The Hill Life: An Airplane Overshare

Nov 30, 2011

Like many Americans, I traveled home for Thanksgiving.  On my D.C.-bound flight, I was seated next to a Hill Staffer and a soldier.  

During the flight, the two struck up a vibrant conversation.  Over the course of this conversation, the Staffer talked about his Boss’s traveling habits, the Boss’s reaction to the Giffords’ shooting, the Boss’s feelings about the Tea Party, the Boss’s work to secure funding for a local military installation and much more.  The conversation was lively, funny and entirely too F***ING personal and inappropriate to be sharing with a stranger on a public airplane flight within earshot of dozens of other people.

I wanted to beat him with my carry on bag.

First off, how well do you know the person in the seat next to you?  Not just on an airplane, but in a bar, a restaurant, a hair salon, etc?  He or she might say they’re a soldier, but do you know that for sure?

Secondly, are you and your conversation buddy sitting in the “Get Smart” Cone of Silence? No? Then, what makes you think that there aren’t dozens of people who can hear you?  What makes you think that none of those people work for a newspaper, the other party, another Member or are otherwise involved in this business we call show?  Or worst of all, what if one of those people is your Boss’s constituent?  

Hill Staffers often talk amongst themselves in candid terms.  But I can guarantee you that most voters are not accepting of our black humor and outspoken opinions.  They don’t understand that underneath Staffers’ bravado and cynicism are people who care about their country, and that a few casual stories about the Boss are not indicative of his or her character as a whole.  They only know that they just got a peak behind the curtain, and what they saw wasn’t good.

So what is a Staffer to do?

To start with, don’t talk to strangers.  Problem solved.  

Not willing to go cold turkey? Unsure what to do if seated next to a Chatty Cathy curious about your job?  

  • Don’t discuss anything that hasn’t been disclosed publicly.  If it’s in a press release, news article or blog post, you should already know the talking points.  
  • Don’t be negative.  People are scared that their government is off-the-rails, give them reason to hope.  Be intelligent, learned and polite.  
  • Don’t argue.  You can achieve this goal by not to talking too much.  Say who you work for, that you like your job, that working for Congress is a trip and then bury yourself in a book.  Only the rudest person will continue to grill you if you look disinterested in conversation. If they do, remain calm, polite and don’t engage in the debate.  But again, the best way to avoid a fight is to not say what you do or to keep the conversation short.

I almost belted the Staffer on my flight, such was the depth of his oversharing.  Don’t be that Staffer.  Remember, loose lips, sink ships.  Or something like that.

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  1. Ben CS says:

    On a related note, I'd love to hear some of that Hill staffer black humor and those outspoken opinions. I know it won't happen on this blog (Belle, you're a model of discretion) but maybe someone could do a Hill equivalent of 'Conde Elevator?' Just a thought 🙂

  2. K says:

    Great advice. I love Get Smart reference.

  3. MM says:

    Amen! And even if you are amongst friends/fellow staffers, be aware of where you are and how loudly your talking – I know it's been said here before, but local bars, the metro, baseball game, etc. are not safe places to blow off steam about your boss using “outdoor voices” – I've been in a number of situations where my friends/co-workers get caught up in a heated discussion/drink a little too much and don't realize how loudly they're talking, and surrounding people have definitly heard more than they should have. (Not to mention, the loud talking itself is a bit inconsiderate!).

  4. JS says:

    Agreed. Overheard a group of staffers bad mouthing their district office staffers at a bar on the hill – so many details that their office, even though not stated by name, was easily identifiable. It would've been easy to call and tattle on them or publish a story about the incompetence in said office.

    If you must vent, do so in a private place.

  5. Politely Disagree.... says:

    “…Boss's traveling habits, the Boss's reaction to the Giffords' shooting, the Boss's feelings about the Tea Party, the Boss's work to secure funding for a local military installation and much more.”

    Are these things some sorts of national secrets? I understand the use and need for polite discretion… but to the extreme that you can't talk to people about your job? Yeesh. What types of action is this member taking on these subjects that is so controversial? Moreover, why shouldn't his/her constituents know about it?

  6. Rachel Fauber says:

    And loose tweets, sink fleets!

  7. Belle says:

    PD-No matter what industry you work in, public or private, you should not be in the business of discussing your Boss's personal thoughts with someone. As for the military installation, the conversation sounded very smarmy because the staffer was trying to sound like a big shot. And your Boss's traveling habits are no one's business (what he watches, reads on the plane/ how many frequent fliers he has).

    And it's not that constituents shouldn't know, it's that they shouldn't hear it third hand from an LA. If someone asks the Congressman, and he chooses to answer, it's his business. It's not your job to offer up information that your Boss hasn't discussed publicly himself.

  8. GingerR says:

    Hopefully the soldier came away thinking that the Represenative was interested in standing up for veterans and the military.

  9. N says:

    I am on this one with you, Belle. When it comes to work, your boss and your frustrations about your work, it is always best to be extra mindful who you share it with!

    Actually, I also use this discretion when it comes to my personal life. I like to share the details of my personal life with a close knit of people.

  10. Rachel says:

    That absolute height of idiocy is when staffers who are on House or Senate softball teams (organized by congressional office or delegation) go out drinking after their softball games. I am all for a post-game drink, but when you are wearing a shirt that PUBLICLY IDENTIFIES WHO YOU WORK FOR, maybe that is not the best time to be doing shot after shot and screaming about how wasted you are.

  11. I hope it's okay to address any teachers reading this blog. Please stop talking about your students at the bar or in public places. You never know who will be there. Even if you keep a student's name anonymous, doesn't mean a parent may not already be aware of a situation. They'll connect the dots when they see your “__________ Elementary School” t-shirt on a Friday afternoon. While we're on that topic, stop wearing your school apparel to the bar! If you don't have a shirt to cover it, then don't go, you're ruining it for the rest of us. Thank you!

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