Monday, July 11, 2011

The Peculiar Needs of People

Fun illunstration of the US by falldowntree
There are a few places in the world where you can spend most of your time running casual sociological and anthropological studies. Those places are where the worlds of diverse races, cultures, classes, and ages are forced to temporarily merge. In my recent travels to and from a pretty great vacation with my family on Tybee Island, GA, I passed through airports in Indianapolis, Charlotte NC, and Savannah GA. Every time I find myself in an airport, I remember how huge the world is and how different people are. Millions of a people a day go through airports all heading different directions with different purposes, carrying a variety of baggage (literally and figuratively). I overhear conversations that exhibit a variety of emotions and expectations. I see how people react to stress (airports experiences hardly ever go as planned).

The attendants working at airports especially interest me because they are often very professional, almost impersonal, despite the fact that they primarily work with people. On my trip back from GA, I had to get to the airport around 4:30 to check-in for my 5:30 flight. (Note to self, airports don't really open until about 5am.) While waiting for the desk to open, I realized that not only was I tired and completely inconvenienced by the time of day but the other people waiting with me were feeling the same way. As the desk clerk came out of a mysterious door in the wall behind the desk, he yawned at every computer he had to turn on while he prepared the desk for customers. I realized that the desk clerk, too, probably was not excited to be at the airport at 4:30 to serve tired and grumpy customers waiting for a plane that had just been delayed 45 more minutes. I wanted to ask him if he ever gets used to getting up that early for work each day, because I know that I never would. His yawns lead me to believe he would agree with me. He politely printed off my boarding tickets without making any conversation, and I was on my way! wait some more for the security gates to open...haha

But after I survived the Savannah airport and arrived in Charlotte, I realized I had been moved to a flight that was leaving two hours later than my original flight, so I went to Starbucks, got some coffee, ate a granola bar, and sat in the food court area of my gate to read. I watched many people around me, listened to some couples freak out about possibly missing their flight if they moved to an earlier one, and saw an eccentric family gobble down Burger King breakfast food while they joked and the teenagers listened to their iPods to tune them out. I also saw some airport workers interacting with one another and with the people working the food counters.

I had never thought about it before, but people who work at airports (even the ones who direct the planes to their "parking spots," as my pilot would say) interact with one another in the same way I would interact with my co-workers. They are friends with people in other departments of the airport. They joke around with one another and have fun relating to one another because even though their jobs are different, they all work in the same environment of people coming and going, and I'm sure they desire some permanent relationships and personal interactions.

Flight attendants and pilots seem to be a bit of a community in and of themselves as well. Usually they are working with people who are based in the same city or region as they are, so they get to know one another a bit. They seem to have lots of inside jokes, which is fun to think about. I bet they see a lot of interesting things in their day to day flights. It seems like they have fewer personal interactions with people, and I imagine that sometimes the days are lonely, but they do have one another. I sat in the back of the plane for my last flight from Charlotte to Indy, and the flight attendant's seat was right next to our seats. I was sitting by the window (being the akward girl who says two words to the nice woman sitting next to her), and the woman next to me was inquiring about applying to be a flight attendant. I got to hear a bit more about the life of a flight attendant, and the man was actually very passionate about the job as he had been doing it for 17 years. One can only wonder about his life outside of flying, though. Does he have a spouse or kids or family that he sees when he goes home? Is it possible to maintain those relationships in a job like that?

When I am traveling through airports, I try to remind myself often that airport employees are people with these relational needs and that they are people who often get mistreated by travelers like me who want things to go their way and go as smoothly as possible. My flight from Charlotte to Indy got moved from gate to gate, and the new gate was a double gate (didn't know that existed until then). The woman who was working the gate seemed pretty stressed as she organized passengers for two flights, one of which had been transferred to her gate last minute, scheduled to leave 5 minutes apart from the other at the same gate. I saw some passengers get frustrated, and I saw her react in frustration to some innocent passengers as well. I felt bad for her, and I made sure I thanked her for all her hard work as she scanned my boarding pass right before I walked to our plane. She looked me in the eye and thanked me as well. Although a smile never flashed across her face, I could tell that she greatly appreciated that someone noticed her and affirmed her when most of what she was receiving were furrowed brows and confused glances.

Although airport employees have many frustrating interactions with passengers, they seem to have a great time with one another because they have some basis of relationship: consistent personal interactions. It's a community. Personal interactions are the main things that are lacking when you travel alone. I felt that as a traveler myself. Passengers are in an awkward situation because they are uncomfortably closely surrounded by people they potentially have nothing in common with outside of the fact that they are traveling.

I'm sure many of you have had the experience of sitting next to someone you don't know on a plane. Sometimes you get the ridiculously chatty lady who talks about all her kids as if you wanted to know their purposes in life having never met them. Other times you get that cordial "hello" from that polite but reserved business man who fiddles with his iPhone in his attempt to avoid conversation. Other times you get the woman who says nothing to you and doesn't make eye contact with you because she is sitting across the aisle from someone she does know and has no need to reach further than that. The rarest times are when you end up next to an empty seat. My first flight from Indy to Charlotte was this way, and I was relieved to stretch out and make myself as comfortable as possible.

I learned so much about people, myself included, in the few hours time that I spent traveling through airports. People do not like being uncomfortable. Depending on the circumstances, they employ professionalism, cordial conversation, and simple isolation to handle the discomfort. I think discomfort is something our society has learned to avoid in general, so these interactions in airports are even more interesting because of that. People are peculiar, especially when they rub elbows with people who are different and unfamiliar. For myself, I aspire to be one who embraces discomfort for the sake of building relationships, even if those relationships last for only one moment or one flight. People are beautiful and messy, and ignoring that is plain dishonesty. Coming to terms and interacting with that fact can be an opportunity to give and receive a bit of interpersonal love. I like the idea of that.
Mandatory Vacation Pic

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