Is gritting your teeth really good for you?

On a recent return flight to Amsterdam from the UK I overheard a fellow-passenger giving a flight attendant a really bad time. It was hard to catch the full story from where I was sitting but it involved the passenger asking for hot water in a plastic, see-through cup. Apparently cups of this sort are not safe to hold hot water and the only alternative was the purchase—for three euros—of a polystyrene cup. Not surprisingly the passenger found this rather excessive. What was more surprising was his response—he proceeded to cross-examine the flight attendant in increasingly aggressive tones, applying the kind of ruthless logic that would not have been out of place in a courtroom.

The flight attendant did his utmost best. He remained polite, consistent and managed not to react to the escalating tone of complaint and anger that he was subjected to. He had a kind of party line that he could fall back on: ‘sorry sir, this is company policy, I am not allowed to give you this cup…’ and so on. After some time he managed to get away and push his trolley on to the next customer. As he came past me our eyes met and I murmured, ‘breathe’. He looked at my rather desperately but did not respond.

The thirsty passenger had two more goes at getting his way during the short flight. He tackled a female flight attendant, perhaps hoping she would be more malleable but she was having none of it. I noticed the same party line and suppressed air of martyrdom as with her male colleague. Although unflinchingly professional both flight attendants adopted the slightly world-weary attitude of people who have seen and heard the full range of human unreasonableness in their time, and who feel that their jobs do not carry sufficient reward in either status or payment that demonstrates an acceptable appreciation of what they suffer. Neither of them danced with the situation, or seemed to try and put themselves in the shoes of the disgruntled passenger.

His final attempt to get his own way was daring—he simply marched up to the refreshment trolley and started all over again. He returned to his seat carrying a bottle of cold water.

I happened to be one of the last off the ‘plane and exchanged a few words with the male flight attendant. Remembering my attitude of sympathy—but not my advice to focus on his breath—he asked me what I thought of the sort of thing they had to put up with. During our short conversation my earlier hunch was confirmed—when dealing with a stressful situation he relied on his determination to stay professional, rather than adopting any strategy to manage his stress. Instead of de-hyping the situation for himself and easing the strain he was feeling, he took up the burden as a way of demonstrating to himself how efficient he was at enduring one of the downsides of his job.

He gritted his teeth in the face of trouble, rather than try to bring ease to the situation. It would probably have been how he was trained.

Stress in the workplace is an increasing concern. Studies show that between 50% and 60% of all lost working days in the EU are due to stress. In 2002 these lost days cost in the region of 20 million euros.

The kind of stress I witnessed on this occasion was not major but it was nasty. The man I spoke to looked very tired by the end of the flight and I doubt if it was his last of the day. His training could so easily include some simple mindfulness and meditation exercises to apply when dealing with demanding passengers and it would enable him to learn to deal with stress in a sustainable way. The tension he was holding looked like it was heading towards a stiff drink and a good moan—not so bad in small doses but not a good long-term strategy for stress-management

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