When in Doubt, Err on the Side of Humanity
The flight was bumpy. Like, crazy bumpy - bumpiest I've had all year of the 70 or so times I've taken to the sky already.
We were trailing the western edge of a storm front, according to the pilot. "Flight attendants, please stay seated for the duration of the flight."
When I hear those words, I only get nervous nowadays because it means I may get a rumbling stomach at some point and no peanuts are headed my way. Of course, an announcement like this effects others differently, as was the case of the woman in front of me this evening in seat 2C on board this Southwest flight. She had an empty seat in between her and her four-year-old son, and was already visibly shaken before we even backed away from the gate.
There was the reassuring smile from the flight attendant as we taxied, but it didn't seem to work. I fell asleep as we accelerated (this is my routine) and after waking up as we climbed through 10,000 feet, I surmised that the woman was no less nervous and this flight was getting no more placid.
That's when the humanity kicked in.
That's when it always kicks in, I think - when the road gets rough.
The woman - now sobbing because of her fears - needed another person. The flight attendants noticed this. Unbuckling, one of them walked over while practically surfing down the aisle and asked, "Mind if I sit in this empty seat between you and your son?"
She did and with only the slightest mention of "This is normal; the plane will be fine and we'll be in Nashville before you know it," the attendant began asking conversational, friendly questions about why the woman was heading to Nashville, what she did for a living, who her family is, and what sort of hobbies she enjoyed.
The man in 1D took notice and began sharing pictures of his children. They then talked of Texas. And parenting. And small towns and food and TV shows.
The plane kept rumbling its way through the clouds and wind, and the people kept being human.
The flight attendants swapped midway through the flight, the second one asking the woman about her husband, how they met, and what they'd be doing for the holidays. She took the son to the restroom and before she knew it, our initial descent had begun.
Safety protocols were breached. Best practices were ignored. But humanity won on that flight.
I thought about the interactions I saw as I got in my car and headed to the exit gate of the long term parking lot. I was lost in thought waiting to leave until I shook myself out of my daze with another thought, "Why is this taking so long?"
I glanced ahead and it looked like the car at the booth was confused. "Geez. What an idiot. Have they never parked before? Why can't they be faster? I can't believe this. I could be on my way home now if it weren't for these morons."
As quickly as I'd seen humanity engulf a scared flyer, I'd scattered it with my negative thoughts. I was erring on the side of judgement and it was awful.
Ashamed, I made my way to the grocery store to pick up things for lunches for my daughter this week. I loathe the self-checkout line (it makes nothing faster, I'm convinced), but as there was only one line open with an actual cashier, I decided to at least attempt to scan and bag my own groceries.
And, as is custom, I got the "an attendant has been notified to assist you" alert after only scanning and bagging one bottle of Powerade. SMH.
The supervisor walked over. Without smiling, she looked at my cart and said, "You have too much groceries. You need to go to a different line."
I sighed. I was tired. And hungry. And growing angry.
I left my self-scanning kiosk and made my way to the real cashier, beginning to write a scathing blog post in my mind about how Kroger hates people, errs only on the side of profits, and at some point, made the decision to stop training nearly all of their employees. I had some really good prose stacked up about how Kroger doesn't value employees and actually makes grocery shopping a chore and something everyone hates.
It was as if I wanted to keep humanity relegated to that flight, up there at a turbulent 34,000 ft., instead of asking it to land softly on my shoulders as I walked on the ground.
It's so easy to err on the side of judgement. I know because this default setting is one we seem to rely on so often. Why is this?
Maybe it's actually easier to show humanity to someone when life is visibly bumpy. When we hear about a friend who's lost a loved one, when we know a relationship is ending, when someone tells us that a hard time is coming - these are all clues we recognize so our grace muscles can start flexing. This is natural, actually, to show you empathy and sympathy when I know the situation requires it of me.
But what about when flights are smooth? How easy is it for me to question another passenger's intelligence? Maybe they're equally as nervous as if we were heading into a headwind, but I just assume they're dumb because they can't seem to make their bag fit under the seat in front of them.
Or what about the worker who's rounding out hour 11 on her shift (unbeknownst to me), covering for the co-worker who needed to leave early because her daughter is sick (again, unbeknownst to me)? Am I able to offer humanity and err on the side of understanding and concern? Or do I harken back to my default setting, which isn't so much judgement as it is self-indulgence?
This is the crux of the matter, of course: we simply don't know.
The Internet has said (yes, I'm quoting the Internet because nowadays we have no clue who said what, whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Charlie Brown), "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about." This is what erring on the side of humanity looks like. It's activating kindness and benefit of the doubt as our default reaction, regardless of what inputs we're receiving.
We can say to someone "I'm sorry for your loss," at a funeral. That's what you do. But we don't know we should say it, too, to the hotel concierge the first day back after her husband died and been laid to rest. This isn't a button she wears on her blazer. Maybe you're particularly astute and can see that her smile is forced and her eyes are tired. But I'm not so skilled. So I need to work to change my assumptions. I need a new default that errs on the side of humanity.
It's nearly November now. Days are shorter. Nights are colder. The upcoming holidays can bring cheer to many and sadness to some. And while shopping lines will be long and we'll all want to give our families the perfect gift, let's try something, shall we?
At least until the end of the year, let's try our hardest to err on the side of humanity and grace, especially when there are no signals we can pick up on. Let's be kind to each other as people and companies even if skies are blue and things seem easy.
Because no matter what external conditions may look like, there is one truth at the core on which we can rely: we're all humans and we all respond to connection at that level.
Luckily, by also all being human, we have a key advantage: we all have humanity in droves to offer each other.