Discover more from The Art of Unintended Consequences
A Touching Journey
What happens when we touch those around us?
We learned through previous stories here that there are many things that impact our lives - both good and bad. Question is, are we even aware of those impacts?
Degrees of Touch.
Today we’re going to take a little side trip to a different approach to Unintended Consequences. We have been talking mostly about the results and consequences that take shape AFTER our actions touch someone.
However, what if we could shape those touches?
We go through our lives, moment by moment, doing what we think best at that exact time. Generally, we are not even consciously aware of those we touch along the way.
What if we could take a directed approach to touching others (metaphorically speaking of course) to help tweak a positive unintended consequence for them. Seems like a subtle difference, but it is actually quite profound.
Our impact on others - our touch - is usually not instantly life-altering. It may simply be a momentary touch that neither of us consciously remember as having any meaning at the time.
We Do Not Live in a Vacuum.
What brought this all to mind was a video I came across on LinkedIn a while back. Many people work in jobs that have a repetitive aspect that must be done again and again and again. It can become numbing after a while and - if it is a people-facing task - we might ultimately forget that others are impacted by our actions during those repetitive tasks.
After a while, we might have a tendency to tune those people out to the point where they become just background noise. Peripheral awareness.
One place where this is particularly evident is with Flight Attendants. Day-in, day-out, sometimes 10-20 times a day, they must perform in front of hundreds and hundreds of passengers in a stressful atmosphere. Their job is to keep people comfortable and safe in this unnatural environment. This becomes more mentally challenging when many of those passengers do not want to be there in the first place.
So, the question becomes, do our little interactions with others make a difference in their lives?
Choosing to Touch Others.
We can never know what impact our minor touches might have on others so consider this as an “odds” problem. The more people we touch positively during the course of our lives, the better the odds are that we will have a net-positive impact that might have a positive consequence - no matter how small.
Which brings me back to my story from LinkedIn. Most of us have flown on a plane. It can be frustrating, tiring, and stress-filled. After being herded through long cattle-lines to get through security, we then hurry up and wait until time to shuffle toe-to-heel onto a sardine-packed plane. After finally finding room in an overhead, we drop into a too-small seat, twisting and contorting to reach the belts and get strapped in.
Where is the opportunity for someone to make a difference?
The Flight Safety Briefing of course. If you’ve flown, you’ve sat through these. Most of us look at our phone during that, or read the in-flight magazine, already mentally checking out to just try and get this over with.
The plane starts to taxi and… you realize… something feels different this time. People in the cabin are laughing.
You look up to see the Flight Attendant has a big smirk on his face as he tries franticly to buckle the demonstration seatbelt. Ta-Da! It finally latches and he takes a bow as the recorded brief drones from the overhead speakers. He winks at some kids a few seats down, then starts to exaggeratingly pantomime where all of the exits are, using the last over-the-top gesture to imitate fish gills… fish face and all.
The laughter drowns out the words spilling monotonously from the speakers. Without pause, he dances a bit as he gloriously displays an air mask. Then… the disembodied voice states calmly, “In case of a loss of cabin pressurization, the masks will drop down…”, whereupon our Flight Attendant… all eyes upon him now….
He fake screams silently, PANIC contorting his whole body as he grabs frantically at the mask he’s dangling from the overhead and… calmly places it over his face. Pulling it tight until his eyes pop out. At this point, he takes a glamorous runway pose with the mask securely attached to his face.
I do not have the words to do this video justice. If you would like to see the video, please respond in comments below and I will provide you the link.
In two and a half minutes this man, in doing his job, erased the tensions, fears, frustrations, and boredom from most of the passengers on his plane. He didn’t have to do this. He chose to do it.
He had fun. The passengers had a pleasurable experience. The attitude of everyone on the plane changed positively. He had flipped the switch on their experience.
Was anyone’s life changed? Were there any big unintended consequences? We can never know of course. But consider this. If these people now arrived at their destination in a much better mood than they had been in before, would they make different choices? Would they act differently to others? Would them acting differently to others have any unintended consequences down the line?
The point of all of this is that we can make choices in our lives that affect our interactions with others, and therefore, their interactions with those they touch, and on, and on, and on.
Hey Steward! There’s a Jeep in My Lap.
We all have opportunities in our lives to make choices in how we touch others. In a previous life, I was part of the Flight Crew during my time in the Air Force. I flew around the world on large cargo jets - the 4-engine C-141b Starlifter to be exact. When we carried passengers (about 30% of the time), part of my job as the Loadmaster was to give the Safety Briefings and to see to the safety and comfort of the passengers in flight. Sound familiar?
To set the stage a bit, try to imagine for a moment, a large paper towel tube (our aircraft) with Jeeps, trucks, or tanks strapped down in the middle of the tube and all the “passengers” strapped in sideways along the wall on netting seats with their knees practically touching these massive vehicles.
Now imagine that you are on a 7-hour flight at 3:00 am local time to who knows where, to do who knows what. Maybe it’s just an exercise, but you are still heading into the unknown to do dangerous things. You are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, knees inches away (if you are not too tall) from the massive military truck strapped down in front of you that is bouncing ever so slightly in the turbulence at 40,000 feet.
Using the so-called restroom on a C-141, if you can even get to it, is an experience one is not likely to forget. Imagine a miniature outhouse had a baby with a small refrigerator and the result was strapped down on the back of a truck careening down an old dirt mountain road. Holding one of the exposed metal beams overhead with one hand you desperately try to aim and… Well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that most women on these flights waited the seven hours or so until we got to our destination. But I grossly digress… back to the point of all this.
Adding all that up, might you be a bit tense and on edge?
I made a choice early on that maybe, just maybe, I could make a bit of a difference for these “passengers.” I will admit, I was nowhere near as good as the humorous Flight Attendant I talked about above, but I did my best.
During the safety briefing, I would tell bad jokes, spin absurd stories about the cargo that was strapped down inches away from them, or I might even sing a little (which sometimes resulted in more groans than laughs). I don’t remember many of the jokes I told (which is probably a good thing).
I do remember a few times telling the soldiers near the middle of the plane that they were the lucky ones. In case of a water landing, that 68-ton M1 Abrams Tank strapped down inches from their knees could be used as a flotation device.
An Officer riding with the troops one time “requested” that I amend my joke with the caveat that no, an M1 Abrams Tank does not actually float and one should not attempt to climb onto it during a water landing - or what would more appropriately be called a “water crashing” considering we were carrying a 68-ton tank in the belly of our big paper towel tube.
Back to the point… again. —> The C-141 is not exactly a commercial airliner so I worked hard to distract them during what were always cold, noisy, and bumpy flights.
These planes were NOT designed to make people WANT to fly on them again. Try to imagine riding inside your clothes dryer while it blows ICE COLD air on you with someone standing next to the dryer who is kicking it every once in a while just to be sure you are awake.
I put in even more effort when the weather was rough. I would flash the cabin lights while telling 40,000 ft. campfire stories. Sometimes I would climb over the cargo, trucks, jeeps, and tanks, popping up in unexpected places to hand out candies, sodas, and other treats I had brought aboard. Whatever I could think of… and that I thought I could get away with.
What’s the Point?
First off, it was a heck of a lot of fun. But most importantly - actually finally bringing us back to the whole point of this long story - we have no idea how our slightest touch might affect someone’s life. Maybe it is just the nudge or the moment they need to reset themselves. Maybe they walk away in a better mood, make different choices, share the mood… who knows?
I do have one story coming up about a meeting that I had with someone years ago where one singular moment, one small turn of phrase, during that long, tense meeting made a difference in the focus of that person’s business life from that time on. I barely remember the meeting, much less the conversation. When he reached out after a few years to thank me, I was dumbfounded. I had no idea. It was just one of a thousand meetings for me. For him, it was something different. Keep an eye out for that story, it should be interesting.
So, you see these intersections happen without us even being aware of them.
A smile at a stranger. A nod. An accidental bump. A dollar in the cup. A bad tip. A great tip. A momentary helping hand. A turn of phrase.
These are all just “moments” to us. The, we move on about our lives.
One last thing to consider.
The Flight Attendants Safety Briefing and my exploits on the cargo plane were examples of a directed approach to touch in order to promote the possibility of a positive consequence. If there is any validity in playing the odds to promote a positive outcome, wouldn’t negative touches have similar odds in promoting a negative consequence?
For example, what if the Flight Attendant instead treated this job like a necessary evil he needed to do. What if he never smiled, said only the required words, and handled his duties throughout the flight with a negative attitude, a condescending voice, and a frown?
For passengers who were already exhausted, angry, and frustrated, this alternate approach would not make them feel any better. In fact, it might exacerbate the situation - look at the recent rash of fights on airplanes.
Going back to our example in the beginning of this story… if we instead treated them with a negative experience, might their mood worsen, might the passengers, upon arriving at their destination, make different decisions? Treat people differently? Act differently?
It only makes sense that our touches would work both ways.
So my recommendation is to always play the odds for the positive touch. Oh, and have some fun doing it!
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Author and Consultant
Author of “Public Speaking for Kids, Tweens, and Teens - Confidence for Life!”
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