I like to think I’m a good person. For the most part, I’m kind to the people I interact with—as long as I’ve gotten enough sleep and have eaten so I’m not in a low-blood sugar rage. But it seems like no matter how determined I am to ensure I’m rested and fed, at times I become so cracked-out from insomnia and so starved because I was held up somewhere without a snack, I blow my top. In these states, any tolerance I might otherwise have vanishes right along with self-control.
Historically, the rage is directed at strangers: people driving super slow in front of me or customer service representatives. Here’s a typical scenario from my past: AT&T has inexplicably tacked on charges to my bill and I get snarky (to put it mildly) with whichever person was unfortunate enough to pick up my call.
“You know your company is so shady,” I’d say. “You’re making billions and you tack on these sneaky charges when I was told that I had unlimited everything. If you don’t waive the charges, I’m switching to another carrier.”
Now it may be true that AT&T is a greedy and shady enterprise, but the reason I’ve put the kibosh on this behavior is because that poor gal or guy on the other end of the phone isn’t the CEO of the company. She or he is just a rep making $15 an hour (and if they’re in India, probably $2 a day). They have to follow protocol, they have no authority to change the rules and so taking out my anger on them doesn’t in any way help my cause. On top of that, it’s just plain rude.
Around four years ago, something clicked inside me and I started to change. Suddenly, if I was frustrated I’d find myself saying “This isn’t working. I know it’s not your fault. I’d like to speak to a supervisor.” I wasn’t aggressive or rude. The new me was calm and matter-of-fact.
Typically, they’d respond with “I understand your frustration. Please hold while I find a supervisor.”
And usually the supervisor couldn’t help me with my problem. Short of writing the CEO (which I have done) to express a grievance, I have come to understand that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do in these situations. I have to accept the bullshit, pay the charges or fines and move on.
But I still blow my top every now and then.
This past Christmas, after landing in LA from a trip to Mexico (luxury problems, I know) I sat on an American Airlines jet forced to wait on the tarmac for close to an hour. I know this kind of thing happens often and more often during the holidays. But because we had already been delayed two hours prior to taking off in Mexico, we flew into LAX well after schedule so we had no gate.
Even though I was short on sleep, I understood and kept my cool…for about 30 minutes. Then, as other passengers began complaining about missing connecting international flights, for some reason I felt obliged to take it upon myself to “fix” the situation. Not just help out. Fix. In retrospect, I know that I began to feel claustrophobic, enraged and consumed with anxiety. And when the flight attendants kept repeating “there’s nothing we can do,” I grew more and more infuriated.
Maybe it’s my upbringing. I’ve seen my mother and aunts fight over these sort of things since I was a kid. They’d push and push and push until a customer service rep caved or the person manning the register at Macy’s gave them the refund on a piece of clothing that didn’t have tags or a receipt. Maybe it’s Armenian-American syndrome—maybe I’m programmed. Or maybe I’m just a jerk. Regardless, I spoke up.
“This is ridiculous,” I said to one of the flight attendants, feeling my rage build. “I’ve traveled on countless international airlines and none were as bad as this airline.” As my gums continued to flap, the rage grew. My voice grew louder and shaky. I began to feel out of control. “This is the absolute worst airline I’ve ever flown on. I will never fly on American Airlines again! You need to push the pilot to get the air traffic controller to get us a gate. Look, people are going to miss their international flights! This is BAD!” My mounting hysteria rang in my ears.
The 50-something female flight attendant, with disheveled blonde hair and a weathered and exhausted face accented by smeared eyeliner and faded pink lipstick looked at me with an expression of anger, frustration and guilt.
“It is bad,” she said.
“It’s really bad,” I repeated.
“It is really bad,” she said.
“Yes, it’s bad,” I said.
Against my will, a smile spread across my lips and I had to really focus to suppress the laughter wanting to erupt out of me. The conversation was growing absurd. It was a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm and I was the lovable loser Larry David. Something changed in me and I began to feel sort of sorry for her.
“I know it’s not your fault,” I said in a calmer voice. “But this isn’t okay. You guys need to do something about it.”
A man sitting behind me, who had started grumbling “This is bullshit” right before I spoke up said “Well if that doesn’t do something, I don’t know what will.”
Miraculously, just five minutes later, the same flight attendant announced “Okay, folks, a gate has become available,” over the intercom.
Now I don’t want to be all grandiose and say I was the one responsible to get that gate available. I mean, I don’t have that kind of power (DO I??) But I also don’t regret speaking up. Maybe calling American Airlines the worst in the world flipped a switch in the crews’ brains—who knows. But I lament that I was letting myself lose control. I’m all for assertiveness, but aggression is different.
My roommate Gail, who’s 65 and full of wisdom rarely loses control. She asks me “what good will it do to lose your temper? Is that effective? Will it solve anything? You can’t usually solve anything when you’re emotional. If anything it usually makes things worse.”
Looking back, I could have prefaced this grievance with “I know this is not your fault and that you are probably very frustrated, but can you please encourage the pilot to push the air traffic controller to get us a gate.” If I remained calm and firm, who knows—maybe it would have been effective. Getting petty and vicious is not only unkind, it harms me. After exploding I am flooded with guilt, shame and remorse. So losing it doesn’t make me or the situation better.
As I got off the flight I apologized to her, “I’m sorry I lost my temper,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said smiling. “It was very frustrating to everyone.”
I’m getting better. These days, my rages are less frequent and following an outburst I manage to at least apologize. I’m not perfect, but I’m changing and at least I’m aware of the behavior. I still won’t fly on American Airlines, though.