Free upgrades

An FBI hostage negotiator, a 19th century French economist, and 7 other things worth your time.

I once wrote about an FBI hostage negotiator who explained how to get free upgrades when you travel.

This would be Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference. I liked his book, and I was drawn to his travel techniques — especially how much of it had to do with setting expectations at every step for what might come next.

Here’s an abbreviated version of his five tactics:

1. Be casual and friendly.

Don't ask for anything right away; be as charming as you can manage.

Voss: "Never be mean to someone who can hurt you by doing nothing … If you're good, they'll be delighted to do for you whatever they can."

2. Establish opposite expectations.

Make it seem as if you’re about to ask for something big, so the smaller thing you’ll eventually do request will seem minimal.

Voss: “You want to say something like, 'I'm getting ready to make your day incredibly difficult.’ They imagine way worse than what you end up asking for.”

3. Show them you can see things through their eyes.

Next, Voss suggests describing yourself as the last person the customer agent would ever want to deal with, since you’re about to turn that concern on its head.

Voss: "You disarm their concerns with empathy. You can say, 'I'm a self-serving, predictable traveler demanding the world.’”

4. Give them a chance to say "no."

Yes, give the customer agent a chance to say “no,” because people don’t like to say “no” twice.

Voss: Say something like: "Would it be a ridiculous idea if I asked to check in early with no fee? … You haven't made them feel badgered. As long as you're playful, you can keep asking.”

5. Deal with bad news unexpectedly.

Imagine that the room you reserved isn’t ready, or your seat assignment has been changed. Paradoxically, apologize for having expected more.

Voss: “They are expecting you to yell at them. We refer to this as 'forced empathy.’ … The Brits say you can be as rude as you want as long as you're polite."

Like a lot of things I write about, I didn’t talk with Voss directly; that would be the New York Times's Elaine Glusac. I don’t mind admitting, however, that I’ve been after Voss’s people for a while to do an interview.

I start every message saying things like, “I’m going to be that annoying, pushy guy trying to get you to set up an interview,” or “Would it be totally unreasonable for me to try to get Chris Voss on the phone for 30 minutes for an article?”

So far, no dice. We’ll keep at it.

But, in light of our current shared situation (most of us having traveled very little in the last year, but now, the world sort of opening up, vacations being planned, airline seats filling) it got me thinking about how many of us have just plain accepted inequities in travel—and why.

I mean: You just read about the tricks that an FBI hostage negotiator says to use to try to get a little bit of leg room on a plane, or to have a shot at getting into the room you booked a few minutes early, or to get a bit of help to reschedule a canceled flight?

Really? That’s necessary? Why do people put up with it?

Actually, I may have found an answer, albeit a cynical one. It’s now 172 years old, and it comes from Jules Dupuit, a French civil engineer and scholar who was the first to explain the concept of price discrimination.

In Dupuit’s day, the complaints were about economy class train travel, and they seem legitimate: a total lack of comfort, and not even enclosed from the elements.

"Barbarity,” as Dupuit wrote, “[T]raveling without a roof over the carriage, on poorly upholstered seats."

But why do that back then? Why not literally put a roof over passengers’ heads, or spend the relatively small amount to make their rides more comfortable?

Dupuit opined that it was to incentivize anyone who could afford to pay for a higher class of service, to darn well do so:

"It is not because of the several thousand francs which they would have to spend … [The] goal is to stop the traveler who can pay for the second class trip from going third class. It hurts the poor not because it wants them to personally suffer, but to scare the rich."

Plus ça change, amirite? Even back then, it was all about setting expectations and manipulating people’s reactions.

Would it be a ridiculous idea to think we could do a little better?

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7 other things worth your time

  • More than 1,000 gas stations in the Southeast reported running out of fuel, primarily because of what analysts say is unwarranted panic-buying among drivers, as the shutdown of a major pipeline by a gang of hackers entered its fifth day Tuesday. (Fox 5 NY)

  • The Washington Post named a new executive editor: Sally Buzbee, who had been the senior vice president and executive editor of the Associated Press. (AP, ironically)

  • The median price for a single-family home in the U.S. rose the most on record in the first quarter, as buyers fought over a dearth of inventory, according to the National Association of Realtors. Prices jumped 16.2% from a year earlier to a record high of $319,200. (Bloomberg)

  • Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel. (Days ago, I was citing Tel Aviv as the city to look at to see what post-Covid work will look like.) (AP)

  • How many friends can one person have? Thirty years ago, Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, theorized the maximum possible number was around 150, because of the limits of the human brain. “But researchers at Stockholm University published a paper last week calling that number into question, finding that people could have far more friends if they put in the effort.” (NYT)

  • How to quit your job: a 9-part instruction manual by Bloomberg. Bottom line, if you’re going to join the so-called Great Resignation, do it nicely. “We’re going to see lots of “boomerang” employees, who a year from now miss their jobs and decide their novel isn’t going as well as expected.” (Bloomberg)

  • A senior manager at Goldman Sachs in London quit “after making millions from investing in Dogecoin, the joke crypto asset which has risen by more than 1,000% in value this year.” (The Guardian)

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