August 14, 2010
by Peggy Noonan
You know the story: A steward named
Steven Slater, after a difficult flight, apparently got fed up, grabbed the
intercom, cursed out passengers, and made a speedy and unauthorized exit,
activating and sliding down the emergency chute, some say with a beer in each
hand. Then he drove home. He says passengers were unruly; two Wall Street
Journal reporters, Tamer El-Ghobashy and Sean Gardiner,tracked down passengers
who said he was unruly.
With Style” on one side and
“I’m With Slater” on the other. On one of the Slater pages on
Facebook a thread asked “What job should Steve do next?” and ironic
answers flooded in: “talk show host,” “anger management
counselor,” “air traffic controller.” A Wall Street Journal/NBC
poll suggested Mr. Slater’s act reflected broad
public anger, and pundits seized it as a political story: “JetBlue
nation” will throw the bums out in November.
But it doesn’t strike me as a political
story. I think it’s a cultural story. American culture is, one way or another,
business culture, and our business is service. Once we were a great industrial
nation. Now we are a service economy. Which means we are forced to interact
with each other, every day, in person and by phone and email. And it’s making
us all a little mad.
I’m not sure we’ve fully noted the
social implications of the shift from industry to service. We used to make
machines! And steel! But now we’re always in touch, in negotiation. We interact
so much, we wear each other down. We wear away the superego and get straight to
the id, and what we see isn’t pretty.
why. At the same time we were shifting, in the past 30 years, to the more
personal economy of service, we were witnessing and took part in a revolution
in manners. We tore them down as too fancy, or sexist, or ageist, or revealing
of class biases. Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon
rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one
knows how to act anymore.
result is that everyone is getting on everyone’s nerves. We’re all snapping the
bins shut on each other’s heads. Everyone wants to tell the boss to take this
job and shove it. Everyone wants to take a good, hard, last look at the
customer and take the chute.
Some extremely small
examples from my own experiences the past few weeks. I see something in the
window of a store, walk in planning to daydream and scan the merchandise. The
minute I walk in the door, the onslaught begins–the salespeople
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fierce, insistent smiles. “How are you
today?” They are taught that if they engage, they will make a sale. But no
one taught them to take a courteous tone. “What are you looking for today?” I can’t go that quickly from my thoughts to her
reality, if that’s the word. “Are you looking for
looking for the exit. I’m looking for the chute.
of the same experience a few years ago and got a letter from a saleswoman in a
big department store.
She said, I paraphrase: “You misunderstand, it’s not
that we haven’t been taught how to behave, it’s that we have. We are trained to make and maintain eye contact, we are taught to intrude, we are
instructed to act in a way that people used to recognize as rude
you, service economy.
This week there was the woman on Madison
Avenue holding that dread thing, the clipboard. They want you to sign something
in favor of a cause, or sign up for something. She was a big girl, 6 feet tall,
with 10 arms. She saw me coming 15 feet away and placed herself in the middle
of the sidewalk so I’d have to speak or go around her. “How are you
today?” she barked, demanded. It was embarrassing not to reply and made me
feel vaguely guilty, which is the way they want you to feel so you’ll give up
and engage. As I passed I smiled and wordlessly shook my head. She did a mock
eye rolling. “Oh. Sorry!“
She was not, I think, unaware of her
aggression. She just wasn’t embarrassed by it.
hospital waiting room this week, there was a woman at the desk with 13 cowed
patients sitting in rows of plastic chairs along the wall, I among them. She
was on the desk by herself, and was very busy. She was also not in a good mood,
clipped to the point of curt, unwilling to give people a sense of when she
might turn to their requests. She gave everyone Dead Face. Dead Face is
expressionless, impassive, immovable. You cannot push around Dead Face. She
will lose your records. We bowed to Dead Face. She’s in the service economy
readers know how I feel about air-security theater, but it’s gotten worse
recently, and I mention it because this is the public service part of the
service economy. Ten days ago in Washington, at Reagan National, I was put
through the new machine, the X-ray thing that also seems to function as a
mammogram–arms up, stand up straight. This was followed by the TSA agent who
was inappropriately familiar as she patted me down.
first gone through the machine and then been manhandled, a month before, I was
so taken aback that I blurted “Wow, that was embarrassing.” I said it
softly, in a way that invited mild commiseration of the “I know, I’m sorry
I have to do this” sort. Instead, with full Dead Face, the TSA woman said,
“Have a nice day.” As I walked away I thought: She has been taught by
consultants how to “handle” people like me. Her instructions are that
if anyone accepts her ministrations with anything but passive surrender, she is
to show she is impervious and keep the line moving. She is probably taught this
in a class given by government contractors who are paid by taxpayers to handle
taxpayers. Meaning I pay her to be rude to me.
“I pay them to be rude to me”
is kind of an anthem of the service economy. To an
unusual degree people now feel they have to protect themselves from each other.
You have to put forward the rules of behavior, every day. When the person from
the bank on the phone says, “Margaret, I’d like to talk to you about your
account,” you have to say, “I’m sorry but I didn’t invite you to call
me by my first name.” Or perhaps it’s, “I didn’t really want a
freelance mammogram, and I’m not sure it’s right that you give me one,”
or, “I have to tell you that it’s not polite to block my path and attempt
to force a conversation.” But such vigilance is tiresome. Most of
us give up and accept the thousand daily breaches and violations.
service economy in the age of no manners, everyone gets on everyone’s nerves.
Everyone wishes they could take the chute. Everyone understands someone who did.