When Words and Tone Conflict, Tone Wins

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, and welcome aboard our flight, leaving Port Columbus, Ohio, this evening on its way to New York’s La Guardia airport. Our flight time will be one hour and forty minutes. Our captain is Firstname Lastname and our first officer is Firstname Lastname. And I’m Paul, your flight attendant for this evening. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns.”

I was so amazed by the contrast between what Paul was saying and the way he was saying it that I grabbed my pen and scribbled as quickly as I could while he was still speaking. It was a great use of all names, including his — the words themselves were both personal and caring. But his flat delivery undercut the value of the message. It’s funny how this issue arises on airplanes more than in other places. [See Is This Any Way to Fly the Unfriendly Skies?]

Paul’s monotone might have been overcome if he had cracked even a single smile during the entire boarding process and preparation for takeoff — all of which I observed from the vantage point of seat 2A on this half-filled commuter flight.

Perception, Impression, Reality

And yet, despite his mechanical presentation, Paul was clearly competent — in fact, if his delivery had been different, he would have been perceived as both attentive and kind. He hustled to clean a passenger’s tray table that needed it, and when the passenger thanked him, he apologized deeply before declaring, flatly, “My fault.” While he took complete responsibility, he had a complete lack of personality.

All of the comments made by the flight crew were similarly professional yet impersonal. But what felt the worst to me was that when the unseen pilot announced our imminent departure from the cockpit, he didn’t use any personalization at all. He simply said, “Flight Attendant, please prepare the cabin for takeoff.” That surprised me because surely Paul’s name was on the flight documents, and he had just announced it a few minutes prior.

Did the pilot not use Paul’s name because he was so colorless? Or was this entire crew just less warm than most other crews?

In fact, this was the first flight in half a dozen trips that occurred without a single hitch. It took off on time, arrived on time, and our luggage showed up at the baggage carousel within a reasonable interlude. Cyber crews may be the way of the future, but I hope their programming includes some human feeling!

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