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How to Expand? Stand in Their Shoes

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[This article is based on Thomas D. Zweifel and Aaron L. Raskin’s award-winning bestseller The Rabbi and the CEO: The Ten Commandments for 21st Century Leaders (New York 2008: Selectbooks).]

If I am not for myself, who will be?

And when I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

—Hillel[i]

 On a plane, you constantly fight for limited resources and against encroaching elbows, crying babies, overstuffed overhead bins, or coffee spilling on your open laptop (especially if you fly coach). Life on a plane is a microcosm of life on the planet. It’s easy to see only your own point of view, feel that you must fend for yourself, and guard your space in a world reduced to you-or-me thinking.

In fact, aircraft are great laboratories for empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of a flight attendant (my wife was one for many years). “Often, we arrive with our beverage carts, obviously ready to take their drink order,” said Robert Ward, a flight attendant based in San Francisco, but customers “wait until we have asked once or twice before removing their headphones and saying, ‘What?’” Alan Boswell, a US Airways flight attendant, has experienced the same cold shoulder. On a typical flight, “I got to row four before I heard a single ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’”

That’s peanuts compared to Mary Sutphen’s story. On a New York-Amsterdam flight, a passenger cursed her for refusing to serve him another whiskey, then kicked her in the knee, and finally decided to get her attention by urinating on her jump seat. On arrival he was met by the local authorities at the aircraft door. “I will never understand what happens to people when they get on an airplane,” said Sutphen. “Some people check their brains with their bags.”

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