Yesterday I was on a commuter flight from Toronto to Montreal. For those of you not in North America, these two cities are the biggest two in Canada and the flight is full of corporate looking people who are wearing ties, nice trench coats, shiny shoes, power rim glasses, and carrying leather portfolios. In short it was a flight of business travellers, mostly men, mostly white.
What struck me as I watched people coming on was how grim everyone looked. Everyone looked deadly serious. They were quiet, travelling alone for the most part and quickly avoided making eye contact with others. It seemed as if most people coming on were worried or fearful. It was as if people were moving with a kind of forced confidence but what was so clear from the outside was how afraid everyone seemed to be of appearing to make a mistake.
At one point a man sat down next to me after expertly throwing his rollaway into the overhead bin. He mumbled a forced “good morning” without looking at me and then cracked open his newspaper. A minute later a woman appeared and showed him her boarding pass which indicated that he was sitting in her seat. The man looked mortified, stuttered out an apology to me actually tried to defend himself and justify his mistake and very nervously and clumsily moved across the aisle.
I was filled with a wave of sadness in that moment. I wanted to say to him “Hey, I won’t be the one that yells at you today for that little mistake.” I looked around the plane. People were so scared of making an error that everyone sat clenched in their seats quiet and grim. I was shocked…it became clear to me that some part of our society – let’s say “Corporate Canada” in this case – was gripped by fear. People actually looked traumatized or abused. They looked like people I know who are residential school survivors or who had survived a bad and abusive foster parenting situation. I can imagine them being yelled at for little things that have happened. It looked like the most risk averse group of people I have ever seen in one place. Risk averse because somehow each of them had paid a dear price fro sticking their necks out, a personal price.
The temptation to generalize is great. But let me say that most airports on a weekday morning during the fall and winter are full of faces like this. Business travellers, corporate sales managers, directors of HR, regional market analysts, associate finance directors, senior planning officers…all these middle management corporate positions staffed by people so full of fear that they shake with nervousness at the smallest mistake in their day.
I don’t work much in the corporate world, but maybe I should more. Maybe a little honest conversation, a little tolerance for exploration and creative problem solving, a little space opening could go a long way to softening the lives of those who wear a hard visage.