What it’s like when a socially awkward guy goes for a haircut

Barber shop

It’s time for me to get a haircut. I really can’t put it off any longer. I don’t know how long it’s been since my last one, but in that time I’ve gone from having a neat, tidy style to letting it grow out a bit to trimming it myself with blunt scissors to getting my wife to have a go to now looking something like the scruffy 21-year-old I was a decade ago.

The problem I have is that I need to go to a new hairdresser. It’s a walk into the unknown. When I lived in Thailand, I used to go to this salon in a mall. It was familiar and straightforward, despite the weirdness that comes with getting a trim in Thailand, like multiple rinses, head massages and confusing conversations.

The comfort I took from going to that salon made the anxiety of getting a new haircut bearable. I didn’t need to worry about any of the points of contention that appear in front of me now. It’s not like I can ask my wife to come with me for moral support. Because that’s insane. Nobody needs their hand held while they get their hair cut.

Sussing out the place

I’ve seen a few barbers on my street. For the last few days I’ve been making mental notes of the setups of each one as I walk past to help me come to a decision about which to pick. The one closest to my place is always full of young lads getting their lad haircuts. It seems more like a social club than a hairdresser’s. That one’s off the list.

There’s another that has a huskie in it and a similar ensemble of lads, albeit a little older than the first place. It’s too busy inside. Plus my dog has a thing about trying to fight huskies every time he sees one. So that’s off the list, too.

A third hairdresser’s, a “barber shop”, as I should call it, looks relatively welcoming compared to the others. There’s hardly anybody ever in there, but the people I’ve seen having their Barnets cut come out of the shop looking like they mean business. The barber himself, a young British Asian chap, appears to what he’s doing and he has all the equipment and stuff that he might need. This, this will be my barber.

The day arrives

barber2I’m not going to call – I don’t phone anyone other than my wife and mum. I’ll just walk in and see if he can either cut my hair there and then, or else make an appointment for later. But I have to do this after it’s had time to sink in and I can really build myself up to it. I’ll also need to chat about my plans with my wife to get some reassurance that this is actually a good idea.

I’ll go in on Friday afternoon, I tell her. It’s the end of the week and near the end of the day, so it’s something I can work towards. I have a photo I took after my last haircut so I can show him that picture without having to really explain myself.

I head out to the street and walk up the road towards the barber. I wonder if the people I pass notice that I’m in need of a haircut. The closer I get to the shop, the more my mind races and I become increasingly aware of everyone on the street. They all have tidy hair.

Through the door

I’m at the door now. It’s a big moment as I turn the handle and walk in. The barber will clearly be able to see that I’ve left it so long to get this done.

He’s already cutting someone else’s hair, a chap maybe 20 years older than me who actually doesn’t have much on top to start with, but what he does have looks all right in an ashy kind of way. I take a seat and the barber says he can do me next.

As I’m sat on the large, black, leather couch, I want to see the barber perform. I think he looks professional. I reckon I can trust this man to give me something that won’t necessitate two weeks of wearing a hat.

I have some time to myself to think now. Why do I hate getting my hair cut? What is it about the experience that feels to me like nails screeching down a chalkboard? It’s the feeling of being at the centre of attention in a situation in which I’m somehow vulnerable. It’s the process of being in a spotlight and unable to escape.

I have to bring my trail of thought to an end because it’s my turn to don the weird backwards cape and sit in the hotseat. The barber politely asks me what I want. I mumble something about desiring it to look how it does now, only shorter. This sounds too vague. I need to get my phone out and show him the photo. The pic wasn’t really taken at the optimal angle so it’s about as much use as my description. He says he thinks he knows what I mean, so I will have to trust him.

And so it begins

barb3I sometimes imagine that I’m getting my hair done and halfway through I realize it’s a disaster so I run out of the shop with half a haircut and try to get away. I won’t be doing that here. Whatever happens, I’ll figure things through.

The cut begins. He doesn’t wash it or anything, but just sprays some water on. I washed my hair this morning but I wonder if it's unusually greasy or if I have bits of toast in it. Do the backs of my ears look dirty? I didn’t shave. Maybe I should have shaved for this.

We’re keeping conversation to a minimum. I’ve told him I live just up the road and that’s about as far as we’ve got. I’m content to just sit here in silence, but I have to find ways to make my face look like I’m happy with the job he is doing.

I can imagine nothing worse than cutting someone’s hair and knowing by their facial expression that they are unhappy with how everything is going. How do I look content without appearing unusually happy?

I decide to occasionally do that weird half smile people do when they fold their lips in on each other and push them tightly together. I’m trying not to frown as I do it. Every now and then I give an approving nod. He seems OK with this.

I think I like where this is going. My hair is starting to look how I imagined it would in my head. This is an enormous relief. We’re almost done. Do I want some wax in my hair? No, no, don’t worry about that. I’ll do it when I get home and can properly assess the situation. I think I like it, but I don’t want to stare at myself in the mirror for too long here.

He shows me what the back of my heads looks like with one of those small round mirrors. Yep, yep, that’s the back of my head. That’s exactly how it looks. Great, thank you. The backward cape is removed and he brushes some stray hairs from my shoulders. I have to pay now. It’s £9 but I should give him a tenner because he seems like a nice chap. Maybe I should tip more. I don’t know. But before I can figure out this latest conundrum I’m out of the shop and walking back home.

The aftermath

Anyone who sees me now will know that I have just minutes ago had a haircut. What do they think of it? I walk a little faster, catching my reflection in shop windows as I go. I think I look all right. I’ll need to take a picture, though, and send it to my wife, and also take some better shots for next time I get a cut so I can have this replicated.

Back home now and I spend some time in front of the mirror. This has all been worth it. It’s over now. I don’t need to go through this for at least another three months. I could possibly stretch it even longer if I get into one of my long-hair moods.

For now, all is well in the world.


'Tis the season to be guilt-tripped into saving Africa and dogs and THE WHOLE WORLD

smilieNothing reminds you that it’s Christmas like images of sad African kids or abandoned dogs. That’s what Christmas is now, right? It’s the time when all the UK’s leading charities get together to ruin holiday TV and make us feel bad about feeling good for being snuggled up with our loved ones while watching Jurassic Park and back-to-back episodes of Coronation Street. I’m not saying raising money isn't a great idea, but I’m just fed up with the way these so-called innovators go about doing it at this time of year.

Before anyone gets a bit rowdy and suggests that I’m being selfish and uncaring for not wanting these adverts to ruin my own Christmas, I just want to put it out there that I work for what is generally regarded as being a pretty big charity, Plan International. So it’s not that I’m ignorant about the issues at hand or I don’t think they’re important. I do understand the need to raise money to get this work done and I’m more than happy for this fundraising to go on in the few minutes between The Snowman walking in the air and melting in a puddle on the ground, but for the love of God, the messaging has to change.

Heal the world

I was only at my mum’s for about a week and in that time I was bombarded by pleas to save African families, to rescue lonely dogs, to fix the ebola crisis, to deliver clean drinking water for all and everything else you can imagine. There are just too many of these adverts to take seriously. Everyone is after £2 a month to do this and that, to put smiles back on those miserable faces, but how are you supposed to pick who you give money to? That’s the key here.

What these adverts are trying to do is make you feel as guilty as possible by showing how utterly shit life can be so that you will pick that particular charity to donate to. Cue camera shots zooming in on the faces of crying children. I HATE this. It’s so demeaning and pathetic. It’s like we all got in such a fuss about the whole Band Aid 30 thing and then we completely ignored all our own advice and went back to objectifying the subjects as if they’re idiots.

We clearly haven’t got out of the mindset that poverty porn is what sells. It’s like Comic Relief all over again. If we as a sector can be so creative and innovative when it comes to social media campaigns and producing neat little videos for online audiences, why does it all go out of the window when it comes to television at Christmas?

You can throw the argument at me that this is the most effective way to make money. But then we’re getting into murky territory and we’re essentially no different than a firm like John Lewis, who do most of their yearly business over Christmas off the back of a television advert.

But wait, there’s a difference there: the John Lewis advert, and the adverts of every high-street retailer you can think of, was a joy to watch. It captured our hearts and imaginations and made us all want to buy penguins. Well, kind of. But you get my point. This was storytelling at its very best, crammed into a couple of minutes of air time that stays with the audience long after the Rovers Return has called last orders.

Stories to tell

All the charities work with real people (or dogs) who have real stories to tell. These people are their own agents of change. I want to hear from them. These adverts should be empowering. They should be memorable. They shouldn’t be the blot on Christmas. There is way more to these people than sad faces, depressing music and serious-sounding voiceovers. This exploitation is just lame.

The message being sent out is that everything is terrible in Africa or wherever else these adverts are filmed. The creativity and spirit that goes into things like Save The Children's Christmas jumper ad is completely lost when the subject matter gets a bit more serious.

Charities across the world do amazing work, but when you reduce it to this whole £2-a-month thing (I know the dollar handles serve a purpose), you oversimplify what is really a very complex issue and this does a disservice to everyone, from the aid workers to the people they are working with to the audiences themselves. We’re effectively saying that people won’t give money unless they feel extremely guilty.

I get that poverty porn works, but it’s sending all the wrong messages and signals out, and these are messages and signals that the development sector has been bending over backwards to try and change in recent years. It just all comes undone at Christmas when the voices that matter get well and truly lost in the sludge. If we can’t think outside of the box at Christmas, as we seem capable of doing the rest of the year, then we’re just going to perpetuate stereotypes.

Isn’t it time we changed the channel?

If those pop stars are so wonderful and talented, get them to write another bloody song, Bob

Band Aid 30
Every few years, the bastions of British music get together to graciously donate a few hours of their invaluable time so they can sing a couple of lines of a 30-year-old pop song. Not only do they donate the minutes and hours it takes to rattle off those famous lyrics, they also donate their voices, their breath, the very essence of life, you might say, and they do it all to save Africa.

The dust has now settled on the monstrosity that was Bob Geldof unveiling #Bandaid30 on last week’s X-Factor. I mean, what better way to galvanise public support than by having a rambling, white-haired Prefessor Weeto tribute act come on live TV and tell the good people of Great Britain to “give us your fucking money”. That may not have actually happened, but you get the point: PEOPLE ARE DYING.

This is clearly illustrated in the #BandAid30 video as the first 15 or so seconds are devoted to the horrors of ebola. The harrowing images show health workers equipped with Go-Pro cameras swarm into a dying woman’s house. The first shots of the woman show her lying on her bed topless, breasts exposed. In the next shot, which is closer to the woman, someone has placed a bra over her chest. She lies on the soiled mattress, writhing in agony, before being carried out by two health workers.

It is horrific, like something out of a movie. But that is the image Bob Geldof and his mates decided would be the best way they could SHOCK the public into donating money. Whatever happened to moving aware from such demeaning and deceitful tactics? Who is that woman? Did she survive? Does she have a story to tell? Who gave Bob Geldof permission to show this near-naked lady at her very lowest, for the world to gawp at? I’ve yet to read anything about her. She gets about 17 seconds before the video shifts its tone to give those generous pop stars the remaining 4:33 of airtime.

Fuck. That. How is that empowering for the boys, girls, women, men, individuals, families whose lives have been ripped part by ebola? How is this telling their story? All these pop stars are doing is rehashing a terrible song that should have been laid to rest years ago.

All right, so they’re making a lot of money, and presumably the £1 million in pre-sales was all it took to convince Bob, Bono et al that they were doing the right thing, but at what cost does that money come? We’re 30 years into Band Aid now and some people still haven’t figured out that the song and everything it stands for is patronising, insulting, offensive.

Let’s not get too much into who is singing the song. African singers aren’t well-represented, that much is obvious, but that’s not the main problem with the song itself. The problem is that it’s always been a shit song. The lyrics were as ignorant 30 years ago as they are now — and that’s after someone apparently took the time to “rewrite” them, although whomever that person was, I won’t be hiring him or her to rejig any of my Christmas songs. Here are some of the new lyrics:

No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa
The only hope they’ll have is being alive
Where to comfort is to fear
Where to touch is to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all

Who are these ignoramuses to say there will or won’t be joy in the WHOLE of West Africa this Christmas? Who are they to say the only hope "they" have is being alive? How arrogant is that? That’s what the whole song is like. That’s always been what the whole song is like. It presents Africa (or West Africa in this updated version) as a single entity in which there is no hope, no joy, no happiness, only misery and despair, where everyone is a victim and helpless, in need of our support.

Hasn’t Bob learnt anything in 30 years? Does Bono not have an inkling of these things after all his extra-curricular activities?

So if the song is so inhenerlty shit, why couldn’t this group of apparently the most talented, exciting and current British music stars do something radical like, oh, I don’t know, writing another song? They’re professionals in the music industry and there are rather a lot of them, so presumably between them they could maybe put a bit of effort into it all and come up with something that isn’t three decades old.

Of course they could. If they actually gave a shit about ebola or Africa or anything else other than their precious egos. To make a big deal about these pop stars taking time out of their "hectic schedules" to come to London for like one day just underscores how lazy this whole #BandAid30 thing has been.

#BandAid30 is selling by the bucketload. It’s going to be Christmas number 1 and it’s going to make millions of pounds, but the backlash against it, and there has been a considerable backlash, should be enough to prove once and for all that it’s in everyone’s best interests that this never happen again. Where are those millions of pounds going to go anyway? There’s no info on the website so we can only hope that it does get put to good use.

But once Christmas is over, let’s retire Band Aid to the annals of pop history — forever.

This song is much better. Buy it.


Putting together my first youth delegation

collage1At the tender age of 31, I still consider myself a "young person" or "youth", if you will, even though the United Nations uses a pretty strict 15-24 definition. So when I get to work with other young people on things like youth forums and conferences, it feels less like work and more like doing something amazing with a group of friends.

Being a part of the Youth Skills Forum in the Philippines and the Asian Youth Forum in Kazakhstan have definitely been the highlights of my time with Plan International, especially as I got to learn a great deal from colleagues like John Trew, Plan's Youth Employment Specialist in Asia.

Now I have a new challenge: I'm leading a project putting together a delegation of young people who will be part of the upcoming Ministerial Meeting on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS). It's both exciting and daunting at the same time.

I have seven young people from around Asia and two from Germany signed up and raring to go. Everyone has started getting to know each other through Skype, conference calls and a Facebook group. That means they can get comfortable working with each other and start developing their knowledge of the issues.

This group of young people – Team CRVS – will define their own roles at the conference and take ownership of everything they do. Their primary objective is to ensure that youth voices are heard and taken into account when governments think about civil registration and vital statistics. In Asia, this is a big deal as civil registration will be high on the post-2015 agenda.

Team CRVS are going to be involved in a number of activities, first and foremost the Youth Call To Action. This is where they will state their case to highlight the issues affecting unregistered children and young people, and call governments and relevant stakeholders to action. All this will take place at a special youth event during the conference, which will also feature a youth panel discussion led by the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, who the group will get to work closely with.

As if that weren't enough, two members of Plan Germany's Youth Advisory Panel will also be there to present their experiences advocating for greater investment in birth registration. This campaign saw them travel across Germany collecting fingerprints as a kind of petition to present to their governments to call for greater investment in civil registration systems.

Then there will also be all kinds of youth reporter activities (blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, filming, interviewing) that will give the young people the chance to really make their voices heard across Plan's online platforms, as well as the channels of our United Nations partners.

So there's a lot to organise to put everything together. Obviously I'm not doing it entirely on my own and I have the unwavering support of my boss, Nicoleta Panta, the Plan Asia Regional Office (my trusted allies), and a bunch of other people who are helping me out on this journey. But it's hard to escape the feeling that I really don't want to let these young people down.

I'd love to hear from those of you who have worked on similar projects. What are your top tips for ensuring everything goes smoothly?

You can meet the young people we are working with on the Team CRVS portal on the Plan website.

What's the difference between a real Twitter account and a fake one?

So just recently, in my 9 things I hate about Twitter post, I vented about some of the things about my favourite social network that drive me mad. Well, I'm not done. And here's why: I want to follow like-minded professionals — people who work in communications, social media, digital media and those types of things — to expand my network and see what they're working on and what ideas they have. I want to learn from them and share my experiences too. I don't want to see spammy fake accounts or, worse yet, people who act like spammy fake accounts. I'm starting to find it really hard to tell the difference these days.

Case in point: Meet Lara William. She's one of those social media people with a bio like this:


Now, I came across Lara looking at people my connections already follow. More than 20 of my Twitter contacts follow Lara. So I saw that her tweets were mostly about social media and I thought I'd give her a shot. She had a lot of followers (78,600), although this was somewhat undermined by the ludicrous amount of people she was following (85,500). With hindsight, if I'd look a little more carefully, I'd have seen the red flags, but I don't always look, so I missed them.

Then came the auto-DM:

Thanks for Follow. Please Retweet my Tweet: LINK

No way. F that. So I unfollowed her right away. I then had a closer look at her timeline and saw that she wasn't actually tweeting, only retweeting, and only retweeting from two accounts: @trinityadam and @TerriBauman. Those two accounts were near identical to Lara's in all but the profile pics: ridiculous follower/following ratio, same bio, same tweets, same spammy auto-DM upon following.

You can probably figure out that these aren't real people. But here's the kicker: When you search Lara's name on Twitter (or the name of the other two, for that matter), you see that there there are heaps of people tweeting @ her with the same old shit:

  • Thanks for following!
  • Thank you for following us, Lara! What's your favorite #social network to market your business?
  • #welcomeTweet
  • happy to connect :)
  • Thanks for connecting! We'd love to have you connect with us on FB also!
  • etc

The spammy fake account is getting hit up by people (supposed social media professionals, some of them) who are themselves acting like spammy fake accounts, all in the name of connecting and being social and contributing to this big massive mess that is Twitter. They're forever thanking each other and welcoming each other. These people would basically try and engage a cabbage if they thought other people would see it.

Those three accounts are all cross-posting and spam sharing links to affiliate sites, like one for a Linkedin product by Lewis Howes, who's another one of these social media gurus (or rather, a "lifestyle entrepreneur") with a fancy scrolling website full of buzz words and web 2.0 and blah blah blah.

You know what, Twitter is FULL of people, real and fake, like Lara and Trinity and Terri, so much so that when it comes to social media professionals, too often there is practically no difference between the spammy fake accounts and the real ones. What am I getting at here? I guess the message is: STOP ACTING LIKE BLOODY ROBOTS!