Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?

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Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, shoes and outdoor

DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Getting healed?!

A few weeks ago, a customer came into the shop, and, as customers often do, asked me a lot of questions at once that I was struggling to make sense of. When trying to get him to clarify what he wanted, I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and sometimes communication is confusing for me. But alas, there is hope, fellow Aspies. Because according to this man…I could ask God to heal me!

My reaction, as a Christian, is this. I believe in praying. I believe that people can be healed. I also believe that, just because God can heal, it doesn’t mean that He should, or will. I have to say, though, I wish my immediate response had been that eloquent. What I actually did was falteringly explain that autism is not an illness to be cured, but rather a difference in the brain, and that implying otherwise can hurt. He got it in the end, and surrounding colleagues and customers were impressed. So clearly I did something right.

But then I thought to myself, no matter how many times I hear how important it is to embrace our differences, I do get frustrated. I do wish I didn’t need extra help. I’m often fed up with my struggles, yet I couldn’t help feeling offended at the notion that I should change. Am I just acting like a special snowflake?

I don’t know. But not every struggle is a problem that needs to be “cured”.

I recently had an interesting message exchange with a friend who, as we were chatting, was watching a documentary about children on medication for conditions like autism and ADHD. She asked me how I felt about that. Now, I respect people’s decisions here. It’s up to the individual. If medication proves more beneficial than not, then good for them. But I’m wary of people who treat Asperger’s as an illness, when it’s not caused by germs, or hormones, or bodily harm. So I gave her the following analogy.

Imagine a group of people, all from the same country, faced with someone from another country and who speaks a different language. Chances are, they are lonely. They want to communicate, but they find their limited vocabulary very frustrating. They might wish they were the same as everyone else, but should everyone be praying that they suddenly become British? Or American, or the nationality of your choice…

No. Of course not. It’s up to them to learn English (or whatever), and it’s up to the others to be patient with them. And it will always be their second language. But with enough learning and patience, they may speak fluently, and become a popular, respected group member. And they can bring to the table a language and a culture that everyone else barely knows about.

Do you get what I’m saying? In a similar way, learning differences can be a bummer. But they don’t have to stop you from flourishing. The trick is working through it, seeking support when you need it, and finding a way forward.

 

Ode to Jennie – marriage, madness, and much more

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At a wedding, you hear all manner of speeches. And I never did get to give my “intern of the bride” speech. So here it is.

After 10 months of messing around in a shop together, on Saturday 1st July I got to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest, craziest friends Jennie, and fellow New Wine course member Jan*. It was fun, it was heartfelt, and it was an event that my colleagues predicted from the moment Jan became the intern at the bookshop where we work. Well, that’s what they say. Jennie hotly denies it.

Anyway. My first memory of Jennie, assistant manager extraordinaire, was at my interview last August, as Jan’s potential successor. Picture it: the bookshop’s back office, papers and packaging everywhere, and me, dutifully answering every question my now-boss was firing at me. Jennie, meanwhile, was sitting to one side silently judging me. If she had a beard, I bet she would have been stroking it.

Weeks later, and the dynamics in our relationship had changed enough to be able to communicate “difficult customer alert!” with just one glance. We bonded over our love of to-do lists, and it wasn’t long before the ones she wrote for me included “squash the world in a garlic press” or “High five yourself and then the nearest apple.” And when our conversations got too weird, we mastered the ability to stop whenever a customer came in, and resume without missing a beat once the shop was empty.

For all Jennie’s quirks, the main reason we’ve become so close is that we never felt under pressure to befriend each other. I mean, we’re super introverts. We don’t thrive under high social demands. Although I did rely on her to show me how things were done, other than that, we happily kept our heads down until we were comfortable enough to talk properly. I’d say that was a major breakthrough.

And somehow, we just connected. I love it when that happens. She has shown infinite patience with me, by the way, no matter how many times I screw up because I thought I knew what to do. Wedding preparation has been stressful for her, but throughout it all, she has remained kind, funny, and brilliant at everything she does.

She has also very generously given me a say in certain aspects of the wedding. I have to say, I think my suggestion of a giant, hollow chocolate orange as a carriage was a stroke of genius, even if she did say I’d be the one pulling it. And her hen do: 9.30am – 5pm, in a Christian bookshop, selling books, eating biscuits, and winding each other up.

And now the wedding has come and gone. Apart from anything, it was fun! It was another bonding experience with the other New Wine interns, and we had a lot of laughs playing air guitar in time to some good old disco music. I feel honoured to have attended, and know that they will have a wonderful, long life together. Jan is friendly and funny, and it has also been a pleasure to get to know him along with the other interns.

Now, in just a few weeks, they are moving to Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. Jan will be going to Bible college. Jennie will have a new job. I’ll be twiddling my thumbs in a shop where no-one sneaks up behind me, then laughs when I scream. Or finds endless good things to say about me no matter how wrong I prove them.

Jennie, thank you for a great year. Keep on doing amazing things in life!

 

 

*Think German, and pronounce the J as a Y. Please. He gets sick of being mistaken for a woman.

 

Part of a group

How do you feel in a group setting? Last month’s Ukraine trip was just one of many experiences that demonstrated how I respond to being with a lot of people. I hasten to add that it was definitely one of the more positive ones! But it did come with its challenges, and right now I’m expanding on a point I made last week.

While we were out sightseeing, one of our translators asked me why I didn’t talk much to anyone else. I was a bit lost for words. I had been talking to people. Thinking about it, however, I’d chatted to several people for a minute or two, but not really at length. Why?

All I can say to that is, this is usually the case in groups, and always has been. Yes, it’s Asperger related, but beyond that, I don’t know why, any better than anyone else. Autism experts would say something about me not reading non-verbal social cues. I say I’m being normal in my way, the others are being normal in their way, yet somehow I’m at the edge of the group.

To some extent, this is ok. I alternate between a little socialising, listening to everyone else’s conversations, and zoning out entirely. But if I want to really bond with people, it’s hard when there are so many of them! My best friendships have been built on one-to-one time in a quiet, socially safe environment, often when the two of us have something to do together.

Group situations are different. You’ve got lots of people to choose from. And they have lots of people – who are not you, and are probably way more charismatic –  to choose from. When there’s information for you all to take in, it’s going to get passed around, changed, and worded differently or incorrectly. When you put it like that, can you see why autistic people struggle?

When I joined the choir at uni, despite my love of music, my heart was never in it. I was invisible. I didn’t feel like I belonged. When I tried to explain my struggles to people in charge, they said I was doing fine because they hadn’t felt like they needed to help me with anything. At one point, we took part in a huge university choir competition in London. From about 4.30 am that morning to 2.30 am that night, I was surrounded by people, often to the point where I could barely move. There was a lot of waiting around, moving around, stuff happening all the time, and no-one explaining anything to me. I hated it.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my friends on the trip were great. They made sure I understood everything, they stopped me from getting lost, and some of them had a fair bit of quality time with me. And that’s basically what a group member on the spectrum needs.

Life of the party, me…

DISCLAIMER: not my photo

Next stop: Ukraine

You know when you have such an adventure filled time that you can’t wait to tell everyone about it? And when you get back and they ask, it’s like you’ve just developed travel memory loss? Yep. This is me right now.

And I still don’t know where to begin. So just sit back and watch, as I try to cram travel, stress, adventure, raccoons, toilets, friends, fun, prayer, culture, *deep breath* into one post.

To recap: as part of my Christian internship, I am doing a weekly discipleship course with other Christian interns. And last week, our leader was due to speak in churches in Kiev, Ukraine. Voila, my first mission trip.

If I’m honest, my attempts at being positive about the trip were wearing thin towards the big day. I find big groups a challenge. Airports even more so. What I hadn’t bargained for was having a panic attack just after take-off. Of all the places to be gripped by fear of the unknown, of vomiting publicly, of everything worrying me, it had to be thousands of feet above the ground, surrounded by people, with no way out.

Yet throughout the day, my friends cared. They prayed for me. Looked out for me. My friend Ruth stayed with me throughout the journey, and chatted to me when I felt bad again. I used to wonder how chatting could possibly calm an anxiety attack. I was wrong. It really takes the edge off.

Yes, being mildly autistic in a group of people exploring new territory was tough at times. I find it harder to form bonds in a group. I got fed up with needing help mixing, or understanding what was going on. I wanted to be on the same level as everyone else, but it wasn’t always possible.

You know what, though? I got the help I needed, and I’m fully grateful for it. Because that’s how a good group works, and I would do anything in return.

Besides, there was plenty to laugh at. Like the man with his pet raccoon*, who wouldn’t let one of my male friends take a picture, but was happy to take a selfie with a passing young lady. Or when Mary, who is Ukrainian, introduced me to Ukrainian public toilets: holes in the ground. I decided I’d rather wait for two hours.

In short, this trip saw me at my most exhausted, but there were times when I felt more exhilarated than I’d felt in a long time. I had late night, heartfelt conversations with the girls. I ran through sprinklers** like a fool with the others. I ate till I could burst. We laughed. We took photos. We were alive.

Last, but not least, we did what we came to do. We took part in church services. People at church got healed of physical pain. People on the streets got a chance to feel heard. Some believe, some don’t, but for me, the most important thing was showing them a bit of love.

In conclusion, I want to give my love and thanks. To Ruth, once again, and her dad, our leader, who was so patient with me whenever I was weary or confused. To our translators. To everyone who donated towards this trip. To my parents for their support. To the four friends who contacted me during the week to ask how I was. To certain people who helped me not get lost at the airport or the underground. To the interns whose house I stayed at the night before. You are all wonderful people!

 

*

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DISCLAIMER: the first and third photos aren’t mine

Awkward encounters

I seem to have accumulated a lot of entertaining people-related anecdotes lately. I think this is what comes of entering the world of work and serving the public. Or maybe it’s yet another perk of being autistic. I don’t know. On one hand, many of the following incidents did happen before, during, or after work. On the other, my mum has pointed out that I have the sort of aura that people stopping other people in the street immediately pick up on.

For one thing, I’ve always been susceptible to racist jibes from strangers. I’m half British, I’ve lived in this country since I was four. Yet I got it all the time from boys at secondary school. I’ve had various guys shout “ni hao” to me in the street. And then a few months ago, some boys loitering outside said school shouted “Great Wall of China!” at me on my way to work. My sides are splitting just thinking about it.

Then of course, there are people I’ve seen at work. Most of them are anywhere from normal to lovely. But of course, there are always a few who are rude about your job performance, have out-of-control children, or who just aren’t the full ticket. Like the woman who left her new loyalty card on the counter where I couldn’t see it, then came back and got all shirty with me for not rushing after her to return it. Yep. Definitely my fault.

Or the man who kept muttering Bible verses, insults towards the shop, and questions that made no sense, and then asked what was wrong with me when I didn’t follow. And kept talking about me to my colleagues but nothing to my face. Apparently I was the one with the problem. Clearly.

And it’s not just when I’m out and about, either. I was alone one evening and ended up answering the door to a young woman asking to speak to the homeowners. I said they were out, and added that we don’t take calls like this. She then said I was being patronising, and really rude treating her like a cold caller when she was trying to do her job*. In her defence, when I apologised, and explained I was autistic and hadn’t known what to say, she apologised back. Can’t complain.

Still, it’s not all frustration and rudeness. Only this week, I had a woman come into the shop looking for a book for a friend, but she couldn’t remember what it was called. Thinking she was collecting an order, I asked for “her name.” Thinking I meant the author’s name, she said she’d just check her phone. Which left me wondering why she needed to check her friend’s name on her phone…

 

 

*Whatever that was. Turning up out of the blue uninvited, I think.