We all control our emotions to differing degrees. Or I should say, we control the way our behavior is driven by our emotions to different degrees. But I’ve always maintained that being a frequent traveler provides the best test you could possibly devise for how well a person maintains that control. And I have to believe that even the most emotionally intelligent of us still loses it sometimes while traveling.
Let’s take some personal examples. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle of the scale. I can be a great person to sit next to on the plane, but on a really bad day I can also be a desk agent’s worst nightmare. A couple weeks ago I had one of those rotten days where I got lost on the way to the rental car return, ran through the airport thinking I was late, and then discovered my flight was massively delayed by weather. The gate agents and flight attendants were surly and the flight was packed full. It wasn’t my regular airline so I had a middle seat. When I finally boarded I couldn’t find space in the overhead bins, but there were two bags in the bin over my seat that were bigger than regulations allow. As the flight attendant announced that anyone with oversize bags would need to check them with her, I looked around to see who was trying not to make eye contact with me and I identified the culprits. Then I let one of them have it. “I think it’s a shame that I can’t find space for my bag because you’re taking up enough space for two,” I snapped at her. She protested that her bag used to fit but now suddenly, mysteriously, it didn’t any more. The other travelers seated around her busied themselves with their magazines and I gave up. If the flight attendants weren’t going to enforce the rules, how could I? As I sat down I heard another traveler making fun of me for being so cranky and my face flamed. He was right, of course. I was just being cranky. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like that at the time; it feels like I have a legitimate complaint that should be aired.
This week I had a day where everything went right. The plane was on time, I found a great restaurant in the terminal, I had a good seat, and there were two friendly women in my row. When the flight attendant took drink orders I asked for a glass of wine and handed over my debit card. The woman next to me said, “Oh, I have so many drink coupons and I never use them. Take this,” and she handed it to the flight attendant for my drink.
Later when the flight got turbulent, the other woman in my row was clearly very nervous. She didn’t have anything to read so she stared out the window, gripping her arm rests. I ripped an article about the royal wedding out of my Newsweek magazine and handed it to her, and then I chatted with her for a while to take her mind off her fear. It made me feel so much more human than the time I yelled at a passenger about the size of her bag. And I thought, why don’t I remember how it feels to be the good guy every time, and let that feeling drive my behavior?
I don’t have the answer to that question. I just know that sometimes I’m the good guy and sometimes I’m the bad guy. The trick is to keep working on it.