JetBlue Airways Corp. flight attendant Steven Slater (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)
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.
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."