POSITION IMPOSES OBLIGATIONS – nobility obliges. The phrase gained currency probably in 19th century France and its usage was usually in an ironic context. The norm however was simply this: it is the duty of those who are privileged to use their privilege to the benefit of the less fortunate. The novelist P.G. Wodehouse used noblesse oblige to great comic effect in his Bertie Wooster-Jeeves dialogues where class distinctions were parodied endlessly for the benefit of his huge readership.
I COULD NOT HELP THINKING OF the phrase rather seriously when I read about the so called breach of the “nut service etiquette” on board a Korean Air plane just before take off at JFK a couple of days ago. The Vice President of Cabin Service for the airline, Ms Cho Hyun-ah (who is also the daughter of the Korean Air Chairman) reportedly screamed at a crew member in the First Class cabin for serving macadamia nuts without asking her – and in a paper bag. It did not end with a scream. The VP-Cabin service insisted that the flight should return to the terminal to remove the Chief Flight Attendant. The anticlimax to this episode however is that Ms Cho Hyun-ah had to apologize as well as resign from her position. Interestingly enough, Andrew Hill who writes a management column in The Financial Times had this to say on the episode : “Bad behavior is common place in First Class. Given that airlines are pitching their most expensive service at people who might otherwise fly in private jets, where they are presumably free to abuse the crew, it may even be expected.” I found this thought rather disappointing as “an expectation of bad behavior” lends a spurious air of tolerance and legitimacy to it.
THE HEARTENING THING HOWEVER is that the media in Korea has begun to vociferously protest against the outrageous and high handed behavior of the family members of the powerful chaebols of Korea. The presence of the paparazzi who trail the high and mighty on a 24/7 basis has probably had a restraining effect on the behavior of the elite worldwide – although one may decry the brazen invasion of privacy. Several Indian politicians are known to behave abominably on board flights, delay them, and cause untold inconvenience to passengers – in the above episode however the behavior complained of was at least ostensibly for the improvement in service standards.
MORE THAN A DECADE AGO, I had to set up a branch for a leading financial institution in New Delhi. As the lease agreement for the office premises was being negotiated, I politely reminded the landlord of the institution’s expectations regarding upkeep and maintenance. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that at all,” the landlord replied nonchalantly. “All you have to do is to call me on my direct line at lunch time and report an unattended issue on maintenance. Whoever is responsible for interrupting my lunch will no longer buy his lunch with the salary that I provide.” Quite clearly, the persons who worked for the landlord had a pretty clear idea of where to look for lunch if they had missed cleaning a window pane or dusting a piece of furniture.
IT MAY WELL BE ARGUED that Ms Cho Hyun-ah had a responsibility for maintaining the First Class standards of her airline’s in house service. From her position of power, she probably thought she was entitled to her reaction – she only incurred the wrath of passengers on board instead. If only she had thought of noblesse oblige !