Placing the strap on my shoulder, I lugged the familiar blue and grey duffel bag to the American Airlines check in area. Though there were crowds at the security line, most had done without checking their bags or arrived early enough to avoid the rush. I, on the other hand, was a little pressed for time and eager to make my way through the security theater of pretending my belt could be a deadly weapon.
As I approached the counter, I could hear the agents chuckling with each other, oblivious to the madness most experience traveling through an airport. Reaching them after a few footsteps, I was surprised to see the agent closest to me raise his hand, remove the grin from his face, and say with the utmost seriousness: “We’re closed!”
For a split second, I considered telling him off. Naturally, he was joking, an attempt to make light of a stressful situation or possibly just to satisfy his own sense of humor. Although I used to consider myself a pretty easygoing person when it comes to travel – friendly banter with people on public transportation, nights out with fellow Texans in Boracay, shucking off delays and inconveniences – I’m not so sure I have what it takes anymore. When I heard the gate agent speak, my first reaction wasn’t to laugh it off and offer a witty comeback along the lines of, “no problem; I’m here to relieve you!” but to educate him on why it’s rude and very presumptuous for someone in a position of authority to make jokes at another’s expense.
I’m no fan of dad jokes or pablum to fill the void, even as a conservation starter, but I’d like to believe I can appreciate a well placed comment from a stranger on occasion. However, when there are those whose jobs exist to ensure our safe passage and survival, and who have the power to deny us service out of spite, I hesitate to indulge their whims.
If a police officer came to your home investigating a case not related to you and cracked a joke, wouldn’t you giggle? Not because it’s necessary funny, but because there’s a man with a gun who can make your life a living hell if he so chooses? What if he expresses a political opinion that’s the complete antithesis of your own? Would you stand your ground and argue your cause, risking imprisonment and death, or just smile and nod until he goes away? Even if he chooses not to abuse his power, you’d be getting on his bad side without ever having done anything wrong.
“Laugh as the Sun comes” by Gregory Gill
If your waitress chats you up about where you’re from and what you’re doing in town, wouldn’t you feel obligated to speak to her, despite the fact you’re exhausted and just want to eat in peace? You don’t mess with the people who have access to your food.
To a far lesser extent, this reminds me of women being catcalled. Many catcallers continue their obnoxious behavior because they see women smiling, even laughing, when their disgusting remarks are passed on. Well, of course: would you want to make someone bigger and stronger than you angry, when you’re walking the streets alone? It’s easier to ameliorate the situation by going along with whatever he wants, to the extent it doesn’t cause you harm.
I know I’m not alone here, but I’m sure I’m in the minority. Part of what makes travel appealing to vagabonds and digital nomads is the ability to change your environment. Each time you do, you have the chance to reinvent yourself, and introduce yourself to a whole new group of people. A sense of humor is an essential ingredient of that transition: removing the tension with some cross-cultural jokes, some well placed sarcasm, and the like.
The American Airlines agent’s face looked to me for even the slightest curling of my lip, proof that he was funny and doing the right thing trying to make passengers laugh off their problems. Unfortunately, he didn’t get that from me. I just spoke in a monotone voice and shrugged him off, asking if he could please check my bag through to San Francisco.