Songs for the Struggling Artist

Have You Ever Used This Before?

There’s a great Thai restaurant in my neighborhood where we would always get the same thing – the Sukhothai soup with wide ribbon noodles. They used to, before they brought the soup, bring out a little caddie with various toppings, a bottle of fish sauce and a container of peanuts and every time, they’d say, with exactly the same tone and phrasing, “Have you ever used this before?” We’d say yes and proceeded to enjoy the soup with the confidence that we were approaching the condiments appropriately.

That restaurant was built for newcomers. While we found it amusing to be asked the same question every time we went, it was somehow a comforting tradition. Anyone new there would feel just as welcome as those of us who’d been going for years. The Have You Ever Used This Before framework ensures that everyone is welcome. I can’t remember the moment really, but I know the first time we went there, we HADN’T used it before and so got some useful instruction on what choices were before us. That restaurant made us feel welcome and cared for from the start.

I was thinking about this because I donated blood for the first time at a local blood drive recently. I knew absolutely nothing about what was going to happen, how it worked, what the place was, where I was supposed to go and it was clear that this team of people were not accustomed to welcoming newcomers. The experience seemed to run smoothly for those in the know but for me, despite reporting to absolutely everyone I saw that it was my first time, no one took the extra time to – well, explain the fish sauce, as it were. I could feel how unusual it was for a newcomer to find their way into this atmosphere – a fact I found strange, given that blood drives need an ever-renewing crop of donors to keep supplies up.

And the thing is, they’re NOT keeping supplies up. The reason I decided to donate was that I heard a podcast about how dangerously low NYC’s blood supplies were and how that danger was magnified by how low supplies were nationwide. There is an urgent need for donors. But of course, if it’s not easy to find a place to donate in a convenient spot (it took me a month) and then when you arrive, you’re made to feel awkward and burdensome because you’re new, then, yeah, it’s going to be hard to get new donors. Also, the only thank you for donating that I received was on the placemat in the snack area and an automated email the next day. I certainly didn’t do this for the thank yous but I’m sure a direct thank you from a fellow human being would go a long way toward making someone feel good about making the effort to donate again. When it comes to emotional stuff, humans are just better at that sort of thing than pieces of paper or robo-emails. Places like Blood Centers need to actively make room for newcomers and make them feel amazing when they show. Increasing the blood supply depends on it.

Obviously, extracting blood is a job for these folks and no one who’s just busy trying to get home to their kids or whatever has the emotional energy to also make a newcomer feel welcome. There has to be some thought about it, I think. Someone whose job it is, perhaps, to just guide newcomers or some system that helps make a positive event of it for the staff. Maybe it’s as simple as asking a new donor if they’ve ever donated before. I don’t know the answer but I do know that they ought to be thinking about it because the crisis suggests that what they’re doing isn’t working well enough.

It makes me think of my friend’s teacher’s union which does nothing to welcome its new members. When you get a job there, your union dues automatically come out of your paycheck but no one sends you a letter or a postcard or even an email to welcome you to your union. No one tells you what the union is working on or what you can do to be a part of it. I know this, not just because of my friend’s stories but because, on the occasions when I’ve been briefly contracted to teach a class in this system, I’ve paid those union dues, too but never had a stitch of contact with the union itself.  

A union is also an organization that would benefit from making newcomers feel welcome. The more people are invested in a union, the more powerful that union becomes. Leaving it up to folks to find out on their own when the meetings are and motivate themselves to attend or be a part of union actions means the union never achieves its full power. There is no one to ask them if they’ve ever used this before and as result, they don’t use any of the tools/flavors available to them.

This is important for the arts, as well. There are theatres or concert halls or museums that you can go to that welcome newcomers and ones that make you feel like an outsider until you’ve gone there enough to feel like an insider. There are places that may not explicitly ask you if you’ve ever been there before but the process of going inside is such that you know everyone is welcome. Those are the places with staff to greet you or signs to guide you or even architecture to help direct you to the right place. Some arts institutions work to welcome new visitors and some institutions design their venues (and experiences) to feel exclusive. Most do the latter. But even though I’ve been going to cultural events all of my life, I am always grateful to be welcomed as if I’d never gone inside such a building before. In feeling cared for myself, I know others are being cared for and welcomed and that makes me feel more welcome as well.

Having facilitated the process of a lot of young people’s first trip to a theatre, I have seen what an impact those opening moments can have. And kids will report back, not so much about the show they saw, but how they were treated when they arrived. Many have told me that they felt like everyone was worried they were going to rob the place when they came inside. It is a far cry from feeling cared for and welcomed.

I would love for arts organizations to learn to be as good as my local Thai restaurant at making everyone feel welcome. It can be as simple as asking, “Have you ever been here before? Have you ever used this before?”

That’s the caddie, though not the Sukhothai. (I lifted this photo from the Wall Street Journal. Normally I’d feel bad about it. But I figure I’m linking back to their weirdo paper and Cassandra Giraldo took this photo for them and I hope she got paid handsomely for it already. And I figured you needed to see this caddie.)

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ERD, this really struck a chord with me, for multiple reasons, so thank you! I’m one of the people who depends on regular plasma donations (for which you get paid!), so we’ve been concerned about the lack of donors in the U.S. for a long time. And yes, dammit, unions need to welcome the newcomers instead of treating them like they should just shut up and be grateful! Finally, I wish we had a Thai restaurant here we could go to regularly. RV’s veg status means fish sauce is a no-go, and they just don’t do veg well at our local. Thanks for another stimulating post!

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