This piece was originally published in Slate on Aug. 14, 2013.
In her helpful Slate piece on how to avoid and mitigate flight delays, Amy Webb stresses that the savvy air traveler must invest energy in grooming the airport staff. “Stand next to the gate agent, even if they ask you to sit down,” she writes. “Be polite but firm. … Ultimately, they just want you to go away and not be their problem anymore.”
I endorse this strategy, and I would like to elaborate on it, because Slate readers deserve to know about a foolproof method of persuasion for securing a seat on a packed flight—and for that matter, for convincing authority figures of all stripes to give us things that aren’t ours. This simple technique has an anodyne name that belies its hypnotic, even occult powers. It is known as the Kindly Brontosaurus.
A practitioner, nay, an artist, of the Kindly Brontosaurus method would approach the gate agent as follows. You state your name and request. You make a clear and concise case. And then, after the gate agent informs you that your chances of making it onto this flight are on par with the possibility that a dinosaur will spontaneously reanimate and teach himself to fly an airplane, you nod empathically, say something like “Well, I’m sure we can find a way to work this out,” and step just to the side of the agent’s kiosk.
Here is where the Kindly Brontosaurus rears amiably into the frame. You must stand quietly and lean forward slightly, hands loosely clasped in a faintly prayerful arrangement. You will be in the gate agent’s peripheral vision—close enough that he can’t escape your presence, not so close that you’re crowding him—but you must keep your eyes fixed placidly on the agent’s face at all times. Assemble your features in an understanding, even beatific expression. Do not speak unless asked a question. Whenever the gate agent says anything, whether to you or other would-be passengers, you must nod empathically.
Continue as above until the gate agent gives you your seat number. The Kindly Brontosaurus always gets a seat number.
I once gave up my seat on a miserably oversold JFK-to-Heathrow flight for cash and frequent flier miles, had second thoughts, and convinced a gate agent to put me back on the flight, after the gate had closed. (It was just before Christmas, too. The gate. It had closed.) This is the power of the Kindly Brontosaurus.
The Kindly Brontosaurus once shepherded me past a power-crazed downtown Manhattan bouncer into a Go-Betweens concert, a feat that was all the more remarkable considering I didn’t have a ticket. The Kindly Brontosaurus once coaxed a formidable guard at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg to allow a friend and me into a closed area of the museum. The Kindly Brontosaurus once politely ushered me past a queue of about 1,000 people to get into a sardine-packed celebrity reading at the Union Square Barnes and Noble. The Kindly Brontosaurus once persuaded a former boss of mine to completely change course on a project, at some inconvenience to said boss. But how could said boss possibly say no to such a genial herbivore?
A colleague of mine once termed the move the “Powerful Supplicant,” and said it would work best whilst wearing a monk’s hood. My friend coined the superior “Kindly Brontosaurus” terminology after she participated in the Hermitage incident; she in turn got the term from another friend, who used it to describe a 6-foot-5-inch colleague’s comportment as he leaned over a bassinet to look at her baby. My science-minded colleagues at Slate may object to this nomenclature, as the Brontosaurus never existed; the correct term for our gentle giant is Apatosaurus. But I think this bit of paleontological imprecision only enhances the Kindly Brontosaurus’ mythological, unicorn-like aura. He is a fabled beast with secret superpowers, blinking his doe-like eyes at the honorable gate agent, docilely chewing whatever brand of foliage is for sale at Hudson News as the agent travels, in his own time and on his own terms, toward the correct and rational decision to do whatever the Kindly Brontosaurus wants him to.
Why does it work? I called Dr. Lillian Glass, resident body language expert on Dancing With the Stars and Millionaire Matchmaker, to ask. “The body language of the Kindly Brontosaurus is respectful and nonthreatening,” she says. “There’s a humility, so you allow the other person to feel empowered. Since you’ve made them feel like king of the jungle, they’re more receptive to you.” Glass adds that the Kindly Brontosaurus can apply not just in customer service contexts but with parents, spouses, children, and “toxic employees.”
So lean in, apprentice brontosauri! Your greatest prehistoric advocate stands poised to ease you patiently through life, lumbering gracefully beside you, ready to nudge open any closing door with an intuitive flick of the tail. A final piece of advice: When you get on that plane, don’t forget to order the vegetarian meal.