Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stupid Stuff *I'VE* Said…To A Guest

I'm sure we've all got great stories of silly/ridiculous/obnoxious things guests have said to us as animal caretakers. 

But what about the ridiculous stuff we say to them?  

Come on, admit it. You've slipped up every now and then.  You've flubbed a line on mic during a narration, you've accidentally said "What the hell" instead of "Golly gee willickers", you've said "pool" instead of "habitat".   It happens, because we're  human.  And most of the time, your guests don't care about your mistake.   Golly gee willickers, they probably don't even realize what you've said.  

Shoo-op, shoobie doooo

Despite my tendency to use profanity in excess in my own sphere of existence, I have only slipped up one time in letting loose a quasi-swear word ("hell") in passing.   It's a miracle, really, because my inner maturity level at its finest moment is equivalent to that of a 10 to 12 year old boy (look, I really love video games and action movies, okay?).  But somehow I'm able to snap into a mode of professionalism that has not gotten me into trouble these past nine years, at least in terms of the words I use around guests.

So while I can spare the general public my witty use of the f-word (c'mon, I'm no thug), I have indeed misspoke in the presence of the paying customer.  But instead of a rogue word passing quietly by the person's subconscious, I instead potentially ruined a kid's vacation.

At my first paying job, my primary role (other than Bucket Scrubber Expert) with the animals was to conduct in-water dolphin interactive programs.  These programs allowed for a great deal of variability and education (ne'er a canned encounter there), which I really liked because I could get to know the guests on an individual level.   While providing a memorable dolphin encounter, I could tailor the experience to the customers' interests while making the program fun for the dolphin.  It was great from all angles.

One of the best customer service methods is to know your guests' names.  Let's break this down further: you must learn and remember their names.  

Here's a quick reminder of my hair color:

What's your name again?

So, I don't have the best memory when it comes to names.  I'll remember all the things I learned about the person: where the guest is from, their fondest childhood memory, their alma mater, how many times they've eaten cashews, etc.  But about 39.67% of the time, I can't remember their name.

If the tables are turned, and I am the customer whose name is forgotten, I prefer that the person just power through.  If they keep asking me, "Wait, sorry, what's your name again?", I get a little irritated.  I don't care you can't remember my name, just don't make a big deal about it.   So I do the whole golden rule thing, if I can't remember the person's name, most of the time I'll just continue on with the program and cleverly utilize that great rhetorical tool called The Pronoun.

Occasionally, it is more awkward to refer to a person as "you", "her", "him", etc., so I'll ask directly their name and try some kind of pneumonic device to remember.  However, I usually only remember the memory device and not the actual name, because again, my brain is only half-formed.  For example, if your name is Harry, you have black hair, glasses, and a lightning scar on your forehead, I'll think, "Wow, Harry Potter."  Then when it comes time to remember your name, the only thing I can think of is, "You look very familiar."

This happens to me all the time with actors and actresses, especially my favorite ones.  Naomi Watts* is one of my favorite actresses for some reason, and I can't remember her name.  Ever.   Gary Oldman is the same way, most of the time.  What it is about the neurological synapses that do not allow me to recover this kind of basic information is clearly evidence of brain damage I suffered that one time a parking gate pole smashed into my skull, or that time I fell from the monkey bars and knocked myself out for minutes, or maybe all the Sonic the Hedgehog I played really did turn my brains into mush.

Slippy? Slappy? Swenson? Swanson? SAMSONITE! I was way off.

Most of the time, I can get through a program without embarrassing myself with the guest.  We (animal, customer, and I) have a great time with my pronoun usage and that's all that matters. 

But one day, it all blew up in my face.

There was a little kid in my interaction group.  One thing I noticed was the kid was by himself.  That was a little unusual, because usually kids have their parents or an older sibling with them, but he wasn't too young to do the program without adult supervision.  He had shaggy, black hair and looked like a normal 8-ish year old kid.  He was very nice, polite, and had a lot of questions.

The Kid.

Well, I'm sure I asked his name and it went into the darkest, deepest part of my skull cavity where it still sits under a pile of other names I still haven't found.   I realized this lapse in memory when it came time to tell him to give the dolphin some fish.

I walked over to him, crouched down in the water so I was at eye-level with him, and talked directly to him.  "You want to give the dolphin some snacks?"

This method worked on multiple levels: 1) it was a more intimate, friendly way of dealing with another human being and 2) it wasn't obvious I forgot this poor kid's name.   I could use it in almost every scenario.

"Hey, want to ask the dolphin to do a jump?"

"You wanna see if the dolphin feels like playing with a football?"

And so the program continued with great verve.  The guests were laughing, the dolphin was attentive and energetic, and I was doing a job I love, although I was still struggling to just remember one of my guests' names (alas, it never happened).

Then came time for the photo setups, which meant each guest got an opportunity to kiss a dolphin if they wanted to.  This required me to be stationed with the dolphin, call each guest over to me individually, and set them up for the kiss and the photo.  This is usually the trickiest type of situation to navigate when you've forgotten all of your peoples' names.

The pronouns then came in handy.  I moved down the line from the person closest to me to the one furthest away; the kid with the shaggy hair.   When it came time for his turn, I smiled at him.  He was beaming with excited anticipation.

"You ready, buddy?" I said.

"Yeah!!!!" the kid exclaimed.

"Okay sir, come on over here!"

The kid stared at me.

"Come on over man, this dolphin is psyched to meet you up close!"

The kid didn't budge, he just stared at me as though he wanted to say something but was holding me.  Finally, he spoke.  

"Actually," he said.   "I'm a girl."




No caption needed.

My articulate response was something like, "UHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH I AM THE WORST HUMAN BEING EVER."

No, it was, "Oh, gosh, I, well, I'm so sorry."

She smiled.  "It's okay, everyone thinks I look like a boy.  All the kids at school tell me that."

And my brain and feelings and humanity said: BAHHHHlisduagloiausldviuasldgiulawieuyliausdvo23tohklsdhv;ailsudg!

"Well sweetie," I said making sure I used all female pronouns until at which time I could get out of the water, walk to my locker, and bash my head in until I felt adequately punished.  "Let's get you that dolphin kiss."

Meanwhile, the other guests are staring at each other, probably thinking, "Wow, that trainer is a life ruiner.  She better bash her head in until she is adequately punished."

I wanted to tell the little girl that at her age, sometimes girls look like boys and boys look like girls (especially with gender-neutral hair length) and it didn't mean she wasn't attractive, or smart, or wonderful.  Because she was one of the most polite guests I've had of any age.  She was articulate, intelligent, and excited to enjoy the opportunity she'd been given.  And then my vacuous, dim-witted self comes along and destroys her self-esteem with the use of one pronoun: Sir.

I hope one day she finds this blog and knows how awful I still feel about that moment.  It was hands-down one of the worst things I've ever said to a guest.  And yet, I still forget names.  But if I'm dealing with a  kid whose gender is not obvious (come on, a normal 8 year old in a wetsuit just looks like a kid, unless you dress them up to look like  19 year old Miley Cyruses which seems to be the trend these days), I'll ask the kid's name again even if it seems ham-handed.  Because I never want to make that mistake again.


Alas, I suppose what matters is that I haven't since made that same blunder.  And I have to also remember that, while what I did is something I'll never completely forgive myself for, people make mistakes.  We say things we don't mean as offensive or hurtful, but they still have that affect on people**.   So we try to move on and learn from our mistakes.  Or we publicize them for scrutiny.  Either way, if I forget your name, don't take it personally.  Be thankful your brain functions as it should.  Boy, I need a therapeutic donut now.

* It took me a Google/IMDB search to remember her name for this blog, I kid you not

** Like one trainer I knew who used the phrase, "Holy moly!" all the time.  She used this expression at a choice time as a little girl covered from head to toe in gigantic moles came in from a dolphin foot push.  "Holy MOLY you went fast!" Womp womp.  


  1. We are pretty lucky here in Australia. We call everyone mate or matey. Works for all genders

  2. If I may...
    My mates used to give me a word to use in my talks with visitors while conducting a "fur, feathers, & scales" talk. One of them was lesbian. Believe it or not I managed to refer to common stick insects as lesbians as they did not need males for breeding...with my mates giggling around the corner.
    Love your stories, thank you!