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The JetBlue flight attendant who took off

As take-this-job-and-shove-it moments go, Steven Slater’s was epic. After allegedly tussling with a passenger aboard a JetBlue flight that had just landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the veteran flight attendant finally had enough. He commandeered the public address system, according to news accounts, hurled a few profanities, grabbed a beer (or beers), deployed the emergency chute and slid into infamy.

That Slater was almost instantly considered a folk hero for his dramatic flame-out shouldn’t be surprising. Almost everyone, especially those who have worked with the public in a customer service/hospitality/sales clerk position, can relate to that “snap” moment, when something has to give. Slater pulled his off with flair, achieving what most stressed workers only imagine doing.

But if workers everywhere can relate, and applaud, such actions, the fact that most people manage not to flame out dramatically raises questions about the point where patience and tolerance have run out and meltdowns happen. That, it turns out, varies — and builds up differently — from person to person, mental health experts say.

People who work in customer service may be especially vulnerable.

Degrees of personality

The pressures can trump even the most resilient people’s equanimity, says Kathleen Shea, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who specializes in workplace issues. “They reach the end of their resources.”

Why one person blows on a particular day and another doesn’t may be found after backtracking their lives, she adds. “With the flight attendant, something happened way before he got on that airplane. He needed some relief immediately.”

As the founder of Impact Learning Centers, a business training and consulting firm based in San Luis Obispo, Peggy Carlaw says there are some personality types that handle customer service job stresses better than others.

“There are people who just gravitate toward serving other people,” she says. “They can really empathize with people who are having a bad day. The ones who don’t seem able to put up with it are people who are wrapped up in the ego of their job. People who have a strong sense of me-and-my-rights don’t do well because they need to fight back and have the attitude of, ‘How dare you talk to me that way’ that worsens the whole situation.”

A short-tempered, tired or stressed person may be more likely to pop off, of course. And basic personality does come into play.

Similarly, people with less to lose are much more likely to offer an “I don’t have to take this response.” A young person with no family to support might be less compelled to take verbal abuse than would an older worker trying to put food on the table.

Further, ultimately everyone has triggers that make them see red — certain words or phrases or actions that can give rudeness or thoughtlessness extra heft.

Then comes the shifting pressures that come with trying to survive in the modern world.

“It can depend on what the circumstances of your life are,” said Judith Waters, psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

The world could be setting up more land mines, for starters. “It can be building and building,” Waters says. “You find out you owe money or you have a sick child or you had too much coffee for breakfast.... You think you’re handling all these pressures, but when something like this comes along, you fall apart.”

In the case of Slater, Shea suspects that the altercation could have had elements of public humiliation, disrespect and compromised authority — a potent combination. “This was one more time he tried to handle an unruly, demanding passenger. It’s like an instructor who is fine for the first three periods telling students to sit down, but by the sixth period when he’s said it 30 times, he explodes.”

“I don’t think that resiliency lasts,” Shea says, “if you’re under attack day in and day out.” Learning how to handle incendiary situations may be fine, but that’s not a panacea, she adds: “There’s a lot of bad behavior out there today, and I don’t think you can train someone to be a robot.”

For people in customer service jobs (ask any waiter or employee charged with answering office phones), Slater’s actions should be put in context — and somewhat excused or explained — by the current cultural climate. Civility has been replaced with rudeness; employees have been asked to do more with less money, time and resources; and too many people have a me-first attitude.

Entitlement issues

Those front-line employees often get the brunt of people’s anger and frustration. Their job is fairly anonymous (a customer knows he or she will probably never see that flight attendant again), and their answer-to-the-customer role creates the perception of second-class citizens.

“If the attitude is that the customer is always right,” Waters says, “it’s like saying we give you permission to be less than charming.”

No one may understand Slater’s situation more than writer and former waiter Steve Dublanica, author of “Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip — Confessions of a Cynical Waiter.” The book spins off from Dublanica’s popular “Waiter Rant” blog in which he chronicles, among other things, the obnoxiousness of some of the patrons he had to serve.

“While I don’t condone opening the emergency exit,” he says, “boy, do I understand it. [As a waiter] there were times when I would have popped the emergency exit just to get the … out of there.”

Many customers, he said, had what might be called entitlement issues.

“People would come in and say, ‘I want the best table in the house,’ and there were several occasions when people were actually yelling at me because they couldn’t get a table. People have a status thing.”

Carlaw says the first line of defense is often allowing the customer to vent, followed by empathizing with their plight and apologizing if necessary, then trying to find a solution. But if the customer service rep gets to the same level of anger as the customer, it only serves to exacerbate the situation.

Situations can quickly escalate into code red, she says, testing the patience of even the hardiest types.

“When a flight is delayed, who do people take it out on? They can’t talk to the pilot, so they take it out on the flight attendant.”

Take a breather

But few people have the luxury of quitting when they’ve reached a breaking point.

Unemployment is still high — and on a job search is not where most people want to be, not even the most pressured call center employee or harassed flight attendant.

So workers who can’t indulge their quitting fantasies need to take, if they can, a step back come “snap” time.

Taking a few minutes to calm down during a tense situation can work wonders, mental health experts say, although that isn’t always feasible. Telling others you need some time alone is important as well, Waters says: “I would come home after a stressful day and say to my husband, ‘Give me 15 minutes and I will be a human being again.’”

Shea suggests taking a day off if possible and letting the anger go. “Don’t let it take a piece of you.” If pressures are perpetually mounting, seeing a therapist can forestall a serious blow-up.

When getting away — or even stepping away — isn’t possible, Carlaw recommends keeping something close by that evokes calm and a happy place, such as a family picture or upbeat slogan.

What’s left? As Dublanica points out, everyone should remember to chill.

“People need to not bump others on the head with luggage,” he says. “If everyone behaved themselves on an airplane and left in a nice, orderly line, the plane would clear out faster…. One of the marks of being an adult is keeping your … together.”

As for Slater, he’s out on bail after being charged with two felony counts, including criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing. He remarked in a news story, “I think something about this resonated with people. The outpouring of support is very appreciated. I’m overwhelmed, very thankful.”

If the case comes to trial and Slater is tried by a true jury of his peers — one made up of call center employees, nurses, waiters and sales clerks — he may find sympathy on his side.

jeannine.stein@latimes.com


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