The United Airlines Debacle, Explained

By now you’ve seen the video a million times. A United Airline customer is forcibly removed from his seat. Bloodied and confused he later wandered up and down the aisle repeating that he just wanted to go home.

As bad as the actual moment was for the passenger and fellow passengers on the plane it all got 1 million times worse online 24 hours later. The CEO issued a  poorly worded press release followed by an internal memo which seemed sympathetic to the airline employees rather than the situation itself. This lead to a $1.4 billion selloff on Wall Street, followed by days and days of ad nauseam debate about the facts of what happened.

Understanding “Why” It Happened

We all know what happened. That’s really not that interesting. What is interesting? Understanding why it happened.

In Tuning In I go in depth to demonstrate how social media has moved Western society away from it’s 20th Century “Right vs. Wrong” culture to a “Honor vs. Shame” culture.

And the United Airlines incident provides a case study in a company misunderstanding this shift in society as it plays out on social media.

When United put out their press release arguing that they had the right to kick the passenger off the plane, that they acted according to the fine print of their ticketing policies… while they might be in the right legally they failed to acknowledge that they’d publicly shamed the passenger.

Their statement made it worse by pouring on the shame. They implied, “We wouldn’t had to shame him if he’d just taken the shame we first offered…”

That’s why this counter-narrative piece, I Know You’re Mad at United but… (Thoughts from a Pilot Wife About Flight 3411) also fell flat.

What fueled the fire is something our culture demands of companies! There’s a cultural more that dictates that a company should honor it’s customers, they should put the needs of the customer ahead of the needs of their employees. Stronger than a law, we believe “the customer is always right.

And that didn’t happen in this situation. The more United doubled-down on their “Right vs. Wrong” argument, the more heat they took as millions of people felt obligated to defend the honor of the man in the video.

Why? Because in this system how you counter dishonor is by pouring on honor to the person you see wronged by pouring shame onto the source of his dishonor!

  • Shame on United Airlines!
  • Shame on the police!
  • Shame on the CEO!
  • Shame on those who defend United’s policy!
  • Shame on the bystanders who didn’t do anything!
  • Shame on those who don’t stand up for the bloodied passenger strongly enough!

See the cycle? I got shamed so you should honor me by shaming my shame-ers.

How Can I Prevent This From Happening To Me?

Here’s the deal. This exact scenario can happen to you if you don’t recognize the importance of Shame vs. Honor in our society. (This isn’t new to Western society, by the way… more like social media has brought it back.)

  • Put yourself in the other persons shoes.
  • Whenever possible address the situation in private.
  • Apologize to the individual as soon as possible, in person if at all possible.
  • If the incident happens in public, own your responsibility quickly.
  • Apologize publicly quickly directed at the individual and those who witnessed it.
  • Seek to make it right in a public way, the sooner you can do that the better.

“We want to thank ____ for his loyalty and patronage to _____. Earlier today something happened which we, ______, deeply regret. After discussion the matter directly with _____, we wish to offer our sincerest of apologies to _____ and promise to _________ so that this will not happen again. As a token of our appreciation to _____ we have offered _____ on behalf of myself and ______.”

Want to learn more about this shift in our society as well as how you can learn to become a strong, more powerful voice online? Check out my new book, Tuning In: Six Ways to Reclaim Your Life from Technology. Available at The Youth Cartel and






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