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The Value of Diplomacy

I was traveling from one speaking gig in Michigan to another at a rustic resort in upstate Wisconsin. The quick flight between the speech venues was from one tiny regional airport to another. We passengers were lined up on the tarmac waiting to board an aluminum puddle jumper that looked like it had first flown reconnaissance missions in World War II.

The pilot also looked the part. He stood at the bottom of the steps wearing aviator sunglasses and a brown leather bomber jacket with fur-covered lapels and pilot wings pinned over his left breast pocket. He held a clipboard and checked off the passengers' names on his manifest while directing them to their seats.

When we got to the front of the line, the person in front of me showed the pilot their ID, and he asked them to sit in the back row on the left side of the aisle.

“Wait just a minute,” the passenger said belligerently.

“I notice you're putting all the men in the front. I'm the first woman to board and you're putting me in the back? I don't think so. That's sexist, and I won't stand for it.”

“I'm sorry, ma'am,” he drawled respectfully. “It's not that. You see, this here's an old plane, and I gotta the load. I don't like to ask passengers how much they weigh, so instead I guess their weight and try to put them in the best seat possible.

I figure you're somewhere between 135 and 145 pounds, so I asked you to sit where I did. But if you don't mind telling me your exact weight, you can sit wherever you like and I'll make it work.”

The passenger probably outweighed me by a good 100 pounds, and I'm just a donut away from 190. She was quiet for a long moment before she answered.

“That's okay,” she said. “I'll sit in the back.”

“As you wish,” he said with a warm .

When I handed the pilot my ID, I said, “Well played.”

“Not my first rodeo,” he answered with a wry smile.

Clearly, he understood the value of diplomacy.

The Value of Diplomacy

I thought about that interaction for the rest of our short flight. Somehow, the pilot managed to defuse what could have been a very unpleasant experience while staying polite, respectful, and pleasant.

Sure, a little white lie was involved, but the pilot did not make the woman feel uncomfortable or singled out. Instead, he gave her an easy way to save face, walk back her accusation, and still do what he needed her to do.

I was thinking about that interaction again when I read an article in Inc. Magazine titled An American Airlines Pilot Was Absolutely Fed Up With PassengersIn it, the pilot told his passengers what he wanted with this pre-flight announcement:

  • “Do what the flight attendants tell you to do. They represent my will, and my will is what matters.”
  • “Treat people the way you want to be treated. I have to say it every flight because people don't. They're selfish and rude, and we won't have it.”
  • “Stow your stuff. Don't lean on other people, don't fall asleep on other people, don't pass out on other people.”
  • “Use your Air Pods or headphones instead of playing videos so everyone else can hear them.”
  • “Finally, for passengers in the middle seat: “You own both armrests.”

Inc. said the pilot's announcement was “…a stroke of genius.” According to the author, the pilot set expectations and communicated them clearly.

I don't see it that way.

Instead of assuming that most people want to do the right thing and that others would respond favorably to a respectful request, this pilot lumped everyone in with the “selfish and rude” passengers and lectured them all.

This pilot needed to understand the value of diplomacy.

The Value of Diplomacy

My favorite definition of a diplomat is “someone who can send you to hell and make you look forward to the trip.”

I think that is something we're sorely lacking these days.

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