JetBlue Attendant – a symbol of rampant stress

Steven Slater – JetBlue attendant – a symbol of rampant stress

JetBlue Attendant – a symbol of rampant stress

The following is a transcript of the responses, analysis and insights by Celebrity Life Coach and Human Behavior Expert, Patrick Wanis Ph.D. to a Chicago Tribune reporter’s questions about Steven Slater, The JetBlue flight attendant who became so fed up with an argument with a passenger, that he flipped out, cursing the passenger over the intercom, grabbing a beer and then deploying the emergency slide at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Patrick Wanis Ph.D. reveals the link between Slater’s actions, rampant stress in society, frustration with rude people, a backlash against big corporations and increasingly decaying work conditions and pressure.

Reporter:                  Steven Slater, a flight attendant on JetBlue, just got fed up with a passenger, grabbed a beer off the cart and went out the emergency chute. So, what do you think is going on there? That’s kind of snapping in the workplace, isn’t it?

Patrick Wanis:          Well, most of us would equate it to snapping in the workplace except fortunately, he didn’t engage in any acts of violence. I mean, it wasn’t a situation where he had any weapons or he had access to weapons fortunately. Yes, he did respond in a verbally violent manner from what I understand in terms of grabbing the intercom, I think, and either cussing out all of the passengers or cussing out that particular passenger. I also understand that when this passenger was taking the bag down, he apparently hit Mr. Slater in the head which would obviously also trigger Mr. Slater’s anger.

I think the first key point here is to say that any time that a person snaps in a workplace or loses it or responds in a manner that doesn’t seem to make immediate sense, we know that they’re under a lot of stress and that stress usually has little to do with the workplace and it’s usually stress from outside of the home. When I’m leading training programs for companies and corporations, the first thing I say is understand that your employees and we as humans cannot separate our personal life from our business life. That means we bring from home all of our stuff to work.

Now, having said that, it’s interesting because now, reports are coming out that his mother is dying from lung cancer and there have been other problems within his own personal life. So what happens is we completely change as human beings in a workplace setting when our stress level skyrockets.

So here is a man that probably was already under a lot of stress and all he needed was the trigger to do as what you would call to ‘snap’, and that trigger was this passenger not following the rules, standing up and trying to reach for his bags when he’s not meant to, et cetera. The effects of stress cannot be overstated here; we completely change personality, temperament and even control of our emotions when the stress becomes too much. At that point, we can engage in all sorts of strange and erratic behavior that can include violent behavior.  [For a detailed explanation and list of the effects of stress and a list of the symptoms of stress, read Patrick Wanis Ph.D.’s article “You’re not crazy” from August 2008. Click here:]

We also don’t know if Steven Slater was on any sort of medication? Because medication can also lead to acts of violence or to the possibility that he wasn’t in fully control of his emotions. Having said that, maybe he snapped when he cussed the person out and at that point, he said okay, this is all too much for me. I am out of here. So he grabs a beer and he opens the emergency chute and he literally gets out of here.

The next question you’re going to ask I’m guessing is, “Why is so much of the public on his side? Correct?

Reporter:                    Yes, sure.

Patrick Wanis:          This is an example where Steven Slater represents a lot of the common frustration within the public against people who are so rude on airplanes. He has become the poster boy for the resentment that people have with other rude people on airplanes. So in many ways, people are saying, you know what, we like Steven Slater because he did what we all wished we could have done which is, you know, cuss out this person that’s being rude.

I think many of us have been on an airplane and experienced the situation where we see other people just ignoring the rules, doing whatever they want, either trying to cram their bags into a space that won’t fit or being belligerent or being rude or being obnoxious or even being almost verbally violent to flight attendants when they’re being requested either to sit down, straighten their chair, turn off the electronic devices or remain in their seats with the seatbelt fastened. So I think he’s simply reflecting and is a symbol for a lot of the frustration that many people feel towards those people who are rude and just don’t care about the rules.

Reporter:                    Yes, and it might be even wider than airlines – crazy drivers and just the rudeness that we all encounter in our lives.

Patrick Wanis:          Well, I think you’ve raised a great point. Now you’re talking about what I believe to be a sort of common sentiment and that is that there is a lot of stress in today’s society, more than we’ve ever experienced and not just because of the technology but because of everything happening around the world and its effect on us and we’ve seen more and more people just saying, “You know what? Screw it. I don’t care,” and they break the rules. They have less and less control over their emotions and that’s what we’re talking about here. The two key points are number one, being considerate and respectful towards other people and two, having control of your emotions.

Reporter:                    Right.

Patrick Wanis:          When we break the rules, we’re actually not being considerate of others. When we break the rules or we respond with anger or we respond with some sort of violence, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional or verbal, we’re also losing control over our emotions and I think that’s what you have seen.

Now having said that, that’s also what Steven Slater was doing in a sense that he said, “You know what? I’ve had it. I’m just getting out of here.” He did have other choices and this is where he was not fully in control of his emotions. When we’re in control of our emotions, then we understand in the moment that we have a vast array of choices as to how we’re going to respond.

Slater made two simple responses; one: to cuss out the passenger or the passengers on that plane and two: just to jump out of the emergency chute. He had other choices. He could have waited. He could have reported that passenger. He could have called over the police or the TSA and after that point, he could have said to his superiors I cannot handle this job anymore. I cannot handle the stress anymore. I’ve been here for so many years and this is not for my health. I already have too many other things outside of my life. And at that point, he could have resigned. His behavior wasn’t good in terms of being an example or a model for other people.

Reporter:                    Okay.

Patrick Wanis:          And what he’s doing in many ways is the same sort of thing that he was accusing the passenger of doing. He was breaking the rules.

Reporter:                    Yes.

Patrick Wanis:          So he says I’m mad at this passenger because he’s not listening to the rules. He’s not following the regulations so I’m going to cuss him out and then I’m going to break the rules and regulations and open up the emergency chute. Well, it really wasn’t an emergency so he was obviously breaking the rules.

Reporter:                    Right. So do you think there’s an element in terms of reaction from other people and supporting him from the economy in difficult financial times that’s yet another stressor and the reason why people feel stuck in jobs and that kind of thing?

Patrick Wanis:          I think yes. I think what you’re finding is that there’s a huge backlash whether you refer to it as The Tea Party, whether it’s individuals engaging in violence, whether it’s murder, whether it’s workplace violence. What you’re seeing is a backlash against fear. Lots and lots of people feeling fear and fear leads to stress and anxiety.

So it’s a combination of fear, anxiety and stress that’s making people respond in highly erratic ways. And so yes, I do want to respond specifically to your question about the economy; yes, it has a lot to do with the fact that there’s so much uncertainty which goes back to fear, uncertainty about jobs, uncertainty about the economy, uncertainty about our health, uncertainty about the future because we see the floods, we see the heat and the smog and clouds in Moscow. We see floods in China. We see the heat, the extended period of heat we’ve seen throughout America. There are just so many things on top of people’s heads that it’s like a boiling pot and the water is just boiling and boiling and instead of evaporating, it’s getting higher and higher until it spills over the pot and that’s what’s happening to a lot of people. They’re literally spilling over.

Reporter:                    And Steven Slater was apparently a microcosm of that and he did boil over.

Patrick Wanis:          Yes, he definitely did and I think a lot of people also had sympathy for him not just because of the way he reacted to that rude passenger but because he said I’m leaving this. I’m not putting up with this. I’m walking away and I think a lot of people sympathize with that because I think most people wish they could walk out of their job and many of us today don’t have that option. We don’t have that luxury because we’re living paycheck to paycheck.

We’re afraid of losing our job because we don’t know if we can get another. We don’t know how to pay our bills and what’s happening, of course; corporations are putting more and more pressure on their employees to produce more, perform better, perform faster and with less resources. Corporations are pushing employees to work harder with less rewards, less pay and when people leave, they’re not replaced and so more responsibility and more pressure is given to the other remaining employees.

Reporter:                    So, we have the rude people aspect and especially in the context of an airplane and then you have the take this job and shove it aspect of Slater quitting on the spot in a dramatic fashion.

Patrick Wanis:          Yes, take this job and shove it is a key element of this incident; the fact that this man said nothing is going to stop me. I’m just getting out of here. No one is going to hold me down and I want to reference two songs. There was that song from 1978 by country singer Johnny Paycheck, called Take This Job and Shove It.

Reporter:                    Yes.

Patrick Wanis:          Which often is a sentiment. You know, people are tired of corporations. People are tired of big brother as they say and then there’s another song that’s interesting. It was by REM, “Everybody Hurts” where you see in the music video clip all of thousands of people stuck in traffic on the highway and we hear their personal thoughts (sadness, loneliness, self-doubt, regret, hopelessness, stress, fear, etc) they all open the car door and get out of their cars and they begin to abandon the car and they walk away, and incidentally, that video was inspired by the German movie “Wings of Desire” which deals with the theme of humanity’s chronic pain and suffering. REM’s video of “Everybody Hurts” which shows people abandoning their cars en masse, was a symbol to say we’re leaving everything behind. We are in pain, we are tired, we are stressed, we’re not going to keep being part of this rat race, this rut; it’s not we’re giving up but we’re leaving it behind. We’re taking control of our lives. We’re no longer going to be the rat in the wheel that just keeps going round and round.

Reporter:                    And that word you said just now seems pertinent, the control, right? It’s a matter of just taking back control.

Patrick Wanis:          Yes, it’s very much about control. I think that’s a good point because when we experience so much pain, we say I’m getting out of here. I’m tired of being controlled. I’m taking control of my own life and I’m leaving. I’m getting out of this job. I’m quitting or I’m walking away from the situation. That can also be very empowering which is another reason why the public would probably relate very much to Steven Slater and now perceive him as a hero because they feel that he became empowered in that moment. He said I’m taking control now. No one is going to talk to me this way. No one is going to hit me with a bag. No one is going to treat me this way. I’m not going to let anyone be that rude to me anymore. And that was a symbolic gesture for other people. Other people go wow, we wish we could do this either in our workplace or even in a relationship or at home.

Reporter:                    Right.

Patrick Wanis:          It’s about that sense of I’ve got my power back and I’m in control. I’m now not going to let anyone do this to me ever again. I think the saddest part though is that he could end up being in jail.

Reporter:                    Yes. But after he gets out of jail, he’ll have a reality show of some sort probably.

Patrick Wanis:          Well, you know, he is already almost semi-famous and it will be interesting to see how much more publicity he gets. I promise you that all of the morning national TV shows will be vying very hard right now, begging him and offering him money to come on their show.

Reporter:                    I’m sure, yes.

Patrick Wanis:          And unfortunately, that’s part of the incestuous media today which is something has happened: Quick, let’s get them on and let’s ask every single detail. And by the very nature of exposing him, they make them famous.

Reporter:                    Yes.

Patrick Wanis:          Yes, more famous than infamous because they generate publicity and then a TV producer sees Steven Slater and says, look, everyone knows his name. Everyone is intrigued by him. There’s mystery. There’s interest. Let’s build a TV show around him because we know everyone will tune in.

Reporter:                    Yes. I appreciate you taking out the time to talk to me.

Patrick Wanis:          You’re welcome.

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