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Winning Hearts and Minds on an Airplane

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Today is the busiest flying day of the year. In honor of this (deservedly uncelebrated) holiday, I want to describe a highly scientific experiment I conducted on an airplane.

In the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, we listened to a lecture on counter-insurgency hosted on the Combined Arms Center website. The lieutenant colonel makes this statement, “I don’t care if people [the population in Afghanistan and Iraq] like me, I only want them to like their government.”

His point is nuanced and I agree that a foreign counter-insurgent’s first concern is that the population supports their government. That is 100% on the money. However, the first clause--“I do not care if people like me...”--sticks in my craw.

It just isn’t true.

In fact, I cannot believe I had to write that. I mean, do I really have to tell our readers that they care if people like them? Or that it matters, at least a little, among all the other factors? To test this theory--that it doesn’t matter if people like you--I set up an experiment. Location: a plane flight. Hypothesis: It is better when people like you.

On my flight to California, I acted as nicely as possible. I tend to get angry after TSA screenings--whether it is the shoes getting taken off, the fellow travellers who don’t take off their belts, the scanners that don’t work but everyone has to go through so employees in back can laugh at your junk--whatever it is, I am usually not in a good mood. So when I boarded my flight, I tried to change my attitude. I deliberately smiled at every flight attendant, and asked as authentically as possible, “How are you doing?”

Later, I made small talk while we waited for the flight to board. Once in air, I ordered a drink intending to pay with the voluminous drink coupons Southwest has sent me for frequent-flyer rewards. For some odd reason, the attendants never asked for them. One attendant even asked if I wanted a refill. (For those who might think I looked like a soldier with a short haircut, I didn’t.)

So, having established my control group (acting friendly got me free drinks) I proceeded to test the inverse of the gratitude theory. Instead of giving out kindness, and getting what I wanted, I simply wanted to be respected, not liked. On the flight back to Tennessee--after waiting through a three and a half hour delay--when the flight attendant asked how I was doing, I stared them in the face and said, “None of your goddamn business. I’m a veteran!” When I ordered my drink, I had to spend my drink coupons, and the flight attendant didn’t ask if I wanted a refill.

This vaguely scientific study won’t ever be published, and, in all honesty, I never said, “None of your goddamn business” to a flight attendant. There’s a simple reason: I try not to act like a complete jerk in public.

More importantly, kindness goes a long way on an airplane. I have actually started to act nicer on flights because the TSA gets me in such an uproar, and the number of free drinks has increased. Acting nice to fellow flyers helps expand my network and meet new people. Kindness generally makes life better for everyone.

But this isn’t just about free drinks or airplanes. It is about the idea that people, in America, don’t like jerks. Eric C could find half a dozen examples in the war memoirs he has reviewed, including One Bullet Away and This Man’s Army, of young officers writing about how much they loved their men and their men loved them. This doesn’t mean they didn’t enforce discipline, but it did mean they cared about being liked. Manager Tools mentions this on their casts as well. Acting friendly will benefit you more than acting like a jerk.

Especially in the work place. Teachers want their students to respect, and like them. So do football coaches. So do parents and children. So do husbands and wives. So do pastors and their congregations. So do corporations and their customers, and employees. So do politicians (and how!). Oh gosh do politicians want to be liked. And bosses want to be liked. Not every boss in every company. But the majority of great bosses have employees who love them. Think Steve Jobs. Apple became the world’s biggest company (by market capitalization) after Job’s mellowed his style when he returned.

I think the analogy of a father and son is best. Fathers want, and demand, respect. They also want to be liked and, preferably, loved. The inverse is the father in Dead Poet’s Society. He probably thought, “I don’t give a damn if my son likes me, only that he respects me.” Spoiler alert--Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) ended up shooting himself.

So everywhere in America, people want to be liked. In fact, in psychology a psychopath is defined as someone who does not care what other people think; a person without empathy. I looked this up in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV--and sure enough psychopath now called “Anti-Social Personality Disorder”--is defined by a lack of caring about the emotional state of others. As I mentioned yesterday, and as I will argue in the coming weeks, the American military lacks cultural awareness. Specifically, we lack the ability to understand how our actions emotionally effect others.

Ultimately, we won’t try--or be able--to have everyone like us. But do we need to care about their emotions? Yes, unless we want to become psychopaths.

three comments

Gotta love that closing scene in Dead Poets.


Michael, agree that establishing a relationship is a key to success. I found that humor works great; however, your example lacks context.

In this case, you were not trying to convert your stewardess to Christianity or Hinduism or Islam. You were not trying to get her to sign up for the Black Power Movement. You were not asking her to join the Republican Party or the Democrat Party.

You were not asking anything from her.

The case is much different when we are a third party intervening in another country. In both Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, we are trying to CHANGE people’s way of life.

Much, much different than being nice to a stranger on a plane, but I do like that you are exploring gratitude theory, and I want to see where you go with it. But, please remember context.


You’ll see our position evolve Mike. I’m not saying warfare is all lovey dubbey and flowers and sunshine. It isn’t. But the idea that I think we most succinctly described by Colonel Steele in Baghdad, and he is far from alone in the Army, is that we need to be apex predators, and feared above all.

I think the issue is that the US Army, or any army, and we have a post on this, is not ambassadors. They are things to be feared. And people who are fearful, will try to fight that which they fear. Fight or flight.

But the main point is humans have emotions. They are not rational automatons. If they were, war would be easy. They have emotions, and I think a lot of planning forgets that.