Knowing when to hit the brakes: Trash talk only works in competitive, noncooperative pursuits

Posted July 20

Airlines have gotten some pretty lousy press for some customer interactions recently. Who didn't hear of the man hauled off a plane once he had boarded using a ticket he rightfully purchased or the airline that forced a mom to hold her toddler the entire flight after she paid for a separate ticket for the child in advance?

It's not surprising passengers are feeling a bit disgruntled, even if most flights go off without a hitch. Customers don't dare complain much if they don't want to risk running afoul of flight crews that can evict you.

As a young friend observed this weekend, "If an airline wants to beat its competitors, all it has to do is be nice."

Seems to me that's pretty good advice for all of us.

I was thinking about that as author Ann Coulter did a Twitter tirade over being moved from an extra-legroom seat on a flight.

A lot of us might have sympathized, had she followed the "be nice" advice. But instead of confining her wrath to the airline — where I am sure a legion of folks would have agreed that she should have been allowed to keep the seat assignment for which she paid $30 extra — she trash-talked the woman who got the seat Coulter so desperately desired. She also noted that just finding out which seat would provide extra legroom was worth $10,000 of her time. Either she's slow at reading airplane diagrams or she's a whole different pay grade than most of us.

She lost any perceived high ground in one tweet: "Hey @Delta, if it was so important for the dachshund-legged woman to take my seat, she should have BOOKED THE SEAT IN ADVANCE. Like I did." I'd be willing to bet the woman was not responsible for depriving Ms. Coulter of her seat. I doubt she connived, colluded or even knew why her face was tweeted far and wide. And the description of the woman's legs was unflattering — to Coulter.

It doesn't matter if you're right: When the discussion becomes rude and you can't figure out how to hit the brakes on the point you're trying to make, you lose ground every single time.

This is just the latest example of what has become a kind of national sport: Defaulting to bratty behavior and demanding your own view or rights take precedence over someone else's is one reason it feels like our nation struggles now. We have a great political divide. We have a staggering economic divide that's getting harder to bridge by hard work. And the fact so many are becoming boorish is a gaping wound.

Trash-talking has become common in many facets of life, so I was interested recently in an interview Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania did with visiting scholar and Georgetown professor Jeremy Yip and Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor. They are co-authors of research called "Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance and Unethical Behavior." The lessons from their look at trash-talking in the workplace could apply to other venues. The practice has both ups and downs — but probably seldom the effects a trash-talker desires.

Trash-talk motivates a competitor, who will do a lot to prove you wrong. Trash-talk, on the other hand, destroys collaboration, which is probably why Congress can't do anything remotely bipartisan these days. If I slap you upside the head and tell you you're stupid or evil, you probably won't have an urge to problem-solve with me.

A lot of the trash-talking that goes on in America follows lines based on perceived differences such as politics or religion. It is becoming a national tragedy. People who could collaborate and solve problems quite easily with kindness and a show of mutual respect instead become furious and sandbag each other.

We really don't need another outburst on the landscape of modern interaction; it's too common, done by various people representing different ideas and ideologies. I hope, ultimately, that the propensity for rude outbursts burns out so we can get back to the business of living together and enjoying both our similarities and our differences.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco


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