When the Flight Attendants Stop Smiling


First, think on this – “We judge ourselves based on our intentions. We judge each other based on observable behaviors.” Keep it in mind. We’ll come back to it.

If you are, at all, accustomed to air travel you probably have a series of things you look for whilst flying from point A to point B. Things like:

  • How close is the lavatory? By the way, does anyone else call their bathroom a lavatory?
  • How old does this plane look?
  • Did I remember my headphones? And, of course …
  • No matter how many times I fly, did I sit on my seatbelt again?

I don’t fly as much as those that do it for business every week or month, but I’m up there enough to know that there are a few things I look for in particular. One, I don’t have a thing with heights, but I need to know which way is up. If we’re in a cloud bank and I don’t know which way the ground is, that’s when I get discombobulated.

The other thing is turbulence. I’ve gotten to where I can handle minor bumps and whatnot but when things start to heat up, I usually look at the flight attendants. These folks are trained to smile through anything, to keep passengers calm and collected. If they’re not smiling, I usually tighten my seat belt and hang on. If the captain is telling flight attendants to be seated and strap in, that’s not good. That means he doesn’t want one of them to wind up on the ceiling.

It’s that observable behavior that gives me all kinds of information. On a flight from Dallas Love Field to San Antonio a few weeks ago, a short hop, we hit some rain on the way in and things got a little rough. At one point, after a particularly hard dip, a trim piece of the overhead bin actually fell off. The flight attendant seated nearby not only wasn’t smiling, but her eyes got as big as quarters. That observable behavior told me we were in a rough spot of turbulence and that we were either on an old plane and/or the flight attendant was wondering how many people saw that.

Now, back to our original thesis – “We judge ourselves based on our intentions. We judge each other based on observable behavior.”

Another way to interpret that statement is that non-verbal communication plays a huge role in our day-to-day interactions with friends, co-workers and family. It also means that if we’re really searching for understanding of any given statement or situation, we need to ask deeper questions and avoid taking anything on face value (no judging books by covers).

Look for the question behind the question. Sadly, many in our society are afflicted with the inability to be specific. Our friends at Disney call this the “3 o’clock parade” syndrome. When guests ask Disney cast members “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” are the actually demonstrating an inability to tell time, or are they maybe asking what time does the 3 o’clock parade (that starts in another part of the park) get to where I’m standing right now. Getting to the question behind the question can make all the difference in any given interaction but especially a customer service encounter.

I’m proud to work for a city organization that knows what time the 3 o’clock parade starts.

That is to say, the vast majority of our people go above and beyond when interacting with the public and with each other. How many people expect to have a good encounter when visiting City Hall? Probably, not many. We have people that take great delight in turning that expectation on its head and sending people away from their encounter with a positive experience and a great story to tell.

Word of mouth. Sometimes, it’s the most reliable form of feedback.

There’s also a cautionary tale in judging ourselves based on our intentions. For many of us, that’s all that matters. If I know my intent is honorable, then does it matter what other people think? Well, it can matter. To that end, when heading into an important meeting or giving a presentation or any other interpersonal happenstance that has significant implications, it’s always a good idea to have a dry run. Get with someone you trust, who doesn’t mind telling you the truth, and get their critical feedback. Be certain that there’s no body language, unintentional references or other subtle cues that could betray your positive intent.

So, what time does the 3 o’clock parade start in your agency?

Tom Bryson is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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