training, but it is a well-known source of resentment that after training, workers are often bumped from home-bound flights in favor of paying passengers. “Last time,” the livid one said, “it took me two days to get home from Recurrent, and all just for this’.’
Addressing a rustling in the group and apparently no one in particular, the instructor said:
Now a lot of flight attendants resent having to commute to Recurrent. It’s a bother getting here and a heck of a bother getting back. And some people get angry with me because of that. And because that’s not my fault and because I put work into my classes, I get angry back. But then I get tired of being angry. Do you ever get tired of being angry? Well, one time I had a flight attendant who sat in the back of my class and snickered the whole time I was teaching. But you know what I did? I thought to myself, “She has full lips, and I’ve always believed people with full lips are compassionate.” When I thought that, I wasn’t so angry.
By reminding the class that ease in using company passes, like the overall plan of Recurrent Training, was out of her hands, and by putting herself in the role of a flight attendant and her listeners in the role of an angry passenger, she hoped to show how she removed her anger. In fact, she also reduced the anger in the class; like the back-seat snickerer, the finger-drummer relented. The right to anger withered on the vine. There was an unfolding of legs and arms, a flowering of comments, the class relaxer came forth with a joke, and the instructor’s enthusiasm rose again along the path readied for it.