Have you ever had a bad interaction with a coworker? One that descended into unbecoming, if not unprofessional behavior? One that caused you to lose your cool?
An incident happened on a flight recently that got me thinking about professional relationships, snap judgements, and how being petty hurts. It was another life lesson at 30,000 feet, but this time I wasn’t saving any lives. Read on to hear the drama, the resolution, and the lightbulb moments along the way.
I was starting the workday well rested after a peaceful, relaxing morning. I had time to order a creamy, dreamy oat milk latte before getting on the plane. Our flight was light, with only 60 or so passengers along for the ride. A walk in the park! In other words, everything was lining up for a nice and easy day at work.
My crew of four boarded the plane, did our required safety checks, and prepared to get these people on their way.
I noticed, during boarding, that the F4—the fourth flight attendant—was sitting in the double jumpseat in the back galley. This is the jumpseat that I, the F3, would normally be sitting in. I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was to be a little annoyed. But I told myself she was probably just taking a load off while making announcements. Surely during the flight, she’d sit on the correct side of the galley, in her own jumpseat, no issues to even discuss.
But I was wrong. Once we got up in the air, I found myself confused for the second time—by her sitting in said jumpseat, my jumpseat, to change into her service shoes. (These are the flat shoes we wear during the flight.) When she stood up, leaving her shoes behind, no less, I took said jumpseat to change into my service shoes. And while I was there I decided to nip this little confusion in the bud.
“Here,” I said, handing her the shoe bag. “Do you want to put this in your cubby over there or something?”
That oughta do it, I thought.
She took the shoes and put them away and we began setting up carts for service, each of us in our correct side of the galley. Finally! What a relief.
Only this issue apparently could not be solved with hinting. Upon completion of snack and beverage service, I found her sliding her cart into the open space on my side of the galley. What treachery was this!?
“Oh, don’t re-stock that cart please,” I said. “I will do it later, I prefer to have an empty drawer.”
(Okay, this is a weird thing for you to read if you have never worked on a plane or if you have never worked with me. The empty drawer I need is to turn upside down and slide back into the cart, to create a makeshift desk. Yes, my ‘day at the office’ looks a lot more like a “day at the office” than you’d expect. You can see what I mean in the image below.)
Now, back to the story.
I was irritated to even be having these conversations if I’m being honest. You see, as petty as this sounds, and believe me it is, there is a certain flow on the aircraft. Unwritten but accepted ways of doing things. There is technically no rule about who sits where, aside from takeoff and landing. There are also no rules about what time trash needs to be collected, or at what point in the flight you are free to sit down and relax. But these things occur over and over, by crew after crew, and what ends up happening is that a routine forms. The “Right way” becomes apparent simply because it is the way it is always done. This helps to keep things orderly. There is a basic understanding amongst most crews of who should be doing what and when.
There’s something a bit jarring when someone shows disregard for norms, isn’t there? A subtle grating of the nerves, even for those of us who do not consider ourselves Type A control freaks.
I did what any self-respecting 34-year-old professional would do.
Her response solidified what I’d feared.
“I’ll be using this cart and sitting here because this is where the F4 sits.”
She was trying to steal my seat! I knew it! And not only that, now she was talking as if it were her seat! She really doesn’t know how things go around here. And the brazenness—taking it this far after I had so politely and passive-aggressively hinted that it was where I planned to sit—was unspeakable.
I tried to keep my cool.
“Oh, you must have had some crews who like to do things differently,” I offered. “Typically the 3 sits there and the 4 sits here.”
“No,” she countered, unwavering. “I work the F3 position all the time and I always sit that seat.”
I was taken aback. I even threw out the seniority card.
“Well, I’m most senior on the crew and only work these trips. So, I’ve been sitting in the correct seat for quite a while.”
Still, she didn’t back down.
We found ourselves in a standoff. And since she was standing closer to the seat in question, she would get to claim it. She would be victorious. She would end up sitting there.
Being petty is one thing, but I’m not about to shove someone out of my way at work.
I gathered my things from that side of the galley and moved them over to my new space. Then I did what any self-respecting, professional 34-year-old would do.
Now that I was seated closest to the light controls, I determined that the blinding “Bright” setting was just the right amount of light for our galley. (For reference, it is typical to keep the galley lit to a “Dim 1” or “Dim 2” setting during cruise. But my eyes are old, and it seemed I was in charge of lights now.)
When she questioned me on the lights, brought to my attention that they were supposed to be set to dim, I remarked that I guessed a compromise had been reached.
“You got to choose your seat, and I get to choose the lights.”
Petty level 1000.
So, there I sat, in my new seat. Irritated with this girl being wrong and not knowing it. With her refusal to accept that she was mistaken or take my hints with any of the grace that a junior crewmember should show.
The truth is, though, it didn’t take long for the dust to settle and for me to see the situation differently.
The new seat wasn’t so bad. There is an outlet directly next to it, so I was able to keep my chronically dying iPhone 7 plugged in, rather than needing to plug it in elsewhere and keep standing up to check it. I was able to create a similar version of the makeshift “desk” I’d planned in the side of the galley I was occupying. Everything was working out fine in my new seat. Better actually. I wasn’t about to tell her this, of course, but I did begin to second-guess my actions.
Just another day at the office, being petty.
Why hadn’t I been cooler? Why would this be something I’d bother arguing about? Was it really worth it? I could have even thrown in a petty comment like “Well, usually the F3 sits there, but if you really want it, we can switch.” Bam! I could have been both right AND cool. What the hell, Tone?
I still felt justified, basking in my bright lights, and taking secret pleasure from the power source flowing to my phone, but questions were creeping in about my reaction.
Things stayed quiet in the back galley. I did my thing, and she did hers, and we did them in relative silence.
It was a bit awkward, but in this job you only have to work well enough with someone to get the job done. Some crews are social and chatty, you feel like best friends—family, after a long trip. Some crews do their own thing and don’t care for small talk. Everyone’s style is different.
Homegirl and I worked fine together, despite our little tiff. And knowing that you never have to see or work with someone again once a trip ends makes it easy enough to get through anything. Even the worst disagreements.
Later in the flight, after she had been up front eating dinner, the F4 came to the back and returned to her claimed seat. I expected us to carry on ignoring one another, but she spoke.
“Hey, I didn’t mean to be difficult earlier,” she said. “I really thought this was the right seat and where I was supposed to be. Now I’m not even sure.”
If it is possible to feel both vindicated and deflated, defiant and guilty all at once, that was me. I was glad that she had considered the (great) possibility of her being wrong. But now she was apologizing, admitting to doubting herself, trying to connect with me and repair something. And it was something I’d had an equal part in breaking.
I don’t know if I am alone in this, but there is an interesting, terrible thing that happens to me when someone apologizes. And that something is guilt. Waves of it.
I can be SO annoyed with a coworker, and then all of a sudden they are working hard, doing something redeeming, and I’m annoyed with myself for thinking ill of them in the first place. For not letting it all play out, reserving my judgement for later. For assuming the worst.
This happens outside of work, too. When I’m angry with someone, the moment they apologize or acknowledge the thing making me angry, all my feelings change. It melts. I feel instantly accommodating. Guilty for having been angry to begin with.
“Oh, no it isn’t a big deal, I just felt like…”
“No, it’s fine I just…”
Why is this a thing? Why, when I feel so righteous and justified in my grievances, do they turn to silly, childish nothings once they’ve been acknowledged? Every time this happens, I feel as if I’ve been tested and failed. Why would you be so angry, irritated, annoyed?
The truth is, as I mentioned before, there is no assigned seating for flight attendants during flight. All of it is ritual and all of it is adaptable, depending on the crew. I was disappointed in myself, in this situation, for not keeping true to who I am at my core—or who I like to be—which is pretty easy going. I was embarrassed by my actions. By caring about a stupid seat in the back of an airplane that isn’t mine. One I would only be occupying for a matter of hours, in between working.
What was the big deal?
I also had a lightbulb moment. One I’ve had before, but this fact made it no less illuminating.
Standing up for yourself is fine, but so is taking a deep breath, choosing your battles, and not getting bogged down in the muck. Each and every time I stoop to levels not in line with my values, I end up feeling worse. Not them. ME.
To be clear, this is not a frequent occurrence. Generally, I’m very laid back, especially at work. But it does sometimes happen.
“He better not be trying to….”
“This person is going to be a problem I can tell…”
“Why won’t she just stop talking?!”
I think thoughts like this in my head. And every single time, in the end, I am forced to face my judgements. When the “problem” customer informs me that she’s terrified to fly and just needs a little reassurance. When the reserve who won’t stop talking thanks me for being nice to her on our trip. When the person I thought “better not be one of those lazy crewmembers sitting on his butt all night” ends up working just as hard as I do, only at different moments.
In all these instances, I must reckon with my snap judgements. They are often incorrect, harsh. I’m forced to grapple with this question: Why would I ever assume the worst?
Luckily, I usually have enough restraint to only think these snap-judgements in my head and not say them out loud. I find myself grateful, thanking the universe for saving me from looking like the asshole that I guess I can be.
But for some reason, on this day, on this flight, the restraint on which I pride myself was nowhere to be found. My even-keel was somehow tipped. I accepted conflict’s invitation, and I didn’t bring an ounce of cool.
In reality, the girl with the seat was no innocent victim of my judgements. She was actively involved in a power struggle. She was being as petty as I was, and that is probably why she broke the ice later in the flight. But her being equally petty did nothing to alleviate how low my actions made me feel.
The remainder of the flight passed without incident, and the mood felt lighter in the galley. We did not become friends, but I think we both did some soul-searching and probably felt a similar, uneasy disappointment in ourselves in the end.
This flight was a reminder for me of a lesson I’ve already learned over and over in this life. That compromising your values hurts you, not them. That you don’t have to show up to every fight you’re invited to. That keeping an open heart and an open mind feels a whole lot better than the alternative. That pettiness should be reserved for shit-talking with friends, and even then, should be exercised with great caution.
Here’s to being better today than I was yesterday.
And here’s wishing you a calm, collected, above-it-all kind of weekend.
Got a sky-high petty story you’d like to share with the class? Post in the comments below. We’ve all been there, right?….Right!?