Panic on the dance floor

It’s time to solicit some crucial advice from the combined wisdom of readers.

The question is – should I go to my 30 year school reunion?

Yes, 30 years! Apparently that’s how long it’s been since I was lying around languidly in an asphalt courtyard at lunchtimes, discussing boys, or INXS, (specifically Michael Hutchence) or teachers, or who was at the nightclub last Saturday night and who’s going this Saturday.

When the time came for the 10 year reunion, I didn’t go – not through any deliberate desire to avoid it, but because I had an exhibition opening the same evening, if you don’t mind. Why yes, those were the days when I was a twenty-something artist.

When the next one (20 years) came around, I didn’t go because, well, I hadn’t been to the 10 year reunion, and by the 20 year mark I’d basically fallen out of contact with every single person I’d been friends with at high school. I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t tended to retain friends for a lifetime as some people do. Instead it seems that by mutual agreement in some cases, or not in others, I lose contact with people and move on and make new friends so that I end up having a past series of friends who are associated with specific periods of my life. This has worked ok so far, but I do hope I’ll start retaining friends for longer, because I can see that opportunities to make new friends become less as you get older.

Anyway, when the 20-year reunion came along, I was a 30-something, working in the arts. Working in the arts sounds less glamorous than being an artist, but in the end it suits me better to be doing practical tasks that contribute towards the creation of art (theatre) by a company, and for that reason, I feel satisfied. Sure I’m creative, and, oh boy, do I love ideas! – why, I can ramble on about them for hours, as this blog proves! – but it turns out I’m not very good at self promotion, or at staying focussed and motivated when left to drive myself along to develop abstract concepts into physical works of art. I’m easily overwhelmed by broad, undefined goals.  “Continue to develop a body of ideas and work that may end up being exhibited, or may simply be research and development towards your whole oeuvre” was a little too vague to help me decide what to do from day to day as I attempted to produce work in my studio.

But back to the looming 30-year reunion. This is happening in the near future, a time when I’m a 40-something, still working in the arts. (At least there has been some consolidation on the career front then.) I am still not in touch with anyone from school apart from two people that I am now Facebook Friends with. Of those two, I’ve caught up once, in person, with one of those people.

So basically, attending the reunion means attending an event where I don’t know anyone very well, but sort of know everyone just a little bit. In my opinion, for a shy, introverted extrovert (that is a self-diagnosis), this is far worse than attending an event where everyone is a complete stranger. And finally, even worse again, some are people I used to be close friends with, who dropped out of contact about 20 years ago.

Now, if you are not a massive extrovert, it’s actually hard to socialise with people you know just a little bit. An event full of strangers is preferable. If everyone is a stranger, you can wander around on your own, making it obvious that you are alone and don’t know anyone, and hope that some of those strangers will notice your plight, and converse with you out of courtesy, or pity. (As they are strangers, it doesn’t really matter which.) And, if they don’t, you can cut your losses and leave without any real loss of dignity or hurt to your feelings.

At an event where everyone knows who you are, but you are not close chums with anyone, you sidle around the outskirts of chatting groups of people, smiling and hoping someone you’ve met before will take pity on you and make eye contact so that you feel welcome to edge your way into their little group, and pretend to take an immediate and passionate interest in whatever topic they are discussing, even if it’s the renovation they are doing to the ensuite in their holiday house.

And if no-one makes any attempt to give you an opening, then you’ll probably slink away early and – YEAH YOU BET your feelings will be hurt and your dignity will sink to a new low!

(As a self-diagnosed “introverted extrovert,” by the way, I’m not a totally hopeless case socially. My self esteem in general is quite ok – certainly a hundred times healthier than when I was a high school student – and I LIKE socialising with friends – but it’s easily trampled on in a situation like this.)

Ok, it’s pretty obvious that I’m wavering on the side of not going.

But let’s get down to the real issue here. Surely the only question that matters is – will the music be good?

Because I do love dancing, as I think we’ve covered in previous posts.

So much so that, despite fear of not being able to make small-talk, and the possible humiliation of scuttling around the edges of the function room on my own all night, the possibility of dancing could, in itself, be a temptation to go! In the unlikely event that the music was good, if it turned out to be the worst case scenario where I was milling around with no-one to talk to –  I could just join the dance floor!

(That is, of course, only if at least 12 other people were already dancing, as I am too self-conscious to jump up alone, or when there are only two extraverts doing the bumpsy-daisy together out there.) But if there’s enough people dancing for me to blend somewhere into the middle of the crowd, then I can lose that self-consciousness and dance the night away, or at least until Working Class Man* comes on.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that the music would be good. I say this because my generation’s musical taste has forever, and quite erroneously, been labelled as Seventies disco in some kind of timewarp that wasn’t accurate. Although we were indeed alive in days of 1970s disco, we were in nappies, and then pre-school, and then the early years of primary school for most of that decade and were therefore more interested in what was playing on the Looney Tunes cartoon hour on TV than what was playing at Studio 54. I have never even seen Saturday Night Fever. Maybe this explains a lot about me, but to put it bluntly, I have no emotional connection with Seventies disco, which was the music most frequently played at school fundraising events I attended as a parent at my daughter’s school.

At an event where a selection of music is to be played for my personal entertainment, ideally I would request a good dose of music from the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s (or whatever the current era is known as). Anyone taking notes at home may include music from the Seventies too, by all means, but please make it punk, or folk, or rock, or Motown, just not that over-played Seventies disco.

Despite the stereotyped notion of parents as a particular breed of adults whose musical taste stays rooted in the nostalgic past, I have always enjoyed discovering new music. That includes discovering music from the past that I hadn’t listened to at the time. But official events of any sort usually opt for safe choices with music, on the premise of pleasing the majority, and safe, for my generation, seems to be to play the music that was playing on the dance floors when we were learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive.

Of course we all think our own musical taste is superior to everyone else’s, don’t we?**

In the end, I should thank you for your input, dear readers, because as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve come to the only conclusion that seems obvious, and will avoid the need to make small talk AND ensure the music will be good.

I won’t attend my school’s 30-year reunion unless I can DJ.

*

 

*Working Class Man is a song by well known Australian Band Cold Chisel. I’m clearly a bit of a snobby purist when it comes to what music I am willing to dance to, and it’s my personal opinion that this song should never come anywhere near a dance floor, but when I was growing up in the country, the djs were less picky, and it usually did come on at about 3am, signalling to me that it was cattle-call time at the meat market, and a good time to go home.

**(Or is that just me?)

***Update: thanks to those who said I must go and then write about it here. I didn’t see you offering to accompany me and pretend to be someone everyone else had forgotten. If only I’d thought of that earlier. Airline tickets could have been arranged.

Anyway, the reunion happened, I didn’t attend, and I don’t think there was ANY music at all. It was a daytime tour of the school that so many of us were thrilled to leave at the time, and then a luncheon. How alarmingly sedate. And how demanding of small talk!! I think I made the right choice, so I thank you all again.

Things that make you go hmmmm

It saddens me to make this distressing announcement, but here it is: customer service standards in Australia are slipping.

I believe that I am qualified to comment on customer service, having spent all my working life until I was in my mid 30s, in customer service roles. That’s including my very first part-time job at the local fish and chips shop/milk bar when I was 15. I can assure you that our service at “Cosy Corner” Milk Bar was always top notch – polite, efficient, and we only took a matter of minutes to add up the total cost for your Koolmints, TaB, pack of cigarettes and Chicko Roll™ – using a pen and paper and a calculator if lucky – enter the total into the cash register that looked like a large version of a toy cash register, and then manually figure out the change we needed to give you.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Pic: Turtles Treasures

In the 4 years that I worked there, I only once spilled someone’s fish and chips all over the floor in front of all the waiting customers, when my up-until-then flawless execution of the quick wrap-up in butcher’s paper went horribly wrong.

Ah yes, the late 1980s, perhaps the heyday of customer service in Australia. I got my first role as an official “Customer Service Assistant” when I determined that the arts degree I had started at Melbourne University was useless, and walked into Myer Melbourne’s Employment office – yes, believe it or not, in 1989, the retail empire devoted a whole building on Little Bourke Street to Recruitment and Training! – and filled out an application form. Lo and behold, two interviews later (!) I had my very first full-time job as a customer service assistant in the photography department. That seemed incredibly exciting, for about the first 2 months. But before I was allowed to set foot on the floor of the photography department, I had to undertake two paid weeks of training in customer service!

How utterly novel that seems now. Back then, Myer hired staff so consistently, that there was about 15 of us in this training group. Compare this to now, when you could shoot a cannon through most Myer stores and not hit any staff. In the last few years I’ve had multiple experiences of attempting to buy things at Myer but finally giving up because there were simply no staff around to process the transaction.

Anyway, back to our training in customer service. In a classroom set up, for two weeks, we were trained in everything from how to use the cash register to how to interact with customers, and the tone and professional manner that was expected of staff, what to do when someone made a complaint, or wanted a refund, etc.

Gone are the days when a large company considered it worth spending two weeks of pay on training staff to provide excellent service. These days, shareholders are outraged if profits drop from a billion in one quarter to only a couple of hundred million the next*, so how can they possibly be expected to spend money on training staff in how to be professional?

The tactic which works quite well for a lot of phone customer service (not so well in a physical store where, if you are going to get rid of staff, you need to put in Point of Sale scanners and make the stock easily accessible to customers, as supermarkets have been doing for years. Just a tip for any Myer executives reading this) – is to provide a minimal service that amounts to telling a customer what they will need to do to fix the issue themselves.  And, because that’s all that’s expected of them by their employers, the attitude of most customer service staff has drooped, (yes, drooped, not dropped) to a nonchalant response that still just manages to be polite, but conveys a distinct lack of any sense of responsibility on the part of the company to do better, or on the part of the employee to represent the company in that endeavour. This is often conveyed through a show of complete surprise at your request – as if they’ve never encountered this question from a customer before and your request deals with topics outside of what they are there to help you with. Examples will follow.

Of course, anyone who has been reading this blog for a few years now knows that the outright winner in the Total Absence of Customer Service Awards goes to whitegoods manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, so I don’t need to go into detail about their unsurpassable accomplishment in in having a 24/7 customer service line staffed by people who are briefed to offer no service at all. I’ve already written a 3-part saga about it, and if you are researching your thesis on customer service and you make it through part 1 and part 2,  you’ll agree that this company have set the bar extremely high for any other companies hoping to beat them at this game.

Most companies take a softer approach, recognising that it’s better not to totally enrage their customers. They know that the best result for them is obtained by giving all appearances of attempting to help but putting most of the work back on to you, making it clear, through a combination of incompetent processes and disinterested staff, that it would be a waste of your time to try and get them to assist any further.

Here are some recent examples of customer service interactions that were mediocre enough to prompt this post. Sadly, these are not from commercial businesses but from government organisations, where I guess the pressure to cut spending by retrenching positions has a price.

I wrote a post a while ago about old-fashioned technology for financial transactions. This was inspired by the move back into the Dark Ages by my local council, who used to accept credit card payments for Visitor Parking Permits. In the past, I’ve paid for a Visitor Parking Permit by emailing my application form back, or paying over the phone. This year, the form had a place to fill out credit card details but stated that the only way to pay by credit card was to go into the Council offices in person. How quaint. Just as if it was 1920. If I wanted to pay by post – just as if it was, say, 1964 – I could organise a cheque or money order.

One wonders if my local council are aware that people who own cars nowadays could have been born as recently as 1997, and that generation have never owned a cheque book, organised a money order, or gone anywhere in person to pay a bill – because the means to process financial transactions electronically has been around longer than they have been alive! Or that one of the main advantages of a credit card is that it enables people to pay for things without needing to be physically present at the point of sale.

In disbelief, I phoned the council to double check that I couldn’t pay over the phone. When told it was correct, I commented that it was a backward step in technology, given that they used to take credit card payment over the phone. The customer service person laughed merrily, although I wasn’t making a joke, and agreed that it did seem a bit backward.

In the face of that response, I moved on, and asked her if it was possible for me to email the form back to council rather than pay $1 to post it. (I needed to send it back to get my own Resident Parking Permit, which didn’t require payment since each household is entitled to one free permit). This option was notably absent from the form, and no email address was supplied. The customer service person seemed to find the question surprising, but once confronted with this incredible concept, she considered it, and thought that I probably could email it back. After a second or two had passed, I prompted her for the email address, since it didn’t occur to her to supply it, and then ended the call.

Needless to say, I still have not organised a Visitor Parking Permit.

With the technology that is commonly available these days, it should be possible for the council to store residents details so that I could just log in to a portal and tick a box to say that yes, my address and the car registration details are still the same as last year, and tick another to say please send out the Resident Parking Permit, thankyou. It seems council would rather print a letter for every car in the city and pay for postage to send the form out so that each car-owning resident can tick the box, sign the form and pay $1 to post it back. Maybe they have entered into some kind of service agreement with Australia Post.

This post would become far too long if I related the follow up call I made about a month later, to politely enquire as to whether they were close to processing my Resident Parking Permit any time soon, since my current one had expired. Let’s just say that interaction caused me to picture the person I was transferred to as a computer boffin in a cardigan, working in a basement with one DOS computer that was slowly disappearing under a rising sea of paper (the sort that is used in dot matrix printers and comes joined together with holes along the side of it).

Person at a desk, swamped with a mountain of paper.

Sort of like this, except my local council must have at least one computer somewhere amongst all the paper. And the desk would be smaller. And the person look more like a boffin.

Pic: Ego Friendly

I was reminded of this today, when I rang a State Government organisation, Consumer Affairs Victoria, the state’s consumer affairs regulator. I work in the Non-Profit sector, and they regulate our processes for holding Annual General Meetings and reporting on annual finances, amongst other things. We need to apply to them for an extension on the date of our next Annual General meeting. I had downloaded the application form from their website, but then I called to make sure the version on their website was correct. Because on last year’s application, I was able to fill out credit card details to pay the administration fee, and email the form back. But this year’s form states that credit card payment can not be accepted via email, and if paying by credit card the form must be posted back!

I am starting to sense a pattern in local/State Government processes, which seem to be steadily marching backwards. Forget the paperless office – these Government departments must be cutting staff so that they can afford to hire out warehouses to store all these forms in.

The person who answered my call at Consumer Affairs at first said that emailing it back would be fine, but I read the point written on the form out to him, which then prompted him to read it himself, apologise and say that I was correct. He didn’t offer any explanation as to why that less-than-optimal change had been made since last year.

Although I could guess the answer to my next question, I then asked him about another change – last year, I filled in an electronic signature to authorise the application before I emailed it through, while it appeared that this year I would have to email the form to our Board Secretary so that she could print it out, sign it and send it back to me via email or post, before I could post it to CAV. It was no surprise at this point when he agreed that this was correct, yes, we would have to take all those extra steps to replace the one step process that was available last year.

To neither of these points did he perceive that there was a need to explain to a customer why the service had apparently gone backwards.

Wow! I spent years diligently providing the best service I could in various customer service roles, which included apologising when appropriate, giving an explanation for things that would otherwise appear to the customer to be deficits in the service provided, and where possible, offering another option or solution. “I’m sorry you’ve had to wait, the phones have been very busy because Bon Jovi went on sale at 9am”, or “I’m sorry, I can’t give you two seats in the middle of row C because they are already sold, but I can place you just slightly right of centre in row E, which is excellent seating, in fact in my opinion, it’s better than row C. Or we could look at another date.”

Surprisingly, the guy on the phone at Consumer Affairs did then volunteer some information: that I didn’t really need to worry about putting in the formal application form, because Consumer Affairs is not currently fining organisations for late submission of Annual Statements. That’s great, I said, could you send me a quick email so I have that in writing? Unfortunately not, was his reply, but it is the case, and it would save you time and the cost of the administration fee. I explained – somewhat crossly at this point – that if Consumer Affairs is giving advice that has implications for an organisation’s compliance with the regulations they oversee, but refuses to put that advice in writing, then I’m not willing to go against what the regulations require.

He didn’t miss a beat, but just politely responded that was fair enough, and was that all he could help me with today. Yes, I said politely in return, thanks, that is all.

*

*made up statistic that does not reflect any particular company’s profits.

Corduroy and big hair (the night I met Michael Hutchence)

1985 was a dreadful year for fashion all round. At least, that’s my excuse.

big-hair3

In the 80s, it was all about hair.

Pic: liketotally80s

 

When I was in primary school, I was barely aware that other people bought clothes brand new straight from shops.

Up until I secured a part time job in 1984, growing up in a working class family of eight meant most of my clothes came from “Op” shops, or were “handed down” to me from cousins. Those older cousins were a family of 9 kids, who lived on a farm and survived on one adult’s income. In other words, the clothes they passed on to myself and my sister were not going to see me feature in the Fashion on the Street pages of Dolly magazine any time soon.

At primary school I didn’t know or care about my clothes being fashionable. From high school onwards, however, I became immediately aware of the yawning chasm between the fashionably dressed girls at school and myself on the first “casual” day in year 7. It was for our annual walkathon, and most other girls were wearing shorts, or the 3/4 length pants that were fashionable that year, while I turned up in a second hand, mid-calf length, A-line, white skirt with a pretty floral pattern. Worn with school socks (what other kind were there?) and sneakers. Well, it was a 10km walkathon, so I was just being practical – and the only other shoes I owned were my school shoes! It would be hard to think of a particular shape and style of clothing that could have marked me, any more clearly, as being from a poor family.

After that humiliating experience, I started to try and dress like the other girls, but with no money, and only hand-me-downs to work with, my attempts to wear the nearest version I could to what they were wearing never gave me a chance of looking like anything but the oldest daughter in a large, poor, Catholic family. One look at me and you could tell that my parents combed my brothers’ hair down neatly onto the side of their heads with water for Sunday mass.

I did at time own some jeans, however my first ever pair of “jeans” (actually purchased brand new!) were beige cords, and later I recall quite a few pairs of hand-me-downs from cousins that were  (gulp!) purple and corduroy, and flared. (Reminder: flares were cool in the 70s, NOT the mid 80s.) “Casual” days at school became dreaded.

In 1984 I got a part time job working in the local fish and chips shop. Having been bringing in 40c per week up to that point I was utterly astounded (and so was my dad), after my first shift stocking the drinks fridge, to discover that I earned a whopping $4 an hour!  It was enough to buy Smash Hits and Dolly magazine, cassettes, and save to buy my own clothes.

But unfortunately, when I recall what I wore to the INXS concert I attended at the Ballarat Civic Hall in 1985, I can only conclude that I must have spent all of my wage on getting my hair permed into basically a cross between a mullet and a bob, a style that was all the rage for about a month, at my school that year, and had nothing left over to spend on clothes.

Thankfully, there are no photos to remind me of what I looked like as I headed out that night. It’s just that the shame of it has been burned into my memory. Let’s just say that I tried to turn a lack of having anything remotely cool to wear into an attempt to look “bohemian.” I am certain that a dark-red corduroy skirt was involved, and fairly certain that I teamed this with a pair of white runners, covered with colored polka dots. Yes, that’s right – sneakers with a corduroy skirt. It seems highly likely since I know there was a time when those polka dot sneakers were the only pair of shoes I owned (apart from my school shoes), and that was because a friend took pity on me and donated them to me.

Now it has to be said that INXS and corduroy are two items that just don’t go naturally in a sentence together. How does a post start out about corduroy and end up being about INXS? You are probably starting to wish you could get your money back. Well hang on a moment, because I’m about to explain. The reason I have gone into detail about my tragic outfit, is to emphasise what a pitifully daggy kid I was at that point, and really set the scene for what a friggin’ highlight in my life at that point it was to meet Michael Hutchence after the concert!

Um, yes, that’s right – daggy red corduroy-skirt girl MET Michael Hutchence after the gig. Life can seem unfair at times, can’t it, girls?

It was not hard to do. Basically, the concert ended, and everyone else politely poured out of the Civic Hall and went straight home to bed! Except for 3 people: my friend, her older brother and myself. We loitered around, near a side exit, trying to look casual, hoping that the band wouldn’t be secretly whisked out some other exit by their body guards…….and then – OMG!!!

Through the glass doors we could see the band, casually walking down a hallway, coming straight towards us! Or, in Michael’s case, sashaying down the hall towards us. At least, in my memory that’s how it looks.

Now, I’m pretty sure that as he approached, the total lack of glamour in doing this gig in a civic hall in a country town became all too apparent to Hutchence, if it hadn’t been already. He could see that outside those doors there was  no media with cameras flashing, no hordes of screaming, adult women, no – just 2 teenage girls – one in a red corduroy skirt and polka dot sneakers – with older brother in tow!

Michael Hutchence. Pic NOT taken by me.

Michael Hutchence. NOT taken by me, unfortunately. I left my Kodak 120 at home.

Pic: Pinterest

But to give them credit, the band stopped and talked to us – or let’s face it, probably mostly to the older brother – and, to top off that kind gesture, before they departed, Michael leaned in and gave each girl a kiss.

Hopefully, now that you have some extra context, you will have a pretty clear picture of how thrilled I must have been at that moment. And don’t worry, I was aware even then, that it was an act of kindness, or pity – or perhaps utmost professionalism – that motivated him. But for me, at least, it was undoubtedly the highlight of my life year.

So, whether or not Michael Hutchence lost sight of his roots and let the glamour go to his head in later days, let the records show that he did a kindly deed back in 1985.

Which was to give a charitable kiss to a country town teenage girl wearing a corduroy skirt. Possibly with polka dot sneakers.

women filling out a survey

In a survey taken way back in 1937, 98 out 100 elderly women voted corduroy skirts to be “daggiest item of clothing eva”

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