As some of you may know, I am a very frequent traveler and I write about my travel experiences often. In all the years I have spent flying, I have never been in a situation like the one I was in at the airport in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago.
I was on the last leg of a harrowing, three day business trip. It was mid-afternoon, the airport was very crowded, and I was in line at the security gates. After I put my bags through, took off my shoes, and walked through the metal detectors (a scene many of us know all too well), the security agent stopped me.
She looked me square in the eye, with a straight poker face and said, "Ms. Nierenberg, there are new government regulations on what a person can and cannot take on board an aircraft. The coat you are wearing was made in Pakistan and you will not be allowed to bring it on board."
I was totally dumbfounded. At first, I was fearful that I was going to be interrogated and searched. Then, I was worried about possibly missing my flight. With airport security as tight and strict as it is, a thousand concerns ran through my head.
As I stood blank-faced and petrified, she continued to chastise me for a few more minutes telling me that I could not bring my coat on. Finally, she looked down at me, grinned, and said "Oh, I'm just joking!"--and let me through.
I couldn't believe it! Here I was scared to death that I had breached security and she was making jokes! If a passenger made a joke like that, they would have been immediately "taken care of." For a trained, airport security official to pull something like that was beyond my comprehension.
Not to mention the fact that she singled out "Pakistan" as the country of origin for the coat. This was offensive by itself.
I immediately reported her to a supervisor who walked me over to the offending agent. She told me it was her way of complimenting me on my coat. I wasn't appeased.
As I wrestled my way through the masses and found my seat on the plane, I breathed a sigh of relief and recalled the incident in my mind. Throughout my years of giving seminars on personal and business networking, I have always made it a point to talk about knowing your audience and understanding your context. What the airport security official failed to do (other than practice common sense), was understand her context. A joke may be appropriate in one context, but totally inappropriate in another. Knowing the difference may make or break your next networking opportunity.