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Interpersonal skills: the lesson from Rufus

airline gate signIt’s another day at an airport. Passengers are lined up for United flight 422 from Denver to the east coast. I’m third in line to board the plane on a busy Monday morning in late March. Several passengers are returning home from Colorado mountain ski vacations. Just as many are business travelers starting another week on the road with this four-hour flight. It’s a beautiful morning with sunny skies and a hint of spring in the cool mile-high air. Normal. Routine. Dull. Except for Rufus.

Rufus is our United Airlines gate agent. His job is to take each passenger’s boarding pass, scan it, and send us down the people chute. Last year, I took more than 130 flights and don’t remember even one of the gate agents. But I remember Rufus.

Rufus is African American. His shaved scalp reflects the overhead fluorescent lighting, and his smile lights up the room. As each of us gives our boarding pass to Rufus, he responds with a hearty welcome and look in the eye. He smiles, shakes each hand, and says, “Have a great week.”

Rufus acts as if he actually enjoys knowing that you’re flying on his company’s airplane. As if he really wants you to have a great week—just like he says. Perhaps some people do care after all. This can change a passenger’s view of an entire company.

That day, I’m fortunate to be upgraded to first class. (Take 125 flights a year on the same airline and you might be upgraded, too . . . maybe.) I had seat 1D by the window on the left entering the plane. From that position, I can overhear people talking about the wonderful gate agent, Rufus, whom they’d just met.

In this busy world, the one area in which conscious attention greatly affects the quality of life is that of interpersonal skills. People have become increasingly distracted, busy, and self-involved with an absence of civility becoming the norm. They seem afraid of connecting with each other, even making eye contact and offering a smile, and I don’t even know why. It’s a shame. This problem could be fixed for free—but who’s willing to tackle it?