Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Having fun in the air

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

Cabin crew, displeased customers and humour

I have made an observation. It may be wrong. But I really doubt it. People are largely well behaved over our skies, here in this country. I have observed that passengers are quite well-behaved in our local flights. This is my honest opinion. I want to believe it has to do with the duration of those flights. The thing with short-haul local flights is exactly that—they are short.

Even the most talkative and gregarious passengers are able to hold their own for at least that 45 minutes from Accra to Tamale. A flight from Accra to Kumasi is even shorter. So even though one may be sitting by a complete stranger who might be very annoying, passengers on these flights are able to hang in there till they get to their destinations. Outside of the cursory Hello, many passengers will not speak to each other throughout the flight.

This also means that cases of unruly customer behaviour are not as commonplace on local flights as they might be on longer-haul international flights. I am sure there is always that occasional passenger that cannot help but show a bit of disorderliness but in the more than 20 flights I did on PassionAir and Africa World Airlines in the last six months of the last year, there was not a single incident of rude customer behaviour that comes to mind.

However, it is fact that this is more of the exception than of the norm. Because normally, customers can be unruly, whether on the ground or thousands of feet in the air. As I have stated so many times in this column, when it comes to service and experience, things that can go wrong do sometimes go wrong. Sometimes, they do go wrong spectacularly. Those are the times that even the most mild-mannered customers do show a side of themselves that can be shocking, to say the least.

Unruly passenger behaviour is actually a big issue in the aviation industry. According to a fact sheet published by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in November 2022, the prevalence of unruly behaviour by customers is a major concern of many airlines and governments. The list of discourteous behaviours includes simple refusal to obey basic rules, such as smoking at restricted areas.

Then there are harassments and verbal abuse of passenger-handling employees. Unruly passenger behaviour could also escalate into pure violence against cabin crew and other frontline employees. The paper stated that the uncivil behaviours were at their worst during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more and more passengers flouted rules regarding social distancing, wearing of masks and washing of hands.

A September 2022 publication in the Journal of Service Theory and Practice found an interesting tool that cabin crew can use to handle the challenges associated with unruly passenger behaviour. The title of the study was “Humor in the sky: the use of affiliative and aggressive humor in cabin crews facing passenger misconduct.”

To understand the use of humour up in the air, it is important to understand the four different types of humour: Affiliative, Self-Enhancing, Self-Defeating and Aggressive Humour. Affiliative Humour is the telling of jokes or the saying of funny things about everyday issues or things. It is a positive kind of humour that we use to bond with others. Self-enhancing humour is the kind of humour that an individual directs at the one’s own self. It is laughing at one’s own self in a way that enhances the one’s sense of being. It is actually a sign of confidence to be able to laugh at one’s own mistake.

Self-Defeating Humour is also directed at the one making the joke. However, the difference is that it is defeatist in nature and tends to bring the individual down. Researchers have found that it is a negative form of humour used mainly by individuals who lack a sense of self-worth. The last kind of humour is the Aggressive type. This is the one used by individuals to verbally attack and abuse others.

Of the four types of humour spoken of, the Affiliative and Self-Enhancing types are most important. When a passenger-handling professional is able to laugh off certain issues, it helps the one manage whatever stress that the job brings the one’s way. Furthermore, the ability to be able to laugh at one’s own mistakes is a precious gift, especially for those who deal with customers. According to the aforementioned study, the ability to crack a joke a one’s own expense is able to serve as a buffer between passenger misconduct via the use of aggressive humour.

Another way by which humour can be put to good use by cabin crew is to use it to defuse tensed service situations. Humour can be very disarming, when employed appropriately. In my experience at the front line, humour becomes a powerful disarming tool when it is used unexpectedly. Even the most cantankerous passengers can be tamed by the power of a well-timed humorous piece.

A word of caution, however. This call for the use of fun as a way of dissipating unpleasant customer exchanges in no way calls for the passenger-handling professional to become a comedian. It is not a call for airlines to turn the cabin into a comedy club. The truth is that we are not blessed with the talents of a Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle or Kevin Hart. Employees must therefore be wary when adopting humour in dealing with customers.

But how does one find something to laugh about when the one is not in the mood? This is a valid question that any passenger-handling professional might ask. This is where the phenomenon of emotional labour comes to play. Defined simply as “the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job,” emotional labour is the key to finding some fun in the air. Emotional labour is really about attempting to feel the right feeling for the job.

According to emotional labour, at any point in time, the professional could resort to three different types of emotional display. These are a display of genuine emotions, surface acting or deep acting. Genuine emotional displays occur when the emotional displayed required at a certain point on the job is exactly what the professional feels at that exact moment in time. So for instance, if a front-line employee feels sad and comes in to console a customer who is bereaved. The emotional display of sadness will be just what the situation calls for.

Another form of emotional labour is surface acting. This is where the individual just attempts to fulfil the emotional display requirement of the job without attempting to change how the one feels. This is where customer-facing employees will attempt a smile without actually meaning it. The problem with Surface Acting is that it is fake and customers are able to see through the act.

Thankfully, there is a third form of emotional labour—Deep Acting. This holds the answer to the question of service and experience professional not being in the mood. In Deep Acting, the professional changes the way the one is feeling first. Then the outward display expected on the job at that moment comes out in a natural and genuine way.

For instance, if the emotional display required to deal with a customer is a smile, the question the professional should first ask is this—what is it that genuinely puts a smile on my face? The answer to that question is what changes the emotions of the professional from whatever mood the one was experiencing to the pleasurable mood that puts a genuine smile on the one’s face.

The truth is that flying in itself is a stressful endeavour. From the stress of making sure one gets to the airport on time so as not to miss a flight all through to arriving safely, and even to ensuring that one’s personal belongings also arrive on time—the possibilities for something going wrong are endless.

The slightest zig of the wings, the littlest drop in altitude, even the faintest sound coming from anywhere on the plane—all these add to the stress of the journey in the air. Many of those sitting in that cabin would rather be down here closer to earth. Thus, it is important for those whose job it is to make the journey from Point A to Point B safe and manageable to put in some extra effort into the job.

The duty of the in-flight professional is unlike any other in transportation. The one must always be in control of the one’s emotions. Anything less than that could spell disaster for the customer’s experience. As a matter of fact, remaining calm at all times and being in control of the one’s emotions is the starting point for the deployment of humour as a useful tool up in the air.

It is equally important for those who employ the cabin crew to also ensure that those employed have the emotional intelligence to handle the job. It is easier to get an emotionally intelligent individual to resort to the use of the right emotions at the right time. To ensure that those dealing with passengers know how and when to resort to the use humour, it is equally important that these professionals are given regular training. Training regimes should involve a lot of the soft skills needed to do a good job.

Anyway, if you happen to find yourself flying locally anytime this week, just try and see if my observation is right. I bet, you would realise that passengers are well-behaved. But if you find that I was wrong because you come across an unruly passenger in your flight, just laugh it off. After all, what else could you do?

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