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Crewed Talk: “One Weird Trick” For Working With 20,000 People 30,000 Feet in the Air

As my crew perches around the First Class cabin for a briefing, I take a moment to survey the faces. There are between 8 and 11 of us onboard, not including the pilots, and it’s a mixed bag of familiarity. Three or four faces are “regulars” for me; we’re definitely friends on Facebook and I might have their phone numbers. A few faces don’t ring any bells at all. The remaining faces — “Inbetweeners” as I call them — are where it gets tricky.

In the travel media, we hear a lot about how difficult passengers can be, but less discussed is the challenge of crew personalities. You could say every trip we work is a colleague lottery, and if I deviate from my (fortunate) perch of consistent routes on large airplanes, I probably don’t have any “regulars” at all.

Yes, on the whole we are a flexible, easy-going, conflict-averse group. And yet, when there are up to 20,000 of you, there are always sour combinations in the mix. My struggle is: How do you dodge and weave and keep track of so many in order to always ensure the peace? Everyone laughs and says it’s weird when I tell them my personal trick — My Rule of Three.

First, it’s important to understand what happens when a flight attendant works with an Inbetweener. They may or may not acknowledge that they, to some extent, recognize each other. Possibly they’ll squint and one will say-ask the other something along the lines of: “I think we’ve flown together before?” If the other person doesn’t have any specifics to offer in response — i.e. “Did we share a cab from Kew Gardens once?” or “Did we go to dinner in Zurich like five years ago?” — they usually just shrug, say “Who knows!” and that’ll be the end of it.

That’s how these situations play out most of the time.

Personally, although I may have lost the memory, I always get a vague feeling about Inbetweeners. A “vibe” if you will, one that’s either good or bad. In some cases, when they ask if we’ve ever flown together before, I reply: “I don’t remember, but I know I liked you!” In contrast, however, there are times when a person is walking up the aisle to introduce themselves and, as they get closer and their features become clear, I think: “I don’t know why, but uh-oh.”

Experience has taught me that this “vibe” is always dependable and “uh-oh” people can be trouble, even though it’s weird to not actually remember the person who’s giving off the vibe!

I’m a person whose memory much prefers to hang on to pleasant things over unpleasant ones. In general, this is a good trait to have, but this job has taught me that it’s (unfortunately) more important to remember the ones you have to handle carefully! For example, if someone becomes aggressive after they’re proven wrong about a work rule they’re trying to impose, you’re going to want to remember that when you fly with them again!

Potentially. Years later. Or not.

That kind of memory archive is exhausting AND depressing! That’s why I came up with my Rule of Three, which says I get a list of three people that I “officially” don’t gel with, and I have to remember why. If it’s not important enough to remember why, it’s not important enough to hold a grudge over!

Three. No more than three. If a new candidate comes along and I absolutely have to add them to the list, I must first remove someone from the list. If you’re bumped off the list, we’ve got a clean slate. “Let it go,” comes to mind.

I’d like to clarify though, I’m a professional. These people never know they are on my list, regardless of whether or not I ever see them again. They are always treated respectfully — I just know to keep my guard up around them. Some of you may be asking: “What’s the point of the list if they don’t know they’re on it?” The point is I know they’re on it and remember how to manage their personality in a way that avoids conflict, ensuring everyone onboard has a good trip.

There are, thus far, two permanent people on my list. I’m happy to say the third slot often goes to a person I eventually come to know and understand better, thus dissolving any problems, which is nice. The most amusing thing about the two permanent people on my list is that neither of them remember our, umm, “previous interactions.”

For both of them, it was the same post-list-addition interaction. The second time we flew together they asked me, “Why do I remember you so well? We must’ve done something fun on a layover together once!” Both times I just smiled and politely told them we hadn’t, and both times, they seemed to think we quite liked each other even though they couldn’t remember me — all according to plan.

I don’t care about the score, I’m just trying to keep the peace. So I keep it cordial, we all get along and have a great trip, and no one is any wiser.

That’s my answer for how one deals with having 20,000 colleagues.

If you have oodles of colleagues to juggle and a unique coping strategy of your own, I’d love to hear it in the comments! You can also email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter at @FATravelWriter!

[Photo: iStock]

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