Franckly speaking: Is the assertive response always the right one?

By From page A4 | January 09, 2012

Marion Franck. Democrat photo by Megan Jeremica

There was an uncomfortable moment between my daughter and me at the airport a couple of weeks ago. We both knew she might be taking a long flight with a crying baby. Trying to avoid that scenario, we stumbled into an experience that was unforeseen.

My daughter, her 4-month-old baby and I were in Terminal B of the Sacramento Airport, from which she would take two flights to her home in Madison, Wis. She had succeeded in getting a good seat on one flight but not on the other.

While I stayed close with the baby, she approached a gate agent hoping to improve her seat.

Lots of people gush over babies, but this agent wasn’t one of them. Although my daughter has the cutest baby ever (with the exception of my other grandson), the agent, a middle-aged woman, didn’t look at him and didn’t coo.

Beth asked if she and the baby could be moved from the window to the aisle. The agent nodded and began tapping on her computer. After a few apparently unsatisfactory attempts (judging from her expression), she pulled out new cards, rapped them on the desk with satisfaction and handed them to Beth. I believe she smiled slightly when wishing Beth a good trip, but I’m not certain.

We took the cute but unacknowledged baby and left.

Twenty-five paces later, Beth looked at her new boarding passes and stopped.

“Wait,” she said. “She changed the wrong flight.” The new seat numbers suggested that Beth been moved out of a desirable single seat to the two-seat side of the airplane. I pictured the results: a fussing baby, a miserable seatmate and a tense daughter.

“Let’s go back,” I said. We had barely stepped away from the agent and the lines were short. “Maybe she made a mistake.”

My daughter was studying the boarding pass. “Well, I don’t know,” she said. “I think seat B means I’m next to someone. But I’m not sure. It’s OK.”

“We have plenty of time to go back,” I said, but I felt resistance.

“It’s OK,” she repeated, “Let’s just go.”

I had an urge to flood my daughter with words.

Why keep a worse seat than she had before she started? Why not ask for the old one? I didn’t say we should complain. I just wanted to ask.

What was the problem with going back? And — because you’re always a parent — I also wondered, “How has my assertiveness training fallen short?” I became an adult in the era when the term “assertiveness training” was invented. This was my daughter. Where had I failed?

Remembering that she is a 29-year-old mother of two who runs her life perfectly well on her own, I didn’t release the flood of words, and a few moments later we said good-bye.

The next day, she called to report on the trip.

“Dane was an angel,” she said. “Strangers commented how good he was.”

“How were your seats?” I asked.

“On the flight with a new seat, I had a whole row to myself,” she answered. “Not just an empty seat next to me but the seat across the aisle, too.” For a mother and baby there could be no better set up.

How could she have been so lucky?

Later I realized she wasn’t lucky. The gate agent had given her that seat. I don’t know if she simply saw an empty row and put Beth there, or if she actually blocked off other passengers. I suspect the latter, although I don’t know if an agent can do that.

Either way, she did it without telling Beth. Perhaps she’s not allowed to hold seats. Perhaps she wasn’t sure her strategy would work. But she could have winked and said, “I think you’ll be pleased with this.” Instead, she said nothing.

She passed up, therefore, her chance for a big “thank you.” By the time Beth realized the agent had done something kind, Beth was 2,000 miles away and would never see her again. The agent had done a favor, with no prospect of reward.

As an assertiveness-trained mom, I had one more strand to follow and one more question to ask my daughter. When she chose not to question the agent, had she somehow picked up her vibe?

“No,” she told me. “I just had a basic trust that she was competent and understood the system better than I did.”

That word “trust” makes me recall another phrase made famous by my generation: “Never trust anyone over 30.” That was an exaggeration, of course, but we Vietnam-era young people did distrust our government and often our parents and teachers as well, which leads me to a final question.

Are we assertive when we don’t trust?

Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.

Marion Franck

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