Greetings my Dearies!
No joke, countless versions of this phone call actually happen on a regular basis:
The phone rings.
I say: “Good [morning/afternoon], Nancy speaking, how may I help?”
“Yeah…uh, hi…” a young man’s voice falters. Having just dialed the phone and waited patiently for someone to connect, still, he seems disoriented to be talking to another human being and needs to collect his thoughts. “I uh, have a question… I’m trying to buy some pants off the internet. They’re work pants and they don’t make them anymore. The smallest size I can find is a 40 but I am a 34. How hard is it for you to make them smaller? Is that something you even do?”
I want to say: “Well, DUH!!! You just called a tailoring shop, buddy. Do you know what that means? It means we take your clothes, cut them up and sew them back together—usually, but not always, in ways that make them fit you better.”
I actually say: “Well, sir, yes, we do indeed take in men’s trousers. We are a tailoring shop. That is exactly what we do.” I add briskly, “however, to take a waist in as much as six inches is going to alter the basic geometry of the pants so much that they won’t look right. We can take them all apart and remake them, but that won’t be the twelve-dollar fix you are hoping for…”
What he says: “Really? What do you mean? Do you think it would make them look bad?”
What I want to say: “Dude! Do you even know how much of a goober you would look like if we did that for you? Seriously? It would look like your bum ate your pockets.”
What I actually say: “Well, men’s pants are designed to be taken in at the back. When you take six inches off the back, first of all, the pockets get too close together. Look at the pockets now—they are not separated by six inches to spare. You will also have to have a lot of fabric taken out of the crotch. If we take it only from the back, the side seams will no longer be at your sides. The front will look weird.”
What he says: “Ohhh… gee… I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I don’t know what to do. 40 is the smallest size I can get.”
What I want to say: “What kind of work is this you do, that you are the tiniest man wearing these pants? How come all the pants for this kind of work only come in larger sizes? Should you consider changing jobs? Maybe you could eat more at lunch…”
What I actually say: “Well, if you bring them in, we can remake them to the best of our ability, but that means taking them all apart and basically starting over. They might not look the same when we are done.”
What I also want to say: “Honestly, just forget it. They will look like dog poop. And furthermore, it will be a complete pain in the arse to do all this; work pants are triple-stitched, you’ll crab about the price and it won’t even be worth it to us in the long run because we will lose all the profit each time we have to redo something you are unhappy with, and you will never be happy with the result.”
What he says: “well, I haven’t even bought them yet. I’m just trolling around on the internet looking for them. I don’t even know if it’s something I’m going to do. I was just calling to find out if you did that sort of thing.”
What I say: “Yes, sir, we do. We do alter pants. But there are limits to how much we can alter them that are still economical and effective for you. There are men who drop a lot of weight and want their favorite pants altered to fit them but at a certain point, it’s just better to buy a more appropriate size.”
What he says: “Gotcha.”
I say: “Thank you for calling, have a nice day!”
Saying what we think, saying what is true, and being able to communicate clearly without hurting someone’s feelings takes all the verbal ingenuity and discretion of a foreign diplomat. When a bride with an ill-fitting gown asks us why the zipper is rippling so much and doing a snake dance up her back—“Does the gown need to be taken in? There seems to be too much zipper.” We cannot proclaim, ‘Dear God, Woman, are you out of your mind?! That zip ripples because it is lodged on a roll above your hips. We need to let that out two dress sizes. No amount of gut-B-gone underwear is going to save you now…” Instead, we shrug diplomatically and say, “Maybe we could do that…We can also make some adjustments in the hips—we know how to fix it. Don’t worry.” The customer never knows if we have let things out or taken them in. All they need to know is that it fits better in the end. The less we say the better.
In today’s political climate, it is trendy to “say what one thinks” no matter how rude it is by old-fashioned standards of polite convention. However, I happen to think Eric Hoffer was right when he said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” I am a huge fan of honesty in general but I question how baldly it should appear in the work place. Honesty need not be painful. My genuine fondness for people means I usually have to struggle through some verbal calisthenics to say what I mean. Do I really want to tell a dear old lady that the reason her collar won’t button is because her dowager’s hump, which rivals that of the famed resident of Notre Dame, has pulled up all the extra fabric? Do I want to tell a man that his cuffs were full of body dander or that I know what it is he really “spilled” on his crotch? As seamstresses, we know things about people that they might rather we not know and we need to be somewhat careful how we let them know we know, in ways that protect their dignity. Because, after all is said and done, we ARE HERE TO SERVE. Or we try to be. Sometimes, we have to fake this a little too.
I’m not saying we should ever be untruthful, don’t get me wrong! Flattering inaccuracies are like cute little Jack Russells that will come back to bite you in the buttocks. In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz talks about being “impeccable with our words.” Impeccable means “flawless, faultless, without stain”—literally, it means “without sin,” since its Latin root is peccare, or “sin.” I like to think of it like a verbal Hippocratic Oath for seamstresses, or anyone who wants to flourish in life or business, to “do no harm.” Or, in Recovery circles it’s known as “Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t be mean when you say it.” This goes a long way in the dressing room when one is faced with a myriad of unfortunate fashion decisions.
Good language is the knife with which we carve truth from fiction—it can be a weapon or a useful tool. Just this past prom season, we had a girl come in at the last minute with an “emergency”—a beautiful but complicated gown that we had to alter in a day because she refused to wear her first gown, which she had purchased months before and had altered at a rival shop in town. The seamstress in that shop had made unkind comments about the girl’s weight and the girl had collapsed in grief and self pity and didn’t want to attend her prom at all after that. Her mother, in desperation, had found this other gown at the last minute and wondered if we could change it quickly enough—but even more important than that, could we make her daughter feel good about herself in it? Stories like that break my heart. Yes, of course we could. And we did. She looked like a radiant princess.
When we choose our words carefully, we build bridges for our spirits to find one another and guide each other to better places. We build collusion, cooperation, and trust. We are able to be on the same team. I can jump into your boat and say “where do you want to go? I will help you row.” Using language that cuts these ties and alienates us may feel satisfying in the moment but it does not serve a greater good. Ultimately, it sets us adrift, going nowhere.
This little shop in a tiny corner of the great big world contains every element of that world as much as a cup of sea water contains the sea. Our pool of customers represents each economic and political stratum from poor day laborers, who will not pick up their work until pay-day, to the heiress who has brought ten silk blouses back from her latest jaunt to Italy. We are “Sew-cialists” who sew for everyone. We service the mayors and selectmen of three towns as well as the local cat shelter, which needs custom slip-covers for its cages so the cats won’t fight. We work equally for male-strippers, people needing fetish costumes, and children receiving their first communions. We do all the tailoring for a reputable men’s store, as well as all the fire fighters and police uniforms. In winter, we patch sweatshirts “while-they-wait” for migrants who have no coats and repair ice booties for dog paws who ride to the groomer’s in forty-thousand-dollar SUVs. In summer, we create clothing that can be slipped easily over someone in a wheel chair and swimwear for the handicapped. We do custom alterations for every kind of amputee, spinal scoliosis, or physical departure from “the norm” that you can imagine. We make eye patches for a man who has lost an eye and soft head scarves for cancer patients who have lost their hair. These are deeply precious souls from every slide and margin of the political spectrum and I hate how they sometimes talk about each other.
I feel deep dismay around the plummeting level of discourse in our country today. Sure, some of it feels good. Some of it feels like cleaning a wound that has festered too long. I too fantasize about what I wish I could say to people who irritate me. But there is a difference between cleansing and carving out fresh injuries. I have an acquaintance who rails against “PC” (politically correct) language. She does not think we need to be inclusive or thoughtful of other people’s feelings. This makes me crazy, like she’s saying let’s just slaughter all the polar bears. I say please, for the love of Civility, bring it back, not just to the work place but to every place. Let’s make P.C. stand for all sorts of things like Polite Civility, Protecting Customers, Pain-free Clients, Personal Contact, Perfect Compassion, Professional Courtesy, Peaceful Co-Existence and of course, Pin Cushions! (Feel free to send me your ideas—this could be a great list!)
The other day, I drove home in the darkness and saw that I had left a light on in my home. I had departed in the daylight and could not see that light glowing when I left. But as darkness descended, the light became visible. In its way, the Darkness was showing where the light was. We can be that too. As others descend into their darkly “honest” rages, we can be beacons of bright yet equally honest Politeness that used to be so ubiquitous we were unaware of it. We can preserve this endangered language of Helpfulness, of compassion and friendship, of building tribal bonds and community—Old Fashioned and formal and stuffy as it may be—it might just help us find our way Home where we remember we are all Family.
Be well, my Dear Ones! And do Good Work!