Fend off a Steven Slater-style meltdown

LOS ANGELES — As take-this-job-and-shove-it moments go, Steven Slater's was epic. After allegedly tussling with a passenger aboard a JetBlue flight that had landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the veteran flight attendant finally had enough. He commandeered the public address system, according to news accounts, hurled profanities, grabbed a beer (or beers), deployed the emergency chute and slid into infamy.

That Slater was almost instantly considered a folk hero for his flame-out shouldn't be surprising. Almost everyone, especially those who have worked in a customer service/hospitality/sales clerk position, can relate to that "snap" moment. Slater pulled his off with flair, achieving what most stressed workers only imagine doing.

But if workers everywhere can relate, the fact that most people manage not to flame out dramatically raises questions about the point where patience and tolerance run out and meltdowns happen. That, it turns out, varies — and builds up differently — from person to person, mental health experts say.

The pressures in customer service especially can trump even the most resilient people's equanimity, says Kathleen Shea, a Chicago clinical psychologist who specializes in workplace issues. "They reach the end of their resources."

Why one person blows and another doesn't may be found after backtracking their lives, she adds. "With the flight attendant, something happened way before he got on that airplane. He needed some relief immediately."

Peggy Carlaw, the founder of Impact Learning Centers, a business training and consulting firm in San Luis Obispo, Calif., says some personality types handle customer service job stresses better than others.

"There are people who just gravitate toward serving other people," she says. "They can really empathize with people who are having a bad day. The ones who don't seem able to put up with it are people who are wrapped up in the ego of their job. People who have a strong sense of me-and-my-rights don't do well because they need to fight back."

A short-tempered, tired or stressed person may be more likely to pop off, of course. And basic personality does come into play.

Similarly, it matters how much you have to lose. A young person with no dependents may be less compelled to take abuse than an older worker trying to put food on the table.

And everyone has personal triggers that make them see red — words, phrases or actions that give rudeness or thoughtlessness extra heft.

Then come the shifting pressures from trying to survive in the modern world. "It can be building and building," says Judith Waters, psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. "You find out you owe money or you have a sick child. . . . You think you're handling all these pressures, but when something like this comes along, you fall apart."

In the case of Slater, Shea suspects the altercation carried the potent combination of public humiliation, disrespect and compromised authority. "This was one more time he tried to handle an unruly, demanding passenger. It's like an instructor who is fine for the first three periods telling students to sit down, but by the sixth period when he's said it 30 times, he explodes."

Learning how to handle incendiary situations is not a panacea, she adds: "There's a lot of bad behavior out there today, and I don't think you can train someone to be a robot."

For people in customer service jobs (ask any waiter or employee charged with answering office phones), Slater's actions should be put in context — and somewhat excused or explained — by the current cultural climate. Rudeness has replaced civility; employees have been asked to do more with less money, time and resources; and too many people have a me-first attitude.

Front-line employees often get the brunt of people's anger and frustration. Their job is fairly anonymous (customers know they will probably never see that flight attendant again), and their answer-to-the-customer role creates the perception of second-class citizenry.

"If the attitude is that the customer is always right," Waters says, "it's like saying we give you permission to be less than charming."

Few people have the luxury of quitting when they've reached a breaking point.

Unemployment is still high, and on a job search is not where most people want to be, not even the most pressured call center employee or harassed flight attendant.

So workers who can't indulge their quitting fantasies need to take, if they can, a step back come "snap" time.

Finding a few minutes to calm down during a tense situation can work wonders, mental health experts say, although that isn't always feasible. Telling others you need time alone is important as well, Waters says: "I would come home after a stressful day and say to my husband, 'Give me 15 minutes and I will be a human being again.' "

Shea suggests a day off if possible to let the anger go. If pressures are mounting, seeing a therapist can forestall a serious blowup.

Slater, out on bail after being charged with two felony counts, including criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing, had said, "I think something about this resonated with people. The outpouring of support is very appreciated."

If the case comes to trial and he is tried by a true jury of his peers — one made up of call center employees, nurses, waiters and sales clerks — he may find sympathy on his side.

Fend off a Steven Slater-style meltdown 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 5:33am]

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