A friendliness that is more than skin deep

wanna hear a good joke ?


Air line travel has changed a great deal since the late 1980s and and early 1990s when I traveled more often for business.  In the “good old days” of air travel, one went to the airport a few minutes before the flight, picked up your ticket, checked baggage and flew away.  The airlines gave us drinks, food and anything else they could to entertain us – for free.  One could fly from one city to nearly another city in the country and attend a meeting in the same day; and if the two cities were was not too apart it was possible to return home and sleep in your own bed that night.  Not so any longer, everything takes longer and is more expensive; be prepared to go early, wait longer and pay extra for everything, including your baggage, drinks and the poor miserable imitations of food that pass for snacks – that simple business trip that once took up a day and left time over for other things, now takes at least two days and sometimes three.  This week I had a meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana Tuesday morning – I left Reno Monday morning, twelve hours later I checked into a hotel in Indianapolis.  The meeting took less than an hour, so by noon I was on my way back to the airport for the trip back to Reno – at 10 that night I got home.  In total I spent over 20 hours in airports and airplanes for a one hour meeting. To compensate you can take your laptop and work from the airport, that is small consolation for all of the other things you cannot do while sitting in airplanes and airports.

That is not a very entertaining or  satisfying way to spend two days, but it was instructive.  I had my first full-body scan, but did not realize what it was until it was over.  I encountered numerous members of the now famous Transportation Security Administration’s finest, but did not have anything remotely resembling the “don’t touch my junk” moment that became famous last month; the tension seems to be going out of the relationship between the officers and the traveling public.  The officers I saw for the most part  were friendly and helpful and not the least bit aggressive, righteous or confrontational.  Besides the TSA and the airline employees that I encountered, I also interacted with quite a few retail employees and like the TSA officers, they were friendly.  However, the degree of friendliness seems to vary widely however from one part of the country to another – and I would suppose it also varies with the volume of traffic, delayed flights and other stressful situations that have a tendency to reduce most of us into rather testy and annoying companions.

Friendliness was in fact the most noticeable aspect of my trip, I felt it everywhere, but not equally everywhere.  Some places, some states appear to me to be friendlier than others – dramatically so.  I have always thought that Reno, and the west in general, to be friendly.  I do realize that most of my formal contact with people, that is transactional contacts with people in business, is rather artificial.  The traditional: “can I help you find something?” or “did you find everything?” are something a little less than sincere, but that is just the way it is in business. Right?

That is not what I saw in Indiana, I saw it in Las Vegas, in Reno and in Chicago all of the airports felt about the same, people were polite and friendly in a superficial kind of way.  However, in Indianapolis every place I went people were friendly – I mean really friendly, personal, like family, longtime friends or next door neighbor friendly.  They smiled, laughed and talked in normal natural warm ways and they really tried to help.  For example, one of the crew of housekeepers at the hotel, a man pushing around a cart full of dirty linen, asked me about my stay, asked if I needed anything and then said he hoped I would come back and visit again; he was just one of dozens of people; valet parking attendants, waiters, booksellers, airline ticket agents, girls selling coffee and backpacks and yes even TSA officers that went out of their way to be really friendly, helpful and make me feel welcome.  The officer that checked my driver’s license at the check-point saw I was from Reno; he asked me about the air races and then “boy, that must be exciting!”

In my old life I often taught the customer service classes to our front-line employees, supervisors and managers at the Comstock Hotel and Casino.  I prided myself on the classes and my core message: fast, fun and friendly.  But the observable reality afterward very often failed to meet my expectations and worse those of the our customers.  I kept trying, convinced that if I learned to say the right words, provide the correct training and practice opportunities the Comstock could become the friendliest of casinos.

Yesterday walking around Indianapolis it occurred to me that a polite formal friendliness can be taught, but sincere, honest real friendliness is natural and a part of the cultural.  The people in Indianapolis, Indiana are friendlier than the people in Reno, Nevada or at least they were on February 8, 2011.  Maybe they are just happy they are hosting the Super Bowl next year – the city is already gearing up for the event.  Whatever the cause all of the people I met made that their part of a very tedious trip genuinely pleasant.


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