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We Just Want the 411 2

We Just Want the 411

When I was young, we dialed 411 or “Information” on the telephone when we needed to find out the time, the weather, or someone’s phone number. Today we use Google or Siri to find just about anything we need. But sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, we may need clarification or more details to help us understand and we’re not able to dial 411 or ask for Siri’s help.

A few weeks ago, I was boarding a United flight from Washington, DC to Madison, WI on a small plane with only fifty seats. Because I often find myself on these small regional jets, I purchased a medium-size duffle bag that will fit in any overhead compartment. That way, I don’t have to check my bag and can get to my connections more quickly.

On this particular flight, I approached the plane and a United agent told me I would have to check my bag. I assumed that she assumed the bag would not fit. So I said, “Actually, I’ve used this bag many times before. I’m sure it will fit.”

She said, “Sir, you are only allowed one bag on the flight.”

I said, “Yes, I only have one bag…and then this backpack.”

She said, “No, you are only allowed ONE bag…period.”

When someone says “period” out loud rather than just letting it sit silently at the end of a sentence, it sounds just a tad more aggressive. I asked her, “Why would I only be allowed one bag when the policy on your website says, ‘one bag and a personal item such as a purse or a briefcase’?”

She said, “Sir, you’re just not allowed to take this bag onboard. Now give it to me.”

She pulled the bag from my hand, put a green tag on it, and placed it on the cart with the other checked bags. 

I was flummoxed (and I don’t even know what that is).

When I got onboard, I asked the flight attendant why I couldn’t bring my bag on the flight. She said, “I have no idea.”

This is when I started to feel a spike in my blood pressure. If two employees who work for the same company couldn’t explain a new policy that led to my bag being taken from my cold dead hand (OK, granted, that’s a slight exaggeration), it was going to ruffle my feathers (and I don’t know what that means either). 

Can you imagine being given a ticket from a police officer and when you ask why you got the ticket, he simply says, “Because…period.”?

This approach might work for us parents who sometimes enforce a rule out of frustration rather than a well-thought out policy but in the real world, it doesn’t usually fly.

This bag fiasco happened on two subsequent flights. In each situation, I asked the ticket agent and the flight attendant why I couldn’t take my it-will-squish-and-fit-on-any-plane bag onboard. Each time, they just said they didn’t know the details but that it must be an FAA policy. After the third encounter, I sought out a United Customer Service Center representative within the airport and asked if she could explain the rule. She said that she “thought” it was a relatively new policy and had something to do with weight and balance issues. 

In my typical sarcastically frustrated way, I explained that all of these planes were now flying with empty overhead bins and it seemed to me that since the planes were built with these bins, the manufacturers probably intended them to be used. Also, I added, that if the planes are that sensitive to weight and balance issues, there is a bigger problem here that we’re not addressing. She had no further explanation but I could tell she was a bit flummoxed with my typical sarcastically frustrated approach.

So, let’s unpack my baggage issue a bit. First, United has a new inconsistently applied baggage stowage policy that needs to be resolved internally. Second, and the part that applies to most of us, is that we all want to understand the policies that affect us. We just want the 411 and don’t appreciate being kept in the dark. In most situations, it makes more sense to over-communicate than to under-communicate.

Once, a couple of decades ago, I participated on a committee that was charged with eliminating ten percent of our organization’s workforce due to financial troubles. We worked for several weeks trying to find the right way to accomplish this. Finally, when all the positions to be eliminated were identified, one of my colleagues reminded us that even though we had discussed, argued, and lived with our decisions for several weeks, when we announced the changes to all of our employees, it would be new information to them. She suggested that we allow the employees to have time to absorb the information, to ask questions, and to challenge our assumptions. That way, they would be better able to understand and cope with the changes better. I thought it was a brilliant observation that I remember to this day and try to apply to my own communication situations.

The bottom line is this: We shouldn’t stow away data as United did with my carry-on bag. Instead, when we’re dealing with information that other people may not completely understand, we should take the time to understand the issue, explain what we know, and then try to help them understand in a patient and non-defensive way.

The more we understand what others understand, the better we will be able to close the gap of understanding by then understanding the informational differences in our understanding. And while that may be repetitively redundant, I hope you got the 411.


  • Gwen says:

    Ok, Ron, I’ve got a good example of somebody doing this right. Yesterday, I made a deposit to my business account at my bank’s drive-thru. Before sending my deposit receipt back, the teller said, “I want to point out something that is highlighted in yellow on your deposit receipt.” I thought, “Oh, No, what did I do?” He went on, “for security reasons, we are going to start requiring proof of identity for all transactions. So the next time you come in, you will need to provide a driver’s license or some other id.” I can’t say I am pleased with this change, but I did think they were smart to delay implementation until customers had been personally notified. The yellow highlight said “Friendly heads up: For your security we will soon require . . . ” As for your story, I still want to know what that supposed “policy” was about.

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