Sunday, September 09, 2007

Is it Personal?

Ever had one of those experiences where you feel like you're being singled out for unfair treatment? Where there couldn't possibly be any other explanation for what is happening to you other than that someone is deliberately trying to be mean?

I recently took a long flight to NY and back and had the good fortune to find myself sitting in first class. I fly the same airline all the time and am always quite impressed with their in flight service. I don't always fly first class, but whenever I have, the service on this particular airline is top notch. So, I was pretty surprised when on my two recent flights, I had really negative service experiences.

On the first flight, the flight attendant consistently by passed me when he was serving something. If he was refilling water glasses, he would serve the guy next to me, get distracted and then go on to the next row and not return to me (without me asking later). It happened with water. It happened with wine. It happened with the bread basket. I had 2 empty glasses sitting on the arm rest between me and my neighbor for almost 2 hours of the flight. The flight attendant passed by at least 10 times, picked up used items from all the other passengers, and left mine sitting there. At one point, he came by with a tray of water glasses. He offered a glass to my seat mate. He declined. My seatmate (not the flight attendant) asked me if I'd like a fresh glass of water. I looked at the attendant right in the eyes, smiled and said, "Yes, I would, but could you take these first?" referring to the empty glasses. He sort of sneered at me and said, "I'll be right back." He continued serving the water to the other passengers, came back by to get my empties and didn't bring me a fresh glass of water. It was bizarre! I have to admit, it was a little hard to not take it personally. I mean, this guy really seemed to have an issue with me, although I couldn't possibly imagine what it might be!

What was even more remarkable was that I had almost the same experience on my return flight. Different flight attendant, but it was, once again, as if I were invisible, or as though I had really offended this guy some how. I was passed over for water refills, and the funniest interaction occurred over the 'bread service.' The flight attendant came by with the bread basket. The routine is, you point to the piece of bread that you want, and the attendant uses tongs to put it on your bread plate. So, I pointed to a lovely large piece of garlic bread to go with the pasta I was having for lunch. Instead of giving me the piece of bread that I had pointed at, the flight attendant grabbed a piece of the same type of bread, but it was about 1/5 of the size of the piece that I had selected. I kid you not, this piece of bread was a tiny little, rock hard heel of a french bread loaf. It was 2 small bites. The tiniest piece of bread I've ever seen! I must say, it was not something that should have been served to anyone. I literally cracked up as the guy walked away. WHAT IS UP? I thought to myself. Have I offended him in some way? Why is he being such a jerk? What is his problem?? I was feeling picked on... and somewhat victimized.

I was having trouble seeing it as a coincidence that both these male flight attendants had copped such an attitude with me. People usually like me and respond well to me. I'm polite and grateful when people are taking care of me. So it was really confusing why I was (seemingly) the only one having this negative experience with these flight attendants.

I did observe one incident with my seat mate on the second flight that helped me turn the corner in my head about what was going on. He had asked the attendant for coffee 3 times and hadn't been served. The third time he asked he looked at me and said, "What is wrong with that guy? Something is up with him. He obviously has a problem!" The flight attendant was not crazy busy or anything. And my seat mate was 3/4 of the way through his dessert before he finally got his coffee.

Now, its not that I was happy to see that someone else was being frustrated by the guy's lack of attentiveness, but it was a bit of a relief to realize that it was not limited strictly to an interaction between he and I!

That's when I started to 'get a grip' on my personalization of the experience. Who knows what is going on with either of these men? We can't possibly know. I may have just happened across two guys who are going through something rough in their lives. Their struggles might have manifested in them being distracted and a bit irritable. One thing I'm sure of is that their behavior didn't have anything to do with me or anything I said or did to them. Who knows, maybe I remind them of an ex-wife, ex-girlfriend or someone they are having trouble with. Even so... it wasn't about me.

I'm not saying that it is OK for people to take out their troubles on other unsuspecting people. When I'm on the receiving end of that sort of treatment, however, my biggest challenge is to not take it personally and not feed into the energy and make the interaction even more negative. It would have been so easy to give in to that impulse. When I watched the guy next to me have his little 'issue' with our attendant, I snapped out of my 'poor me' mode and realized that it was not personal.

When I arrived home, I was watching an inspirational speaker that I like on TV. Interestingly enough, he was talking about how quickly most of us personalize and take offense at the behavior of other people. As I listened to him and further strengthened my resolve about how to handle those interactions I was sure I was getting this message because I had been so challenged by these two guys on these flights.

Next time someone doesn't live up to your expectations in a service situation, or treats you in a way that you don't deserve, I encourage you to do your best to step back from the automatic 'reaction' that I was flirting with. Let go of the hurt, insult, feeling invisible, and realize that the person is probably just having a bad day. Don't add to it by being nasty back. Let it roll off of you like 'water off a duck's back' as my teacher used to say, and take the high road. You'll feel better in the end, especially if you find out that something difficult is going on in their life.

We can be a bright spot in some one's day, even if they are pouring on the gloom.

Just keep the mantra, 'It's not personal' very close at hand.

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