When I was in high school I was hanging around with a guy named Lou Timolat who was a helicopter pilot/traffic reporter for a radio station in New York City. He generously mentored me in the area of many things over many years. I had a serious case of hero-worship, and perhaps I was the son he didn’t have. Anyway, it worked out okay for both of us.
Lou owned two radio stations (an AM and an FM) in the small upstate New York town of Watkins Glen (pop. 2,500 at the time). The AM was one of those small-town “day-time only” general-purpose radio stations with a format that changed during the day. The FM was all-music, trying to compete with the big boys in Elmira and Corning and Binghamton. Our FM format was “solid gold” during the day. At night it switched over to what was called “progressive rock” at the time.
Since I aspired to be a traffic reporter, Lou thought it was a good idea that I work for his radio station to learn about broadcasting. And so after graduating high school I did just that.
The staff at the two radio stations was mainly a bunch of inexperienced and enthusiastic young people like myself who were eager to learn about the business. Someone procured a book entitled, “How To Be A Disk-Jockey” or some such. Written by Marconi or one of his peers, I believe, it laid out the “rules” of broadcasting as of 1950 or so. We all began sounding like the announcer for the old “Lone Ranger” radio series.
One of the pieces of advice in that book was to smile as you speak. You don’t have to be fake about it – people can tell when you’re being insincere. But it is amazing how the simple act of smiling affects how people hear you. And remember what true communication is all about. It’s not just what you say, but what people are hearing. If your message comes across garbled, you might as well not transmit it at all.
I use this technique to this day. When I talk to people on the phone, I make sure that I’m smiling. I know they can hear it. I believe that it helps getting people "on your side" when you need them to be.
Case in point: Last year I was headed up on my annual pilgrimage to Washington State on American Airlines. Our early-morning flight to Dallas got diverted into some airport in Mississippi due to weather. We refueled and waited for the storms in Texas to clear. By mid-afternoon when we eventually landed in Dallas, my connecting flight to Seattle had long left without me.
Settled into a comfy chair in the terminal, I called American’s reservation number to rebook my flight, steeling myself for the ordeal. All around me harried, preoccupied-looking travelers hustled by, rushing from one gate to another. Nobody looked like they were having any fun.
The bad news for me was that all of the flights for the rest of the day were over-full, and I’d have to go the next day. I was not a happy camper as you can imagine. Instead of getting angry, I took a deep breath and bit my lip while the nice woman on the other end of the line in American’s call center in Tucson, Arizona searched for a way of getting me northwestbound. But things were not looking good.
"And how’s your weather today?” I asked during a pause.
“Oh, it’s beautiful here!” she chirped, perhaps forgetting for that instant that my weather certainly wasn't "beautiful." In fact, it was still pretty horrible. It made me wonder why American Airlines chose Dallas, Texas as their headquarters/hub in the first place.
“Well I’ll bet you’re getting a ton of calls from angry people in Texas!” I said with a laugh.
“Oh yes,” she admitted wryly.
I vowed to not be one of them. “Well ma’am, if there’s any way you can help me out, I’d really appreciate it.” I said it like I meant it, because I really did.
There was a pause and I could hear a clacking of computer keys in the background. She sighed. Another pause and some more key clacking. Another sigh. “It’s just not letting me do this,” she said grimly, frustration in her voice.
I figured I was sunk. My one-day reunion with Mikey would be ruined. But I didn’t say anything…not a peep…no word of complaint or even the slightest hint that my travel plans were damn well important and that I had to be in Seattle TONIGHT, by God! Which is what I was thinking, you know. But nope, for once I just kept my big mouth shut, which is unusual for me.
“These flights are all locked out,” she grumbled. Finally something must have dawned on her. “Wait a minute, I've got an idea…” she said with a kind of Lucy Ricardoesque tone to her voice. I felt a little like Ethel Mertz, and I laughed to myself because I refer everything...and I mean everything to old TV shows. There was some more key clacking. “Aha!” she said triumphantly, “I got a seat for you! She sounded pleased with herself. I certainly was! In the end, I made it to Seattle and Mikey picked me up and we had a great ride over the Cascades to Brewster in the middle of the night.
Now, I don’t know if all of American’s reservation agents are as helpful to stranded customers as she. I would hope so. And maybe this woman would’ve gone the extra mile for me or anyone else anyway, no matter how pissed-off and unpleasant they or I sounded over the phone. Maybe my being nice had nothing to do with it. But I like to think otherwise.
Smiling over the phone. It’s a small thing, no? My overall philosophy in dealing with people is, “Be cheerful.” It is probably the basis of any success I have in interpersonal relationships and these random connections we make with other people during the course of our lives.
Just be cheerful, dammit.