$15 Empathy

“I know you have a thankless job, and these sweets a small one way I wanted to say thank you for all that you do.” – I say these lines just about every time I board a flight longer than a couple of hours as I hand a flight attendant a bag filled with mini-snickers or other chocolates that cost under $15.

I enjoy seeing their faces light up as they are surprised and on almost every flight I have other flight attendants stopping by to thank me while slipping me goodies and-or upgrading my flight experience. Occasionally though, miracles happen. Like last night’s flight from New York JFK to London Heathrow that I had to get rebooked onto because of an earlier delay meaning I was on the last flight out and exhausted from travel.

As I summoned a smile and handed the bag to the flight attendants I was recognized by an attendant from a flight over a year ago for whom I’d also given chocolates and a smile to. He asked politely to take a look at my ticket, looked at his flight manifest and said “Mr. Baker, welcome to Business Class, your seat is now 2C – would you like some champagne?”


I was blown away and so grateful because 2C meant a seat that turned into a bed in which I passed out for a solid 6 hours. I missed dinner, snacks, and breakfast, but that sleep was exactly what my body needed to round-out the past 10 days of travel.

Later I asked him about it and he informed me they had been looking for passengers to volunteer for a later flight because it was an oversold flight. However they were also looking to upgrade a few medallion members to Business Class to free up spots in the back as well. Once we were on the plane the flight attendants have a lot of control and my kindness and human sincerity as I boarded the flight was returned with instant karma.

This is the very rare exception as its happened three times in 2 years of travel across multiple airlines. In many cases flight attendants can lose their jobs for spot-upgrades but I met some of the qualifications in this case so it wasn’t a big deal.

One of the key things throughout my 2 years bringing chocolates is that I should never expect anything in return. If I stand there waiting to be treated specially it will never happen. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all even when I am sincere. What I’ve learned is that regardless of the perks I find myself being a better human being when I empathize with the tough job they have.

Additionally, what this flight in particular taught me is that this is not a single-round game (to use game theory language). It isn’t a one-off deal where the relationship doesn’t matter. The flight attendant who flies JFK-LHR a dozen times a month recognized me for having done the same in the past. Often times with customer service representatives I’ve found myself thinking “Well I’ll never talk with them again, so it doesn’t matter if I vent my frustration to them.” Not only do I lack empathy in those situations, I’ve literally dehumanized people.

How often do you get frustrated with the hotel check-in desk, the server at your restaurant, the internet hook-up guy who showed up late, the food truck vendor, your uber driver, your bartender. What good does that frustration, that de-humanization and lack of empathy do for you? Does it make you feel better or superior as you retell the story of how badly you were “mistreated”? How would those exchanges play out differently if you took 10 seconds to make a human connection with that person and built up a micro-relationship with them so that they were motivated to help you find a solution.

I’ve worked retail customer service and remember taking extra care of the nice customers and finding ways to use our policies to help them – something I didn’t do for those who were rude. Working as a host to a restaurant with 4 hour wait times I sat patrons who were kind and understanding ahead of others when the rules could be stretched to allow it – those who were rude didn’t get my rapt attention. While its true that sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the oil and service staff might cave in to someone who is angry just to get them to go away I don’t think the angry customer – the apathetic customer – will ever get special treatment.

Last night’s flight was a reminder that I can and must do better at showing empathy, that repeated actions have consequences, and that there is almost nothing better than an upgrade valued at $4,000+ that only cost you a smile and $15 worth of sweets.