Social Engineering 101

pieterhpieterh wrote on 08 Feb 2012 19:23


Social architecture is the discipline of designing and building large-scale, successful on-line communities. An underlying toolkit is the more focused skill of social engineering, or making friends and influencing people. It's often confused with social hacking but is quite different. In this article I'll explain the basics. As a case study I'll tell the story of how I talked myself into seat 2A in first class on United UA 973, Brussels to Chicago.


Making friends quickly may not seem relevant for a blog on software engineering, but to quote my favorite author (me, in case you doubted it), software is all about people. As well as maybe getting you neat and unexpected upgrades, social engineering in smaller or larger doses is key to good management, to good interpersonal relationships, and to a happy and successful life in general. Just as hell is other people, so is heaven. The key to happiness is not money, security, or even good health. It is quite simply to create and enjoy good relationships with the people you cross paths with during your life.

There are only three kinds of relationship. There those you cannot make work, no matter how hard you try. There are relationships you don't need to work on, they will always be good. And there relationships you can profitably invest in. Superficially, social engineering works on practically anyone, in almost all situations. But long term relationships are based on the economics of mutual need, which only emerge over time. It would be cool to have social networking software that understood these patterns and could help do the triage (from the Latin "to carve into three pieces").

What's remarkable about social engineering is how broadly it applies. The identical patterns work both on casual acquaintances, in the space of minutes, and on long term relationships over the span of years. They work on individuals, and on groups of practically any size. They work on women and men, of all ages.

It strikes me as ironic that I'm using social engineering to sit alone in a larger space, as far from my fellow passengers as possible without climbing into the pilot's lap. Well, what is life without its little ironies?

The Basics

Good vs. Evil

Let's start by pulling "engineering" apart from "hacking" (or "cracking" if you prefer). The two semantics are often confused, and people often use "social engineering" as a euphemism for "lying to and conning people". For the sake of consistent terminology, engineering means to create something, whereas hacking is to unlock something, from a puzzle to a bank account. You can engineer a lock, and you can hack a lock. You can engineer your way into a night club and you can hack your way in. Engineering and hacking are both are valid skill sets, but they aren't the same any more than pepper spray is a foodstuff.

At the heart all social interactions is the question of ethics. Many people have a hard time to define ethics concretely, but that's because they never thought it through. Ethics is just about the relative power of both parties. In short, whether that power is balanced, and the interaction is thus fair to both parties. Would you switch sides in a deal? If not, it's unethical. If yes, it's ethical. You cannot discuss the ethics of eating a slice of cheese since there is no plausible "you" to switch sides with. You can discuss the ethics of knocking down a beautiful old building to set up a concrete office block, because both represent people, their dreams and needs and investments.

Social engineering must be ethical by definition. Social hacking is by definition unethical because it depends on an unequal exchange. You would never agree to be the one tricked into giving up your password.

Setting the Scene

To kick off a social engineering session you define a clear goal and you set your mental state to equal proportions of angelic happiness, gentle charm, firm determination, and infinite patience. It doesn't matter whether you're buying a loaf of bread, ordering espresso in an Italian mountaintop bar, dating the woman of your dreams, or tracking down lost luggage. If you are incoherent, stressed, unpleasant, uncertain, or impatient, you will be rejected or treated badly.

These are difficult techniques that take most of us years or decades to learn. Few people are natural social engineers and those that are can be somewhat disconcerting individuals. I can give some broad hints but the key is practice and observation. Social engineering starts with creating, in real time and with strangers, a tangible shared experience that the other person truly gets a kick from being in. Let me take those aspects one by one:

  • Clarity: Define your own goals clearly, and explain them without decoration as a problem that the other person might, perhaps, be able to solve. Don't demand, but suggest. This gives the other person a simple, consistent and interesting conceptual model. In a world full of confusion, stress, and complexity, we lust after simple tangible challenges. It lets us relax, revert to a childlike joy, and drop our guard. You can learn to give people this kind of experience. Sometimes, indeed often, things really are very simple. Though sadly, they are probably impossible.
  • Happiness: Watch for your own negative emotions (anger, jealousy, fear, insecurity, hate, self-pity, impatience) and learn to turn them off. It is an interesting trick I learned so I could manage a crazy girlfriend, a long time ago. This leaves the remaining emotion (joy) to run around like a kid in the garden. If you can't be where you want to be, enjoy where you are. When you are purely happy, you express that happiness in your face, and people see it. When we talk to someone who shows no emotion except a sincere smile, we lower our defenses and relax. These are ancient and powerful instincts.
  • Charm: The salesman's patter isn't just a caricature. Soothing words, delivered with a broad and true smile, are the gentle back-rub of social interaction. It doesn't really matter what you say except that you must enjoy what you are talking about, never express any negative emotions, and speak directly to the person. Look into their eyes, smile sincerely, and say that it rained in China last Tuesday, and you will still get a positive response.
  • Determination: Be firm in restating your problem and exploring all routes to get them. A "no" just means that particular avenue might be closed. There are always many options, so explore them until you really can't think of any more. It is shocking how many people just give up at the first rejection. Partly, because they haven't learned to deal with their insecurity. But also because they just don't realize that we create our own options.
  • Patience: Being in a hurry is both rude and counter-productive. It might take all day to get things right. And you are so happy right here, now, why on earth would you rush it? Patient people make us feel patient too. That means we're less in a hurry to close the transaction, with a final "no". Perhaps there is one more thing we could try. Of course, you need to be realistic and measure your potential success with the time you're spending. You're not going to wait an hour to buy a loaf of bread. Unless that's the only bread in town.

These techniques, when you get them right, can be powerful. My father, a natural and gifted social engineer, would walk into a shop where I went often, to conduct some minor transaction, one time, and the sales staff would remember him and ask after him for years.

Getting Closer

It is important to focus on the other person, listen to them and watch them. People express themselves in body posture, facial expressions, voice tone and volume. You don't need to read this consciously, and in fact that's is too slow and clumsy. You can't walk by making each step deliberate, you look like you're on some kind drug. Once as a teenager I tried walking like a ninja through a shopping center, taking each step deliberately, silently. People came up to me in hushed tones, pressed folded five-quid notes into my hands and asked me for baggies.

You can become skilled enough to read people intuitively, rapidly and accurately. Just practice every day for years. It's just like speaking to a crowd, another exercise in social engineering. You need to watch the crowd, get closer, feel their response to you, and amplify that by adjusting your own expression, to create that win-win shared experience. Incidentally, why PowerPoint is so tragic.

You also have to remove potential barriers to entry. This is, any excuse for the other person to reject you using their natural preconceptions and prejudices. People love to say "no", it gives them a feeling of power. That's why you never make a direct request. There are two main reasons people will refuse to listen to you at all, and both are fixable with some effort:

  • Language: You absolutely need to speak the native language of the other person. The more, the better. You can get away with an awful accent but if you force them out of their comfort zone, they will not like you for it. A few words is a start but really not enough. If you are conducting business in a foreign country you must get language courses and get proficient as soon as sanely possible. Listen to the language everywhere you are, learn its melody and rhythm, imitate it until you get it right.
  • Appearance: If you try to "express yourself" through your appearance, you are really just pandering to your emotions, insecurity and fear of being alone. Wearing a style means putting on some group identity. This is fine if you are doing social engineering in a well-known context where your peers are all in that group. I'll wear a suit when doing business in Korea because all my clients there wear suits. I'll wear jeans in Dallas for the same reason. But when we talk to someone wearing the "wrong" clothes we instantly and instinctively put them in the "them, not us" category. Which breaks that whole "shared experience" thing. Do not wear piercings, jewelry, aftershave, heavy glasses, weird mustache, funny t-shirts, open sandals, tattoos, or anything else that makes you stand out. Do, constructively, be prepared to shift styles easily in any direction it's needed.

Service with a Smile

Many of the favors we ask from society come from people who are paid to "serve" others in one way or another. From security staff to ticketing agents, waiters and salesmen, we put an awful lot of our life in the hands of people who don't know us, and have no reason to help us except that's their job, and maybe we tip them better.

Service staff mostly have lousy jobs. They always deal with problems, people rarely appreciate it when things work well, everyone's stressed and in a hurry, and everyone is always demanding stuff. The default emotional state for most service staff is a mix of boredom, loneliness, jealousy, and hate. That's what you feel when you walk up to a counter and the other person puts on their corporate smile just a little late to hide the "here comes another idiot" look that flashes across their face.

You can almost always turn that negative state of mind into a win-win transaction by smiling happily, confessing that you did something idiotic and really could use some help, and suggesting that it's impossible to fix your messed up situation. One in ten will give you the evil grin of someone who's paying rather too much attention and say, "yes, it's impossible, have a nice day". The other nine will shake their heads to wake up, and start to think of ways to help this kind, somewhat lost stranger who obviously trusts them with their very life.

If you are unsure how to do this, start simply by saying "hello" and "thank you" to every service person you come across. I always greet and thank the security staff at airports, and often get into short friendly discussions with them. Practice when it doesn't matter, so that when it does matter, it comes naturally. You have to repeat an action a thousand times before it becomes automatic.

As a frequent traveler I take the bored malice of security personnel as a rather juicy exercise. Some years ago I was enjoying a late whiskey with a guy called Jean-Paul, the manager of a small hotel in Baguida Plage, Togo. He mentioned that he had a dying Dutchman in one of his rooms, who hadn't paid his bills. Perhaps I could do something? We went over to the room where I saw a shivering, sweating gray body on the bed. It turned out, after much mumbling, that he was called Ruud, and after some long distance phone-based diagnostics with my sister, who's a doctor in Scotland, that he probably had celebral malaria and a failing liver.

The Dutch have such silly names, it's hard to have pity for them. Honestly, what kind of mother would call her son "Ruud"? It's like tattooing "kick me" on his forehead. But it seemed wrong to abandon him. For one thing, Jean-Paul was a friend and dying Dutchmen do not a happy hotel make.

It took some weeks, but eventually we got him patched up, able to stagger about, and with a ticket home thanks to the Dutch consul in Ghana. Slight problem, Ruud was an illegal immigrant, with no papers except a letter from a doctor saying he could travel, and a document from the consulate. Well, what the heck. I rebooked my ticket home so we could travel together, and we hit the airport.

If you ever traveled in sub-Saharan Africa you'll know that it can be quite fun to enter and leave the country. Once in Burkina Faso I was frisked in a private booth, "I know you're hiding something and by golly I'm going to find it" style by the most stunning policewoman I've ever seen. When she'd finished I offered her the contents of my wallet if she would do it again. She exclaimed, "Aha! Illegal currency exportation!", and took the money, but to my eternal regret, waved me out and on.

Ruud could barely walk, was pale as an old brothel sheet, and still shivering from bouts of malaria and the long-term professional drinking that plagues many expatriates in Africa. We went through half-a-dozen layers of interrogation, each time explaining our case to two or three officers, who called their colleagues and superiors to listen to us. I kept my money well hidden, left just a tattered and worn 50 CFA note in my wallet, which I showed pathetically to them, saying, "if this will help, take it". 50 CFA is about 25 cents. They laughed uproariously at that, and let us through with smiles. I used nothing more than comedic hand waving and smooth talking. West African French, like its English, has a lovely song that once you learn, is instantly familiar to the listener and puts him off his guard.

My Dutch companion shivered the whole way to Casablanca, where we repeated the entire exercise with Moroccan security. I think at some point I told them, my friend is going to die and I want to get him home so his wife and thirteen children can bury him properly. Whatever it was, it got us to Belgium, and again through Belgian immigration, where his brother picked him up at the airport.

The man called Ruud survived and rather predictably, and to the dismay of his family, flew right back to Togo.

Yes, social engineering can save your life. No kidding.

Gender Differences

Finally, there are strong gender and cultural differences that you have to learn. I can generalize grossly and say that women open up to smiles and confidence, while men open up to confidence but also, and strangely, to touch. I think it's a form of physical assertion, "look, I'm confident enough to break into your personal space and I'm not showing any hostility or fear, so I'm now your equal, or possibly your superior". I'm talking about hand shaking, hand slapping, arm touching, and most dominantly, shoulder slapping and hugging. Off the football field, those are the only safe male-male contact zones. I've not tried it but I'd predict that grabbing random men's crotches will cause Bad Things to happen unless you're extremely dominant.

There is an easy way to gain the trust of a group of men you don't know. They need to be younger than you (gets easier every day). You find the largest dominant male (the Alpha), go right up to him, smiling and happy, and free of any emotions (especially fear) and start chatting to him. Shake his hand with a "diplomat's handshake" (right hand on his, left hand wrapped around his right forearm), and make him at ease with random chat about his background and occupation. Then break his comfort zone with a shoulder slap and make some comment that sounds idiotic but harmless and fun. Smile broadly and then focus on the rest of the group. That's about it. You are now Guest Alpha and every time you meet them, as long as you don't mess up, you'll be treated with respect, even adoration.

I've done this a hundred times, in every random country and continent I've been to. The fastest time was with a group of a dozen or so drunken and noisy Polish skinhead youths who confronted me outside a bar on a snowy street at 2am one morning in Torun. I spoke to them for about thirty seconds, back-slapped the alpha, then turned and walked back into the bar and most of the group followed me like puppies. We drank together until five in the morning.

Workshop: Upgrades

The incident that prompted me to write this article was getting not one, but two airline upgrades to first class in an hour, without paying anything or using any miles or club points or whatever they call the little virtual "not money, promise!" things. It's fairly unusual. The only previous time I flew in first was in 1995 or so, to New York for a weekend, with a girlfriend at the time who worked for an airline. That trip cost me ten years of my life in a dead-end relationship, and taught me one thing about life: first class is really expensive.

I've been traveling a lot in the last months, business class, and as I woke up at 4am to catch an early flight to London, and then to Dallas, I thought to myself, "I'm going to travel first class today". I like to set my goals high because one thing's for sure: you won't ever do better than you aim for. Doing worse is fine, you just adjust your settings and fire again. I got to the airport early and checking-in, asked if I could use my miles to upgrade. "You need to book that 24 hours in advance. But you can ask at in London, maybe they can do something there," said the British Airways check-in agent. Sure, that's fine. Gold frequent flyer status, they will do that for me.

But we didn't get to London. Instead, we sat on the runway for a while, filling up with extra fuel, while the captain explained that Heathrow had woken up to fresh snow, and had only one runway open. It's a fine English tradition that Heathrow celebrates every few years. An inch of snow falls, and everything comes to a total halt. Things don't just slow down, the system goes from cheery functionality to Texas road kill. In Scotland it takes a foot of snow to make anyone notice, and even then it has to be drifting hard.

With dozens of incoming international flights, we weren't going to get a slot soon, he explained. I had visions of airplanes circling London, captains checking the fuel and thinking, "another two hours and then we drop like a rock". The cabin crumbled. We waited. I chatted to the pretty blond Dutch woman beside me and discovered she was BA staff and lived across the canal from me.

Somewhat later, our captain announced cheerfully that we had gotten a takeoff slot and please could we fasten our seat belts. He also mentioned we'd taken on a lot of extra fuel but no-one really paid attention to that. Blondie told me she was off to San Francisco. I thought about the previous Friday evening, when I'd spent two hours driving ten kilometers, as snow hit Brussels, and predicted that things would not be quite that simple.

The planeful of excited bunnies sat down, and buckled up. An hour later we were circling over Heathrow with the captain telling us, "there's no way to land and the whole of the UK is snowed under. We've asked Heathrow but they can't get us a slot. It's really chaos down there. The closest airport is Brussels. So we're going back, sorry about this, folks". A hundred travel plans broke and cried, and Blondie went to ask the crew what was happening.

She came back and told me that Brussels airport had told the captain to leave anyhow, knowing there were no landing slots in Heathrow. We could have just disembarked without leaving and all found new flights. So, we all lost two hours. The captain didn't tell the passengers this. What was far more scary was that we'd had a near miss with real disaster. It turned out the captain — whose judgment I was trusting less and less by this time — had asked Aberdeen airport (after several others) for landing. Aberdeen was, thank the gods of travel, also snowed under. They refused and that's why we eventually came back to Brussels.

Now I love Scotland, it's my maternal homeland, filled with wrenchingly beautiful lochs and mountains and rivers and landscapes. The Scottish highlands make my heart sing the ancient song of "what the fuck were my ancestors thinking when they came here, and will I ever get warm and dry again?" I love so many things about Scotland: its desolate villages, its ruins and its tragic history of clearances and war and loss, forever immortalized in drunkards ballads like Flower o' Scotland. I love the Scottish currency, which everyone in Scotland believes is the real thing, but which won't buy a loaf of bread in a foreign country.

One time a Scottish army almost conquered London and then turned back because they couldn't find a decent haggis and neeps anywhere south of Brunswick. It took until the Blair government (all Scots) before we took over England properly, and did to it what the English did to Scotland all those centuries.

I love the Scottish weather, which protects you from the skin-damaging sun with a constant protective cloud cover and generous, nay endless rains. The Gaelic word for "weather" is actually "rain". We Scots only discovered sunny weather in 1832 when some travelers returned with stories from the far south. Scottish rain is like Italian traffic: it comes at you from all directions, and though you may at first think it is trying to kill you, all that directed violence is just a form of affection. We love you, says the rain, and here it comes right up your kilt to prove it. How can a true Scot not love the rain back? It is the main reason the English stay away.

Scotland is where I grew up, became a real man, and discovered that the first thing a real man does is leave, by train or plane or boat or hitching a hike in a goods lorry. Scots have a long and proud tradition of picking up and leaving their homeland as soon as it's physically possible. The few times I've been back to Scotland were firm reminders that I'd made the right decision. It is a beautiful, precious homeland that is rightly abandoned by its natives, to make space for tourists. Let the Belgians come to Scotland to shoot grouse and die from exposure in the Cairngorms I say. I'll take beer, and cheese, and quaintly archaic Dutch/French language wars, anytime.

Aberdeen, the oil rig maintenance capital of Scotland, is one of the most boring cities ever. Its main claim to fame is that its squat red-gray granite buildings exude a gentle alpha radiation that kills anyone not mobile and smart enough to leave the place. Also, it's the where the game of golf was, I'm told, invented. It makes sense, since golf is the third most boring British sport (and they invented a lot of those) after cricket, and the infamous Scottish sport of "hill walking". Yes, the Scots literally go outside, in the rain (which will occasionally turn to snow, as we see), put on a cheerful smile and walk up, and then down hills. Sometimes several hills in a row. It's not even as if there's a great pub at the top. Just a random pile of rocks they call a cairn. Get this… it's not enough that they walk up near-vertical gradients for pure pleasure, but they will actually carry rocks up with them as they go. For fun. Go figure.

So as you can imagine, when Blondie confided closely that we'd escaped a snowy landing in Aberdeen didn't just tickle me, I whooped so loudly that several other business class passengers peered over at me, and then Blondie, visibly wondering what kind of deal we'd just sealed. Of all the fates I could plausibly expect when getting into a plane to London — hours on the tarmac, burning falling death into the Channel, downgrade to economy, having an triple-sized American sit beside me, no power outlet in Business (hey Korean Air, I'm talking to you! And you too, KLM. I mean, wtf?) — getting shunted to a snow-covered Aberdeen was possibly the most horrific. That "American" part was a joke. I love Americans! You guys have heating!

Having escaped near-Aberdeen, nothing could depress me and I let my euphoria last for hours. Good thing too, because it was one of those "can someone remind me why I got up this morning?" days.

Belgium is a fine place to live. I really like it. The food is excellent and diverse. It's not too expensive. The cities are small and sociable. Brussels, especially, is kind to immigrants and looks after its poor and weak. They don't dub the movies like the French and Germans do, they use subtitles like civilized people. They even subtitle the beer glasses, so we can tell the difference between a Westmalle Trippel and an Orval. The beer of course, is a book in itself. It's the only country that could — and I swear by all that's holy that this is the honest truth — plan to convert its main stock exchange building, the beautiful Bourse, into a beer museum. How awesome is that? Belgium rocks.

But there's one thing about Belgium. When things go even slightly wrong, they go totally wrong. We have one hung election, and the country goes without a government for a year and a half. One driver brakes suddenly, and there's a traffic jam that lasts for hours. It snows one inch on a Friday afternoon, and there's enough traffic jams to wrap the country three times.

And one plane returns unexpectedly, with only two hours' warning, and there is literally not a single baggage handler available to deplane the bags. So we sat there, in the arrival hall, watching our luggage dramatically and suddenly not appearing on belt 8. For hours. And hours. The smarter folk moved briskly upstairs to the BA ticketing desk, leaving one of their party downstairs to wait for their errant freight. I found a woman at the Avia desk, responsible for ground handling. I asked, can I leave my as yet — and by the way it's been like an hour and seriously, what's up — pending luggage here while I go try to get a new ticket? "Sure", she said, "just show your ID and bag ticket to security to get back in. And the bags will arrive at any moment".

Upstairs there were maybe thirty people already waiting, so I joined the queue. The last person in the queue was Blondie, so we smiled our "hey, we meet again!"s and got back to our chit chat. Every hour or so I dashed back downstairs, negotiated past security, and went back to belt 8 where the captain was bravely going down with his ship. Passengers sat and stood, getting more and more impatient. It was the utter lack of any news that was the worst thing. They flocked around him, telling him his company sucked.

I'd dash back upstairs to continue chatting with Blondie and waiting. The agents were interminably slow. And terribly organized. Surely they could do passengers in groups. All those going to Dallas. All those to San Francisco. Business class first, at least. But it was one by one, first come, first serve, if you can count taking an average of fifteen minutes to reroute one person "service".

Finally the bags arrived, in random batches, and people came upstairs looking haggard and shocked at the queue. Which got longer, and longer, until it stretched right across the departures hall. I had to go film it, it was so surrealistic. We'd been waiting for four hours and there were at least a hundred people behind us. One dignified old man in a suit who'd sat in front of me in business class shook his head in dismay and abandoned his bags in front of the ticket desk. He went outside to shoot himself or perhaps set himself on fire. Blondie finally told me she was going home. I think she'd just stayed to keep me company and my place in the queue because after all, it was her airline and she could rebook herself trivially.

Some other passengers going to Dallas joined with me, and then it was my turn. The agent told us, "I can get you to Amsterdam, then Atlanta, then Dallas. A full economy flight, no business class, arriving at Dallas at midnight". The other Dallas-bound people asked, "we paid for business class, how do we get our refund?" "You have to write and ask for it, I can't help you with that," said the agent. I told the agent, thanks but no, I'm not traveling economy. I have a fifteen hour flight to Korea in two days and unlike that nice old man who just went outside to jump under a taxi, have no wish to die quite yet. Please check for tomorrow. She told me she could get me to Chicago on United, thence to Dallas on American. Business class? I asked. "Yes," she confirmed. Departure time? Eleven A.M. from Brussels, she said. OK, that means I can wake at a normal hour, which is excellent, thank you, I told her, please book it.

Outside, there were the usual airport taxis. These are a form of extortion practiced in every civilized country, whereby a taxi firm will pay a percentage to the airport in return for a monopoly, and large warnings of the form, "Warning: for your own safety, only take official taxis!" It's funny because half the point of a taxi ride anywhere is that you never know whether the driver will rip you off or not, and if so, how bad it can get. An "official taxi" is such a weird concept. Why don't they just push a subway then?

I was once in Burkina Faso and heard of a taxi driver being hunted down, arrested and then shot (with bullets, to be clear) for overcharging a passenger. He'd driven one of the president's friends — a visiting president — from his hotel to the conference center. He charged about $200, which is an immodest sum but not excessive for a VIP. The problem was the two buildings were next door to each other. In memoriam of that taxi driver, I never take "official taxis".

More to the point, and possibly because I'm half Scottish, they're over-priced. There is a trick, which works in most modern airports. All taxis leaving the airport are crooks. Official crooks. So instead you go to the departure area and wait for ordinary taxis arriving from town. Flag one down and ask, how much to get into town? You can negotiate a good deal because they have to drive back empty otherwise. I waited for a while, caught a normal taxi and had a nice drive back home for a third of the "official" price. I got home, grateful to spend another day with my surprised and joyful kids, and repaired the damage to my meetings, and hotel and car reservations.

The next morning at a far more decent hour, but still having missed breakfast, I checked-in with United and then went to the BA desk to ask the agent about collecting my missing miles. She was one of those who had been handling the problems yesterday. She looked tired and stressed, face thin and taut. Needed a cigarette and a coffee and a big warm hug. Instead I gave her a smile and said, in Dutch (most of the staff at Zaventem are trilingual Flemish), thanks for yesterday by the way, you all did an unbelievable job. She beamed for a second. "Thanks, it was kind of difficult." Well, I said, the snow messed up everything, but you all worked so hard to fix things. Sometimes it's best to know what parts to leave out. Yes, you were unbelievably slow, and you worked so hard and yet managed to make your passengers wait most of a day, without news or food or seats, like penniless refugees hoping to catch the last boat out of a burning city.

She beamed again as we discussed my miles and she suggested I email the frequent flyer program. I've already used BA's online support and it's excellent, so that was a great answer. I smiled and said bye-bye. Next to her (it's one long One World counter) was the AA agent.

AA lady, also Flemish, checked me in for Chicago-Dallas but couldn't issue the boarding pass. Looking at the screen I noticed I was in row 18, which is economy. Business is full, I asked? No business, just first, she replied. There are some seats available but your ticket is Y class, economy. Back to BA lady, explaining, I really don't do economy. "But policy won't let me issue a first class ticket," she apologized.

I nodded, happily, not disagreeing. Policy is a bitch and she was undoubtedly right. I don't do economy, I repeated. I have to leave tomorrow to Korea. Long flights. Delays which already cost me a lot. You might want to put me in first class, that would make me very happy. I'd be very sad to travel in economy because I paid for business, and what they call first class on domestic US flights is just business, but what's worse, I like BA and then I'd be forced to find another airline. And as I travel once a month, in business, that would be really sad. I shrugged my apology but continued to smile at her happily. We would fix this tragic situation together, obviously.

"Oh, but if we issued you this ticket yesterday, there was no room in first," she thought out loud. I nodded and indicated the AA agent. She told me there was space in first, I said. BA lady ticked at her keyboard. "Yes, right, there is." Let me see. A little later, she shook her head, but said, "OK, I'm canceling your existing ticket, and issuing you a new one in class A" (first class). I thanked her sincerely and waited like a happy Buddha statue waiting for rain.

The computer system didn't let her though. I watched with sympathy and patience as she fought the software that had been specifically programmed to not allow ticket agents put business class passengers into "let's agree to not call it business" class. After a while she swore at it and said, "hang on, Mr Hintjens" and disappeared into the back office. She came back with a paper voucher slip and started writing on it.

Finally she had it all, and gave it to me. "This is for United, this second copy is for AA in Chicago". I thanked her and wished her well, and crossed the hall to the United desk. There I explained my tragic story to two ladies of the Flemish persuasion, as if it was a comic story, including sound effects and hand movements as the plane nearly landed in Aberdeen but finally came back to Brussels. Oh, and this voucher is for you, I finished. They were somewhat confused since I already had my boarding pass. "Did you get an award ticket? It says here on the old ticket, value zero". Nope, I explained, BA bought those tickets. Involuntary rerouting. Snow, chaos. Aberdeen, the whole mess. All in Dutch. Languages are like pre-paid plastic you pull out at the right moments.

United lady #1 ticked on her keyboard and nodded, "OK, it's done. Thanks a lot for bringing us that voucher!" I shrugged happily, no problem. I'm looking forward to trying United, it's been BA all the time so far, and their handling was pretty tragic yesterday. Then, I asked, "so since I am so nice, how about an upgrade to first?" They both smiled and looked at each other and said "ha!", but not unkindly. I gave them my best happy bunny smile and repeated, "so, how about an upgrade to first?" United lady #1 asked United lady #2, "could we do it?" and United lady #2 thought and said, "in theory, yes, but the price differential is huge!"

I'm not a frequent flyer on United, but I'd learned a few minutes earlier that ticketing agents have power. I smiled happily, "well, the original ticket was priced zero, and you have the voucher now, so the upgrade isn't really costing anything, if you think about it". United lady #1 shook off that incoherent sentence and ticked some more. "I've put you on the upgrade list. They can upgrade you at the gate if they need to for operational reasons".

Wow, you're both amazing, I said, happy as a kid opening his Christmas presents. Upgrade list is already half the struggle. It means you're a VIP of some kind.

I went to the gate, via the crowded mess that was United's lounge. It was the "insert random airline here" lounge you get in every airport. Every last croissant and cheese plate had been eaten and every seat was filled. I didn't see the difference between that and the departure hall downstairs except there were more fat businessmen and laptops. Sigh. All this effort and I still have to search for a place to sit.

Across the corridor, the BA lounge was empty and visibly well-stocked with edibles. The man at the desk was the same one from the day before. Unfriendly, bored, uninterested. Hi, I'd like to get into the lounge please, I told him and showed him my boarding pass. "You're not flying British Airways", he told me. Yes, but I have a gold frequent flyer card and look at me, I'm a nice person. "Can't help you," he said, "my boss wouldn't like it". I looked around. Maybe his boss was hiding somewhere. But no, there was no boss. Just an empty, well-stocked lounge with lots of empty seats. BA does a great lounge, its one of the reasons I like the airline. Look, I said, I am a BA passenger and you guys canceled my flight and made me a day late and now you can't get me into the lounge?

But it wasn't going to work. He wasn't enjoying the discussion a bit and I realized I'd gotten off entirely on the wrong foot. He was the bouncer, francophone and I'd come right up and asked in English to get in. The answer was going to be "no" even if the place was totally empty and I had a hot woman in each arm and a pound of cocaine in my pocket. You should start with "hi, how is stuff?", move to some irrelevant chit-chat about the weather and yesterday's chaos, and then casually arrive at how the other lounge is so filled with people, and shrug, and just as he starts to realize he's the one all alone and bored, start to leave. That's when he calls, "sir, come and enjoy our lounge if you want to".

Some fights you can't win, some you will win anyhow. Save your energy for those you can profitably fight.

I went back to the United lounge and drank an espresso, standing up. I chatted (in French, because most manual workers in the airport are francophone) to the woman cleaning up and she told me there would be more snacks in thirty minutes. Too late for my grumbling belly. I went to the gate where the flight to Chicago was already boarding.

At the desk I showed my boarding pass to a neatly styled agent and asked, politely, if I had been upgraded. It seems a job for women and gay men, for some reason. Language and people skills, perhaps. Anyhow, he gave me a broad smile and said, "Ah, Mr Hintjens, I did the upgrade, here's your new boarding pass." I took it and thanked him, shook his hand and walked tenderly to seat 2A, waiting for someone to shout, "hey, smile, we punked you!"

First class isn't what it was in 1995, when we were fed more delicious morsels and champagne than the Playboy mansion holds on a holiday weekend. In the heyday of Sabena, the first class cabin attendants outnumbered the passengers and we sat in the nose of a 747 like kings. First class these days is like business class for very fat people. But it was still awesome and now I am totally going to ask for an upgrade every single time I fly.


I've presented you with a set of social engineering tools that let you turn everyday interactions with others into more meaningful and mutually profitable transactions.

The basic technique is to feel and then turn off your negative emotional responses such as fear, anger, self-pity. Then you find joy in the moment, and then you express that joy in your posture, smile, and language. You must speak with pleasure and say things that make the other person happy too.

If you want something, you need to know what it is, and find a way to express that. You never come out cold with a demand, but you can ask for anything if you have warmed up the other person with stories and humor. The worst they will say is "no", and even then, it will often be a challenge to try harder.

When you are certain of your success, without fear, it subtly infects others. You must be patient, and be able to get close to others by speaking their language, and dressing without prejudice. No matter what the culture nor the situation, you should be able to make anyone your friend in a few minutes, and you should sincerely enjoy the experience.

These techniques are not easy. Learn them by starting with the simplest possible steps, and building up your skills piece by piece. Just politely greeting every person you deal with is a good start.

Social engineering is a powerful toolkit that I use and practice daily when designing new software products with my teams, when negotiating contracts, when buying gas, when talking to people in a bar, indeed when doing anything at all with other people. For sure, some will consider it manipulative, but that is because they assume pessimistically that if you get something from someone, that other person must have lost something.

As I said, social engineering is essentially about creating win-win transactions. Don't confuse social engineering, a form of trade, with social hacking, which is a form of theft.

Let me know how social engineering works for you.


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