If you write, “Put on your oxygen mask first,” I’ll have to smother you

Photo: Aerox

Today in the war on clichés, I take on “Put on your oxygen mask first.”

Have you heard this before? You have? Then why would you write it as if it is some sort of new and revealing insight?

Damn, I’m sick of reading this — and of deleting it in the things I edit.

A simple idea

The flight attendants always say this, because they know that in a situation in which the plane depressurizes, if you attempt to help your child or spouse first, you could pass out.

It’s a rare situation. The lesson doesn’t even apply in other crisis situations. If your house were on fire and the children were inside, would you think “I have to save myself first?” If the you and your spouse were caught outside in a hurricane, would you think “I have to save myself first?”

It’s also odd to read because almost none of us have any direct experience with oxygen masks on an airplane, not having been on one when it depressurized. (If you’ve actually seen the oxygen masks deploy, please do tell us about it in the comments.)

As a cliché, this is supposed to remind one of the necessity for self-care — for taking care of yourself so that you are capable of taking care of others. Which, I suppose, is a decent sentiment.

270,000 people thought of this before you

Google shows 270,000 pages that include the exact words “oxygen mask first” or “oxygen mask on first.” That is the sign of an overused clichè. In fact, there is a leadership book by Kevin Lawrence called Your Oxygen Mask First with 246 ratings, which means a whole lot of people have bought it.

Lawrence gets a pass since he wrote a book exploring the topic. Unless you are quoting him, you don’t. This one has been repeated so often that it elicits a grimace, which is going to distract your reader from whatever you’re saying.

It belongs in the business cliché hall of fame along with Wayne Gretzky’s “I skate to where the puck is going to be,” John Wanamaker’s “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted,” and Henry Ford’s “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

It doesn’t even make sense

Still enjoying the sentiment behind “Put your oxygen mask on first?” Then ask yourself:

  • Is this a justification for being selfish in a crisis? How did you feel about people who used privilege to get the first vaccinations last year, before the elderly people who were most in need? Or Elon Musk who would prefer that you save him from taxes first, before the rest of us? After all, these people were just “putting their oxygen masks on first,” right?
  • Flight attendants are required to treat us as if we are all so stupid that we’ve never seen how to use a seat belt. They also tell us to use our fart-filled seat cushions to float in the water after a crash — what’s the deeper significance of that? Is this really a source of profoundly meaningful advice?
  • The “oxygen mask first” advice applies only when there is a risk of immediate death. How often are we this close to dying? Is this the only time to put ourselves first — when a deadly crisis is imminent?

There is always a need to balance self-care with care for others. It’s a complex question. This cliché doesn’t make it any easier.

Consider your readers

After you write this phrase — or are tempted to write it — ask yourself how you could treat your readers to advice that’s a little more helpful and less hackneyed.

For example:

  • Dedicate 3 hours a week to self-improvement.
  • In a crisis, take 30 seconds to identify the most important thing to do first, instead of panicking and slapping on the oxygen mask.
  • If helping others makes you feel used up, that’s a warning sign. Find a way to rebalance your stress and help yourself.

Invent your own principle. Then make it cleverly your own. It may not feel as familiar as a trope about oxygen masks, but readers may actually listen to it instead of groaning at your lack of imagination.

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  1. Maybe their desire for cliches is on fire, as they eagerly skate to where the next cliche is.

    Is there a Darwin award category for most cliches used in a non-fiction book?
    If not… maybe there should be! Smells like a PR opportunity!

  2. Interestingly, This is the first time I’ve heard that phrase outside of a plane.

    As Fish sings, “ The best way is with an old cliche.”

  3. How about “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye”? That gets only 16,000 mentions.

    I’ve generally viewed the Pilot’s Rule, when applied outside of aviation, as a kind way to tell someone they’re not as helpful as they think they are. What I object to is that, its being a backhanded remark about a personal defect, it requires close personal knowledge, and so is more appropriate for private conversation than broad publication.

    People understand the allusion. That few people have been in a depressurized cabin at 30,000 feet is irrelevant. I hope! If the world’s concrete thinkers can’t imagine it the first time a stewardess explains it, then flying is more dangerous than I thought.

    “That is the sign of an overused clichè.”
    Or a measure of how much people have found the need to reiterate it.
    Sometimes the intelligent must repeat the obvious.

  4. I guess I don’t read the cliche right.

    When I see it, I don’t see, “Preserve yourself,” I see, “Preserve your usefulness.” I’ve found it to be a helpful shorthand that in a crisis, the obvious choice may not be the correct choice. I don’t read it literally, outside of the context of a depressurization event.

    I might muster more outrage if I had examples of folks using the phrase to mean, “Save yourself first and always.” As a person who doesn’t edit things for a living, I imagine you have much more experience with it. Maybe you’ve saved me from seeing it this whole time!

    In which case, thank you! Because that would be dumb!