Tears in Heaven

While on a long haul flight, have you ever found yourself blubbing inexplicably at the end of a Bridget Jones movie or sobbing into your napkin during Toy Story 4? Well, don’t be embarrassed and certainly don’t flee to the nearest loo to avoid the puzzled looks from colleagues sitting across the aisle. You see this is purely a manifestation of A.A.L.S. or Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome. Yes, such a thing actually exists and it affects more flyers than you would imagine. Not just the ones who have overindulged in the inflight Pinot Noir. In fact

A U.S. study in 2018* entitled ‘No tears in heaven: did the media create the pseudo-phenomenon “altitude-adjusted lachrymosity syndrome (AALS)”?’ found that A.A.L.S. is not an actual medical condition but more of a phenomenon. The evidence showed that people were more likely to cry or feel heighten emotions while watching a film at altitude. The study did not cite any single reason for this but possible reasons for this included significantly increased exposure to many films in a short period of time, watching “guilty pleasure” films and having recently experienced an ‘emotional life event’. It is, of course possible that this ‘emotional life event’ in 2019 might simply be the experience of saying goodbye to one’s loved ones or clambering through a manic airport terminal. For those of you who do not know what a ‘guilty pleasure’ film is, it is one that you would not be seen dead watching on the ground. Carry on Camping comes to mind.

There was also found to be a gender factor, with more women experiencing AALS, although most of my male friends have confessed to bouts of inflight tearfulness. Another cause is seen to be technology. As the presentation of IFE (inflight entertainment) on aircraft has gradually improved since its inception in the 1960s, we’ve all been getting more intimate with the programming that we chose. With the help of noise-cancelling headphones, we have created a ‘bubble’ in which we are now isolated from the hubbub of the cabin and focus completely on the tearjerker movie at hand.

Purists would argue that for this syndrome to be properly ‘diagnosed’, the film that is believed to be causing it must be one that would not normally be tear-inducing. Cathay Pacific appear not to have grasped the true nature of the condition by suggesting in their inflight magazine, Discovery, that A.A.L.S. might be brought on by some of their films where crying would normally be expected. In truth it’s not until you start crying at The Expendables 2that you can really declare that you have Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome.

The inflight entertainment does not have to be the cause of our lachrymosity at all. I remember when I departed on my first overseas posting to the Far East with BA. At the tender age of 23, I was inconsolable for a good proportion of my flight to Seoul. What had seemed exciting and pioneering in the weeks leading up to my departure, now felt like ill-informed folly. In short I was ‘solid gone’ as modern vernacular would have it. This was certainly an ‘emotional life event’ made worse by the fact that my eight suitcases and I had been put to standby until ten minutes before departure, much to the bemusement of my family who had joined me at Terminal 4 to bid me farewell.

So what is the cure for A.A.L.S.? Avoid any emotionally charged inflight entertainment (especially any guilty pleasure viewing), stay off the wine and ditch the fancy headphones. So ‘man up’ with the Fast and the Furious 8with a Coke Zero and some Apple EarPods.

*Wicks P, Lancashire L. 2018. No tears in heaven: did the media create the pseudo-phenomenon “altitude-adjusted lachrymosity syndrome (AALS)”? PeerJ 6:e4569

The Upgrade Lowdown

In the days before airlines used clever algorithms to select candidates for that elusive cabin upgrade, it was left to the discretion of the airline duty manager to bestow such an honour on a favoured passenger. I’m not saying that it was a free for all, but in those days, as a passenger, it was always worth asking and many did.

 

So what could you do to single yourself out to the checkin agent as someone who would not look out of a place perched on a Business Class seat, as someone who could hold their own in that hallowed space which is First Class? In my younger days as an airport manager, I came across just about every trick on the book when it came to blagging an upgrade. From the clever and unintended to the mean and the downright dishonest ploys, I’ve seen them all.

 

Most common (and so unimaginative!) was the medical ailment trick. This tended to centre around chronic back pain, hip replacements and bad knees. All of these complaints seemed to call for extra legroom and unlimited champagne as a cure-all. Hardened by experience, I have to confess that in the face of such claims I did tend to treat customers as healthy until proven unhealthy. The amateur theatrics employed by some to evidence these medical conditions were often extensive and frequently amusing, particularly when the passenger in question seemed to forget which of her hips had been replaced as she hobbled forlornly from the check-in desk.

 

One of the meanest tricks I experienced was in the days when smoking was allowed on aircraft. A passenger rocked up to check-in and explained loudly and rudely to the Korean agent, how she must be allocated a smoking seat on the 15 hour flight from Seoul to London via Hong Kong as there was no way that she would be able last all that time without a dose of nicotine. The agent duly found her a smoking seat and the passenger departed. When the time came to board the fully booked 747, I happened to overhear the same passenger at the gate abusing a different agent. She was declaring, in a tactically loud fashion, that there was no way that she was going to get on the plane unless she was removed from the smoking seat which she had erroneously been allocated. She abhorred smoking and was immovable. Observing this I concluded that her violent change in preference was not being driven by a Damascene conversion to a non smoker but an assumption that our only option to resolve this problem with a fully loaded aircraft would be to move her in to Club Class. She was absolutely right that this was our only option; however, she was wrong to assume it would be her that would be moved forward. I had great pleasure in moving an elderly Irish nun who was only too happy to exchange her non-smoking seat in economy for the front row of business class. You should have seen her face.

 

I don’t know if it’s the luck of the Irish or my Catholic upbringing, but the most unlikely story of an impromptu and totally unintentional upgrade involved another lady of God. I was supervising check in one day, when a nun approached me. How can I say this without being unkind? This kindly lady was somewhat full figured. “Excuse me, Mr Tams”, she said, “but I’m afraid I’m a little bit overweight”. This sadly was the understatement of the century so I attempted to reassure her by pointing out to her that the flight was not full and that I would block out the seat next door to her in order to give her more room. At this her face reddened and she looked me in the eye with a look that told me I would burn in hell fire for eternity and said, “I was referring to my luggage!” Desperate for absolution, I immediately upgraded her to seat 1A.

Why Businesses Need ‘CQ’ More Than Ever

While Paulo Coelho’s words will seem such an obvious statement to many, it is amazing how many companies send their troops in to the battle for global success without the faintest concept of what it is to truly connect with someone from an alien culture to their own. We readily laud the benefits of leaders with the requisite emotional intelligence to engage with and inspire their teams, while neglecting to give any kind of real support to those we send into other markets or those we chose to manage global teams.

 

It’s fair to say that most expats who are posted to far-flung parts of the globe are likely to be given some kind of cultural induction by their employers. This invariably does not amount to much and, while it will certainly give a taster of what is ahead of them, it will quickly be forgotten once the wheels hit the tarmac on foreign soil and the anxiety of the new home and new job kick in. In addition, if the expat in question is surrounded by only locals at work, they may have no one to turn to for support and advice.

 

In a world where a regional or functional manager can manage a team dotted across the globe from Santiago to Singapore through the medium of Skype and rarely interact with them face to face, the scope for misunderstanding and confusion is enormous. With ever increasing numbers of executives packing their bags and moving to the great blue yonder to manufacture or sell their wares in places they didn’t know existed the week before, their need of support to develop the requisite cultural intelligence just grows greater and greater.

 

The company that I worked for until recently was generally proactive in developing its senior executives, even though it had virtually no budget to do so. However, in spite of that, I was posted to China at great cost to build an enduring relationship with the Chinese government and turn around its fortunes, in what was expected to become the world biggest travel market, with very little cross-cultural training. This was made even more scary by the fact that, no sooner had I made it through customs in Beijing with my eight suitcases, I was henceforth regarded as the company’s ‘China specialist’. Little did I know that it was going take at least 18 months of courtesy meetings with various government officials and potential partners with high profile visits from our company directors before I would build up the requisite political capital to achieve anything. That’s a lot of green tea!

 

You don’t have to be moving overseas to be vulnerable in this respect. A survey by TripActions reveals that 90% of business travellers believe travel is essential to driving growth for their companies, and 91% of business people prefer to close a deal in person, even if it requires air travel. These briefer encounters with foreign cultures can be just a problematic. A short trip I made to Beirut and a large plate of sheep’s brains comes to mind.

 

A further survey by travel management company, FCM, finds that 8 out of 10 business travellers research the local culture before travelling and 77% of them felt their employers should be providing information or training services to help them navigate the different local cultures.

 

Cross-cultural challenges are just as likely to be encountered much closer to home. I was lucky enough to spend three years living in the wonderful city of Stockholm from where I managed a sales team across Scandinavia, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltics. I made two fundamental mistakes: firstly, I naively thought that the Swedish culture would be more or less the same as the British and, secondly, I assumed that all the countries in my care would be much the same as the Swedes. I very quickly and very painfully learnt that both of these assumptions were completely wrong.

 

However, I discovered this about our Northern European cousins because I was living in and visiting these countries on a regular basis. Pity those that are sitting at their desks attempting to manage a diverse team that is scattered around the globe in markets they may never have had any real experience of, or even visited. The potential for misunderstanding and even offence is considerable.

 

So how do we equip our teams with the requisite cultural intelligence to navigate this dangerous path and how do we support them along the way?

 

Well the good news is that, unlike emotional intelligence (EQ), cultural intelligence (CQ) can be learned and coached. INSEAD Professor Erin Mayer’s book, ‘The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business’ provides a very useful and highly readable introduction to navigating the cultural maze.

 

Companies like award winning CultureMee (culturemee.com) provide cross-cultural workshops and a comprehensive web platform with individual guides to other cultures and the ability compare one with another. For more personalised support, Tailwind Advisory (info@tailwindadvisory.co.uk) provides individual 1:1 cultural intelligence coaching for those relocating abroad or managing global teams.