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69. What’s rational depends on viewpoint

I just had a fun experience onboard an airplane, that got me thinking. Weirdly enough, my recent encounter in the air might end up making me a better event organiser and a better person. Of course, maybe it’ll do nothing of that sort, and its significance may fade into obscurity soon.

To combat that I’m writing about it.

It was a small thing. Hardly worth mentioning. But here goes.

I was sitting peacefully in seat 9B (tucked between two fellow travellers), as the food & beverage cart trundled along. As they stopped next to us in the aisle, the stewardess asked if we wanted anything. Of the three of us, only I was in a shopping mood. I told her that I’d like to buy a few things, but I’d need to get my credit card from an overhead locker to pay for it. I told her that it was located in my jacket in an overhead bin behind her.

In an attempt to solve the logistics of the matter, the stewardess opened the bin and asked me where my jacket was. I helpfully pointed, but it turned out that I’d remembered the storage bin wrong. I was about to tell her that, when she lost faith in the plan, and her collegeaue came up with a new one. “We’ll give you your things, go past, and when we come back, you’ll have had time to get the card and pay.”

It was smart. It was simple. I liked it.

I ordered my Coke Zero and water, got it, and was content. They pushed the cart past us, and when they had cleared our immediate area, I told my co-passenger and 9C (the aisle seat) that I’d like to get out. Smiles and movement, and I found myself in the central corridor of the airplane.

It didn’t take me long to locate my credit card.

And here’s where it got interesting.

Because to me, it made no sense to wait for the stewardess pair to complete their entire front-to-back journey and then have to deal with me. We could fix it right then and there. No risk of either party forgetting what had been bought. No mental shift after they were done into a “We’re done, but still have this one guy”. I would get it out of the way, and could put my credit card back in the overhead bin. Smiles all round.

Except that the stewardess near me didn’t see it that way at all. When I told her that I could pay now, she looked at me incredously and said “You can’t do it now! We’re busy with other customers. We’ll come back to you later.”

It was obvious that she thought I was being rude by even suggesting it.

Tempted as I was to argue, I instead smiled and said “Of course. I’ll wait”, and decided on a toilet break instead. Sitting there, grinning quietly to myself (I do that a lot), I went over the episode in my head.

Much as I didn’t like it, both viewpoints make sense.

Mine makes sense from both my perspective and from a purely rational point of view. Whether I paid as they came by, paid a little after or paid when they came back wouldn’t make a difference in the time it took to pay. It wouldn’t even objectively delay them, since it’s pretty arbitrary how many people on a plane want to buy stuff. The lady to my right didn’t buy anything, and I’d obviously saved them time by not paying. That time could be regained by me paying now, and not waiting.

On the other hand, they had already moved on. They were serving other customers now, and while it might not make a difference whether you’re serving the person to the side of the wagon or a person behind it, it makes a difference from a customer service point of view. As someone who flies a lot, I know how slow the progress of the meal wagon feels, and I can imagine the frustration of it finally arriving only to be delayed further by someone from “earlier on the trip” needing to pay. I get that.

I also get that by choosing not to accept my payment in the way I suggested, they’d be keeping disruption to one passenger instead of letting it spread to several. And since I’d already demonstrated that I was a special snowflake (who keeps their credit card in the overhead bin, after all?), letting me wait a little more would only be fair. I was the cause of my own problem, after all, and why should that impact other passengers?

In the end, it didn’t matter that much to either me or the stewardess at hand. This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death decision. It wasn’t even a designed experience, just something that happened. And yet, I find there’s learning to be had from it.

I do a lot of events and I often interact with people who do things that I find irrational. I’m also very aware that I constantly do other things that others find irrational. And that’s ok. In fact, it’s not just ok, it’s hard to avoid!

What I want to take me from this is more acceptance of the insight that just because something may seem irrational from my point of view, it can still be perfecty rational from someone else’s point of view. Just because people handle things in a way that seems silly to me, it doesn’t necessarily seem silly to them.

And instead of arguing or discussing, it’s often worth it taking a step back and thinking “Could this irrational decision be rational from a different viewpoint?”

Ironically, as I have written this, the stewardesses have completed their rounds and have returned to the front of the plane with the coveted cart. They didn’t stop to take my money. And even more ironically, I’ll now probably end up holding up the line when I exit the plane and remind them that I need to pay.

Either that, or waiting until I’m the last one leaving, so I don’t cause further disruption. Still, even though I think this proves my point somewhat, I still understand that my point of view wasn’t the only one.

And If there’s a moral to the story, I guess it is that passengers who fly Norwegian and don’t keep their credit cards on them are annoying. I’m pretty sure both the stewardess and I can agree on that. :-)

*Update: The other stewardess came and settled the bill. She had forgotten what I had bought, but was happy that I remembered.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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