I was Offloaded!

I was Offloaded!

imageWhy is it that even with ample information, and despite ‘knowing‘ differently, that sometimes our ‘feeling of risk’ may override, or at least heavily influence, our response to it? Also, how could someone who has studied and reflected on it in a rather intimate way for the last six years, not control or change their feelings about risk?

What do I mean? If you can bear with me, I’ll explain by sharing a short personal story about a recent overseas trip.

I travelled to the USA in September 2017 to both visit a friend and also present on Social Sensemaking at a conference in Chicago. The trip was organised well in advance and I was excited to be catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen for some time, as well as to share in a ‘learning adventure’ with many new people.

I organised my flights well in advance and as I was going to the States, this also meant purchasing a Visa Waiver. My friend arranged to pick me up from the airport and for me to lodge with her and her partner for the duration of the trip, it was set to be quite a treat. Everything seemed planned and ready for take-off, however something happened that stopped me short…

I was at the check-in counter where a particularly helpful attendant shared with me in the excitement of my trip. We were organising my seats and weighing the bags, when things started to waver. The attendant couldn’t find a record of my passport (which you provide when booking flights) in the system and there was no record of a Waiver with my passport number. It wasn’t making sense, I had a copy of the Waiver with me, and it was valid. What was going on?

The friendly attendant suggested that as the flight was getting close to departure that she continue to check my bags in and I go through Customs and we could work things out at the gate. She reassuringly said; “I’m sure we’ll be able to sort things out”, she really was very helpful. Meanwhile, I was thinking, ‘there’ll be a logical explanation, it must be a problem with the system’ (https://safetyrisk.net/but-we-have-safety-systems-in-place/) .

So, I headed to Customs, passport in hand. It was as I approached the automated passport scanner that I started to get a strange feeling in my gut; it was uncomfortable. Then, all of a sudden, for some reason I looked closely at my passport and confirmed that; a) it was mine! and b) that it was ‘in date’ (i.e. not expired), but still something didn’t feel quite right, I just wasn’t sure what it was…

As I inserted the passport into the scanner a red light was immediately activated. I was asked to accompany a Customs Officer to an office, away from other passengers. It instantly dawned on me, I was travelling on the wrong passport! How could that happen?

To understand, we have to go back a few years to when De and I were married and travelled to Hawaii for our honeymoon. A few months out from that trip, I went to book the flights and realised that despite turning our house upside down, I couldn’t find my passport. In the years prior to this, we’d moved homes a few times and it seems that I had lost it in one of the moves. I decided to report it as lost and organised a new one. It arrived, and all was good.

Then, more recently after moving homes again, I found the old passport (the one I reported as lost). Rather than destroy it, I decided to keep it, as it had stamps in it which were lovely reminders of previous overseas trips. However, this decision came back to bite me…

It was the ‘lost’ passport that I was trying to travel on. It still had a few years to go before it ‘expired’, so before I left home, I checked it and all appeared in order. As I reflect back now, I remember that when I grabbed the passport, I was in a hurry and running late to get to the airport. Had I not been rushing, maybe I would have noticed it was not my most recent passport… or maybe not?

I’ll save you from an extensive version of the next part of the story, but needless to say, that after copping a wrap over the knuckles, plus a pretty heavy letter of warning from Customs, and after much stress in re-arranging travel arrangements (including collecting my correct passport!), I was able to travel to see my friend.

However, it was my feelings during the flight from Australia to the USA that I want to reflect on in this piece. A trip made on the correct passport, however also made after committing an ‘offence’.

I was travelling in business class, so the physical and material comforts were well taken care of. However, it was my emotional and psychological comfort that were tested during the almost 24 hours (due to a stopover) of flying. To say that I was worried would be an understatement. There were many questions that rattled in my mind including:

· Would they allow me into the States after committing such an offence?

· Was there now a black mark on my name on an international ‘fraudster’ database?

· What if, during my trip, that somehow the USA government realised my mistake and thought that I was some sort of criminal?

There were many other questions, but I think you’ll probably get the general theme of how I was feeling.

So why was I having such reactions? I’d not done anything intentionally wrong, and although technically I had broken the law (the above-mentioned letter was very clear about that), there was a very plausible and logical explanation for what happened. Coupled with that, I’m generally a law-abiding citizen and while I have been issued with a few traffic infringements over the years, I’m confident that I’m pretty low on the international ‘most wanted’ list.

So why, in spite of this, and even though there was probably very little chance of me having to pay the $100,000 penalty or spend 10 years imprisoned for the ‘offence’, was I feeling so uncomfortable?

Maybe there were things outside of my cognitive and rational ‘thinking’ that were influencing my sensitivity to the risk? Plausibly there were things happening inside me that I didn’t recognise nor understand at the time? Why couldn’t I just stop these feelings?

Could it also have something to do with how we feel about risk?

Of course, on reflection, the clues and cues for why I was so worried became more evident. Just think about what was happening in the world at the time. Would North Korea bomb the USA or, would the President of the USA make a pre-emptive strike (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/world/asia/kim-trump-north-korea.html)? There was also much talk about ‘legitimate’ visitors to the States and what might happen to those who overstayed their welcome (https://abcnews.go.com/US/immigration-arrests-spiked-illegal-border-crossings-dropped-2017/story?id=51599510) With this context in mind, what might the USA ‘do’ to someone who may be seen to have committed passport fraud?

That is, how may factors associated with our social environment impact on how we perceive risk?

The work of Slovic, Kasperson, and their colleagues, in books such as The Feeling of Risk (2010), The Social Contours of Risk (2005) and Risk, Media and Stigma (2001) might be most informative if you are interested in understanding risk from the perspective of our social arrangements and environment.

In particular, in a paper published by Kasperson et. al. in 1988 (http://elib.uni-stuttgart.de/opus/volltexte/2010/5307/pdf/ren27.pdf), they outline a valuable model known as the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) which is described in the following way;

“The main thesis is that hazards interact with psychological, social, institutional, and cultural processes in ways that may amplify or attenuate public responses to the risk or risk event. A structural description of the social amplification of risk is now possible. Amplification occurs at two stages: in the transfer of information about the risk, and in the response mechanisms of society. Signals about risk are processed by individual and social amplification stations, including the scientist who communicates the risk assessment, the news media, cultural groups, interpersonal networks, and others.”

Effectively what Slovic, Kasperson and their fellow researchers suggest is that certain factors including images, symbols and language in communication may either amplify (heighten) or attenuate (dampen) the effect of messages, and thus impact on our decisions. Not only is this done through what is said (or written, or viewed, or listened to), but importantly also about what is not said (or not written, or not view, or not listened to).

The SARF model accepts the important role that our social arrangements have in our decision-making. This is why an understanding of social psychology is critical in our understanding of risk.

It was an enjoyable trip to the USA in September 2017, one filled with highs and lows, which also means one of risk and learning. That’s just how life is. Isn’t it? While we can be easily seduced by a nice, neat and linear view of the world, we also know that ‘living’ is much messier, greyer and trickier than that. Isn’t it?

How do you make sense of risk?

Rob Sams
Rob Sams

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Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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