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A Waiter, a Flight Attendant and a Mall Santa on How to Remain Nice Under Duress

What do people whose very job relies on their niceness have to say about staying pleasant at all costs?

Sometimes, remaining nice is the hardest thing in the world. But what if your livelihood depends on it? What if your ability to remain agreeable in the face of obnoxious, entitled assholes (and sometimes even genuinely wronged people, finally losing their cool after an hour of being on hold) is all that stands between you and not being able to pay the rent this month? We asked some folk who live this reality every day.

Shoshanna James, flight attendant on a major airline: When you’re in an airplane, it’s a very pressurized situation, both literally and figuratively, so people often lash out for no good reason. When this happens, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that it has nothing to do with me.

Additionally, if I’m in a situation where a passenger is tiring of me or vice versa, I’ll reach out to another flight attendant and tag-team them to take over with that person. If they’re not available, I may tell the passenger that I’ll be right back, and I’ll go to the galley and try to clear my head. After a minute, I then return to the situation with fresh eyes. 

Usually this is enough, but if people get personal, that’s another story. One time, the service wasn’t quick enough for this guy and he said, “I shouldn’t expect much, you’re just a stupid flight attendant.” That threw me over the edge. I said, “No, I’m not just a stupid flight attendant, I’m college educated and I went through rigorous training to do this. The fact is that my primary job is to ensure your safety, not to get you a diet cola.” After that he shut up and we didn’t make eye contact for the rest of the flight, which is what I find usually happens when people stand up for themselves — the bully backs down. 

Alex B., a waiter at a fancy restaurant: Kill them with kindness! If people are being rude and you keep being nice back, eventually they’re going to realize that they’re being an asshole. If they don’t — or they don’t care — the people around them will see me being nothing but nice to this person who is yelling and being rude, so everyone else in the room is going to be on my side while I make you look like a huge asshole. 

Sometimes, though, people do cross a line. I had this guy one night who was really rude and demanding, and the kitchen ended up misreading his order. The guy wanted literally a soup-bowl full of cocktail sauce to go with his seafood. Instead, he got three smaller soup cups. Of course, he took it out on me. Eventually, I snapped back, “Look, we don’t give anyone a bowl of fucking cocktail sauce. That’s disgusting.”

From there, my manager came over and diffused the situation. Then he gave my manager his business card, which she in turn gave to me as she and I were friends. After that, I spent the next month of my life signing him up for all this spam. I’m not sure if it was legal, but whatever.

Santa Russ, a mall Santa in Arizona: I used to be in fire and EMS, and surprisingly, that’s pretty good training for being a mall Santa. In this job, I put up with all kinds of abuse, from teenagers who throw pennies at me from the second level to parents who scream at their kids for not smiling in pictures. I even had a guy once ditch a loaded gun in the Santa set after robbing a Foot Locker.

Throughout all of this, I always try to protect the children from whatever the situation is, whether it’s an angry parent or some sort of physical danger. I keep my cool by reminding myself that it’s all about the children. I have to preserve that saintly image of Santa, so I can’t confront some angry dad who wants to take pictures with his own camera. Instead, I defer to my elves — they can tell the people no or call security if that’s needed. Because in the moment, whether it’s being Santa or a firefighter, you can’t lose your focus until things are all over. You can blow up later on.