It’s the worst part of the Airport Security Experience–worse even than the stench of a hundred sweaty feet as everyone fumbles off their shoes. I’m talking about the moment after I’ve staggered through the metal detector and am clinging to the rickety metal rail of the carry-on luggage inspection chute, when one of the luggage inspectors looks sternly at me and drags one of my bags down to the end of the shiny rollers. The inspector unzips my bag, pulls out my big ol’ wraparound refreezable ice pack. “What’s this?” he asks sternly.
Here’s the wrong answer: “Well, my SI joint gets inflamed and really sore when I sit in cramped spaces for long periods of time, so I need to ice it down after the plane ride. I’ve got a motel room with a fridge-freezer so that I can freeze this and use it on my back during my trip to Seattle.”
And now for the right answer: “That’s medical equipment.”
When I talk to people on the road, I get a much better result when I don’t talk too much. Instead of babbling a combination of complex medical jargon and irrelevant information, which only confuses the person I’m asking to help me, I just tell them what I need from them, or what they need to know about me.
The TSA agent needs to know one thing about my 8 oz gel-filled ice pack. Is it medical equipment or not? So I tell him just that. He passes my ice pack through security quicker, I get to my plane faster without being forced to stand and argue with the agent. This also makes it easier and quicker for all the people behind me to get through security.
Different situations require different amounts and types of information. So when I’m slogging onto the plane and the flight attendant asks “Can I help you?” I have more to say than “Yes.” In my case, it goes something like this, “Yes please. Can you help me get this bag into the overhead bin? By the way, I’ve got a kind of embarrassing medical condition. Toward the end of the flight, could you let me know when we’re getting descending so I can get up for one last time before the seat-belt sign turns on? Thanks!”
The flight attendant might not need to know specifically why I want her to come and tap me before we start to descend, but by telling her, I make it more likely that she’ll remember me and tap me on the shoulder as she passes.
When I go to state and national parks, I usually stop in at the Visitors Center and talk to the park rangers. Here’s what I say to get the best information from a ranger:
“I’ve got a medical condition that causes pain and fatigue. This affects my ability to walk long distances and climb steep hills. Can you tell me which trails would be best for me?”
Approaching a park ranger with: “I’ve got endometriosis and interstitial cystitis, what trails will work for me?” will be useless. It’s unlikely that the ranger will know what endometriosis and interstitial cystitis are, much less what my physical limitations are likely to be. But just asking what trails are best isn’t good either, because the ranger may *love* a 10-mile loop with a 2,000 foot elevation change that wouldn’t work for me. She needs to know the basics of my physical limits in order to give me the best possible information.
Before I travel, I try to think about situations in which I’ll need somebody else to help me, who that person will be, and what information they’ll need to help me most efficiently. Then I think about what to say to them that will impart the key information as concisely as possible. (Yes, I really do this. I’m a writer–we spend a lot of time thinking about words.) While this never works out perfectly, it always helps at least a little bit.
Simple statements made up of short words. They work. Give them a try!