Life Lessons from a Tour Guide

If you had to ask me what has been the most useful job for me in terms of skills learned, I’d have to say the two summers I spent working as a tour guide at a (Victorian military) living history museum. Here’s what you learn from a job like that:

How to compartmentalise. Because if you’ve got back-to-back tours, you can’t be thinking about everything that went wrong on Tour One while you’re leading Tour Two.

How to deal with difficult people. Because if a guest is angry, or upset, or determined to ruin the fun for the rest of the tour, or coming out with an appalling remark about those members of the historical interpretation staff who aren’t white or male (those were rare, but they happened), you have to be able to respond calmly and cheerfully, but very firmly.

How to deal with difficult people (schoolchild edition). After a few tours I figured out that the trick is, identify the attention-seeking ones and make sure they’re getting attention. It can even be seemingly negative attention: they’re the ones who will actually love it if you “pick on” them to help demonstrate something, or make them stand in the corner of the Victorian schoolroom when running a pretend lesson, or similar, and the shyer members of the class get to giggle with relief that it’s not them.

How to deliver information in 45-60 minutes to a group of people of varying skills, knowledge levels, English levels and boredom. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between tour guiding and university lecturing.

How to deal with the unexpected. For instance: in one of the museum rooms, the German-speaking guides were encouraged to point out a picture of Prince Albert, ask if anyone knew who he was, and prompt them by saying he was the most famous German in the British Empire. Usually German-language tours didn’t know (one student suggested “Bismark?” which wasn’t a bad guess), but then came the tour who all chanted out his name, birthplace, pedigree and life history in unison. Turned out they were from Saxe-Coburg.

How to improvise. If you’re all set to take a tour into the soldiers’ living quarters, and one of the senior staff brushes by and whispers to you that you can’t do that bit because a schoolchild on the previous tour has vomited onto one of the beds, you’ve got to turn round without a blink and say, “I’m sorry, we can’t go into the living quarters, Sergeant Smith’s wife is having a baby, so let’s go visit the underground fortifications instead.”

How people deal with frame breaches. If a tourist happened to accidentally venture into one of the backstage areas (the office, the staffroom, or God forbid the locker rooms), they would inevitably make exactly the same joke about “the old Victorian computer system [refrigerator, hair dryer, whatever]” and wander out again. After a while I began to find the fact that they all used the same script rather interesting: I suspect that if they’d done the same at an amusement park, they’d just have said, “oh sorry”, but when you’re dressed up and performing, there needs to be that little extra layer of joking to make it right.

How to find fun. One of the best pieces of advice the guiding manual gave was to make sure you’re enjoying the tour yourself: if you’re not having fun, neither will the guests. So you have to get creative. Give different pieces of information in different ways. Develop narratives. Do improv drama with other staff members. At one point I wound up giving an impromptu chorus of Pirate Jenny’s song from The Threepenny Opera (long story, but it made sense in context). But it’s definitely true of just about everything that you need to find the fun in it– and that you can always find some way of locating, deriving or creating the fun.

Driving Ambition on Kobo and Kindle

Driving Ambition is now available to download for the Kobo and the Kindle– arguably a good way to read a book about virtual systems, artificial intelligences, and beings who exist only online.

Print copies will be available later, and I’ll post ordering links when that happens.

Here’s the link for the Kobo version, and here’s the link for the Kindle version.

Driving Ambition: Chapter One

Just thought I’d mention that my first novel, Driving Ambition, a tale of murder, labour relations, and self-driving cars, has had its launch event at Can-Con.

Here is a video of me reading the first chapter…

Britons: I’ll be interviewed live at the BSFA meeting on 24 October, and will bring copies for sale. Canadians: There are copies available at Can-Con. Everyone: I’ll be posting an ordering link as soon as I have one.

Lip Gloss on the Assembly Line

Last episode, I said I’d talk about uniforms and clothing at the Car Factory, so here it is, as promised.

There are always rules about what you can and can’t wear on the line. Jewelry and metal fastenings can damage the car; dangly bits of anything can potentially get you injured or killed. This is also, by the way, why visitors to the line wore white lab coats and safety goggles; not only did it make them easy to identify, but it covered up anything which might scratch the metal or catch on equipment.

Shortly before I started at the Factory, worker dress was: 1) soft trousers, without external studs or fasteners (zips were OK so long as they were covered), and 2) T-shirts, with, as far as I know, minimal restrictions as to style and content.

The plant also had uniform jackets, though in practice you were unlikely to get one unless you’d worked there for more than about six months, as the jackets were new enough to have a backlog. There were three different styles for workers, team leaders and managers, and they were hugely popular. You’d see them all around town as an expression of team spirit, if you like.

By the time I started, the under-jacket uniform had switched to 1) the abovementioned soft trousers, and 2) company-branded T-shirts, in three different colours (colour-coded to the three plant shifts).

The uniforms were nice-looking, and there were obvious advantages to wearing them: no worries about someone taking offense at someone else’s T-shirt, for instance. But, getting back to Factory Working While Female, there was another issue as well.

One morning, I rolled out of bed at five AM as usual, showered, put on the factory uniform, rubbed face cream on my face, and put on lip balm. Except I didn’t. By accident, I’d put on lip gloss. Pretty, sparkly lip gloss.

Now, there was no rule against wearing lip gloss on the line. Makeup in general wasn’t worn, because it could rub off on things and get them dirty (and besides, who wants that sort of fuss and bother in the morning when you’re just going to be spending all day slinging electrical testing equipment). Lip gloss wouldn’t do that, though, and it made a nice change from the usual no-makeup-face I wore on the line. So I didn’t really think anything of it.

But it definitely got a reaction from my teammates, male and female.

“Hey, you’re looking good there!”

“Done something new with your look?”

“That really suits you, you know?”

None of it negative, but everyone clearly noticed. Even something as small as sparkly lip gloss.

Not long after, one of the other women on the team was due some leave, and was talking about what she’d do with it. “First thing,” she said, “I’m going to get a manicure. And then I’m going to put on makeup, and a really frilly dress.”

It’s worth pointing out here that, although most people think of women factory hands as looking like Rosie The Riveter or the machinists from Made In Dagenham, where plant uniforms are charmingly accessorised with a nice (if practical) hairdo, a colourful scarf, some bright lipstick, a blouse just visible under the overalls… none of that was going on in the Car Factory. Nobody was wearing lip gloss, except by mistake. Nobody was wearing their hair in anything but the most practical styles. Necklaces were permissible, so long as you could tuck them into your shirt, but you saw more of those on the men (many of whom liked those big, chunky, gold chains favoured by hip-hop artists) than the women.

Now, it’s not something I’ve analysed in detail. But once I thought about it, it began to seem a lot like protective camouflage. Not a denial of being a woman or a pretense of being a man, but a way of saying, through dress and accessory, that gender doesn’t matter. That everybody at the factory is, essentially, just a body, same as any other body. That the important bits are the legs, the arms, and the head.

So, as well as health, safety, protection and preventing unexpected disputes on the line, the uniform also erased gender divides. It’s debatable to what extent this was a Good Thing, in that it undoubtedly helped generate a non-hostile atmosphere towards women, versus a Problem, in that it also reinforced native categories to the effect that it was not normal to Be Female on a car assembly line. But it was certainly a way of showing how even the smallest details of the workplace environment matter.

 

Skulls #2: “The Metaphor”, Interzone, September 2011.

I’d liked the rock crystal pendant skull so much, I bought another from the same shop. This one’s a little larger (and it’s one you’ll often see me wearing at cons when I’m in my Pirate Queen outfit). It’s also jade, which is associated with longevity, death and the afterlife, so appropriate for a story whose narrator lies in suspended animation, generating fantasy metaphors for the virtual work they do.