Sunday, December 06, 2015

The view when suspended 10,000 feet up

It might not be 100% intentional, but why does service on trans-Atlantic flights—from airport check-in, to boarding, to meal service—seem smoother, higher in quality, more designed to satisfy, compared to flights across the Pacific? I've grown so used to the circus of getting from SFO to Shanghai or Beijing that this flight to Paris is shockingly ... calm.

What lies at the root of this contrast? Do different classes of the flying public exhibit different characteristics? Do we assume customers from some demographics will put up with more strain, will have fewer expectations, or are generally less experienced with international travel?

Do service employees adopt a more implicitly hostile attitude—harsher voice, more impatience, a guarded wariness—toward "foreign" or "alien" peoples, compared with those they assume are "civilized"?

Is it all simply business savvy? Is it fair?

There seem to be some deep racial dynamics here that I don't totally understand. What I can say is that in our increasingly globalized world, the frictions and conflicts, the micro-aggressions and outright discrimination—whether ill-intentioned or simply mis-informed—are all going to come to the fore. Yet in parallel, many more moments of mutual understanding, successful non-verbal communication, and a growing sense of human solidarity will also mark our collective experience.

Probing and unpacking these stories requires introspection on the part of many different actors—the airlines, the service employees, the passengers; the advocates, the by-standers, the ruler-makers; even the observers and commentators on these affairs. This exercise requires a non-judgmental attitude. In racially-tense situations, resolution can only be found when deft handling and cultural competency are coupled with a willingness to not shy away from the truth of sensitive questions. It will most of all require empathy.

Luckily, empathy, and all the attendant processes, can be learned, practiced, improved, and eventually habituated. It will be a lifelong project for this generation, and the next, to figure out how to live, coexist, and thrive in this shifting planetary landscape. There will be increasing moments of alienation and strangeness, but also greater recognition and familiarity. These processes will be shaped by technological leaps, environmental disruption, and most of all, human awakening.

Sometimes, it takes a moment of contrast to shake a person awake to the interesting character of our times. What a brave new world we truly live in! Despite the years I've spent on this planet so far, I guess I just hadn't quite realized it yet.