When is it Okay to Ask a Friend to Pay You Back? published by SKINT (Loot Financial Services), 7th September 2018.
An alarm goes off somewhere in my room and I start to come to terms with no longer being asleep. It’s light outside – a sizable portion of the day has already evaporated. I detect a slight hangover and begin to recall memories from the previous night. The last thing I remember is being at some kebab shop somewhere, which explains the napkin-stuffed polystyrene boxes on my desk. A friend is asleep on my floor. I remember I paid for that friend’s cheesy chips because he didn’t bring his wallet out. Idiot. Wait. He didn’t bring his wallet out? How did he pay for his drinks? I check my app to see that last night, drinks cost me twice as much as usual. I must have paid for everything… Interesting.
In no time, my friend and I are both awake – and hungry. But after closer inspection, we find there is nothing in the kitchen that will appease the hangover cravings. Following my friend’s suggestion, we soon find ourselves on the way down the road to grab a bite to eat for breakfast at a local cafe – at which point I realise that I’m going to be paying for that as well. At no stage does he suggest he’ll pay me back.
I can’t ask for that money back, can I? This situation happens fairly often, but he always somehow comes out of it seeming endearing. It’s long been his reputation. Everyone used to ridicule him for it at school, but no-one seemed to genuinely mind or call him out on it. Now, I don’t like the idea of asking him to pay for his half, but I’m also not crazy about the fact that hanging out with him always costs me twice as much as hanging out with anyone else.
Here’s the thing. True friendships don’t, and shouldn’t, come with a financial Terms and Conditions attached. But there’s this big, grey area that surrounds the nexus between money and friends that no one really likes to have to think about. For me, the very prospect of asking for money back from friends prompts uncertainty and self-questioning. Am I ungenerous? Do I care too much about money? What if they haven’t forgotten and my asking seems rude?
Most friends fall into two camps: they’re either casual or militant. I recently had two separate conversations with other friends and found that their views differ drastically. One friend seemed not to have even thought about it – she has no policy of asking for money back. But I think she’s quite lucky to have never had experiences that made her need to think about the topic seriously. Another friend told me that he makes sure he’s paid back to the exact penny as soon as possible, and that friends who don’t pay you back don’t respect you. Oh, he’s a laugh.
The whole thing gets more complicated. You can’t just live by your own philosophy of generosity and fairness. You also have to be sensitive to your friends’ circumstances when you owe them money. For example, if a friend is having a hard time making ends meet, then it’s up to you to make an extra effort to pay them back as soon as you can. It’s easy to forget every now and then. I’ll do my best to remember when someone has spot me a pint or a ticket for something. But try making me remember 4 months down the line when we’re doing something else. 404, wonga not found.
My experiences have led me to this philosophy: having a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and it’s better to work on a case by case basis, no matter how complicated that may seem. Be too casual, and you’ll never be in control of your own money. But be too strict and you’ll seem uptight and unempathetic. It depends on yours and your friends’ circumstances, and compromising with their viewpoint, too. With your closest friends, it’s great to lead the way with generosity and to try to establish a friendship in which you’re only roughly keeping track of the deficit – if you can both afford it, that is. If that doesn’t work out, you end up in a situation like mine at the beginning of this article, over and over again. When it starts to get to you, that’s when it’s time to just speak to your friend about it. After all, a true test of friendship is whether you can be honest with each other.
Financial Minimalism: Why the Cheapest Option Is Worse than You Think published by SKINT, 24th August 2018.
Earlier this year, I made a purchase that got me thinking. The purchase wasn’t anything special or expensive. It was more of a mundane exercise in gradual kitchenware improvement in the form of a rice cooker (my rice always gets burnt when I use a saucepan). I make most of my necessary spends on Amazon, which happens to be the cheapest place you can find most things. But first, I had a little look in the small independent kitchenware shop, which is about a minute’s walk away from my flat and run by a lovely guy. The cheapest thing that resembled a rice cooker was £20 and it looked crap. So I went back to the flat and had a browse online, which resulted in me buying the cheapest thing Amazon had (for around £15).
Cooking my beautiful, sticky rice, I began to feel a bit bitter about myself. Why did I need to save a fiver for a super cheap rice cooker when a local independent retailer was selling a (probably) good one down the road? I realised I’ve developed a disposition for saving. In my student heyday, I was a stingy customer. I prided myself on being able to find the cheapest pint in town. I made every necessary transaction about conserving my loan and savings. On outings with friends, my decisions on what to eat and drink would be easily made–look for the lowest price and choose that. In short, I was a proud financial minimalist.
But around the time of this purchase, it had been a few months since I had graduated and started work, and I had begun to feel quite differently about spending money. Money was no longer just a number which diminished towards zero before refreshing every three months. I had imagined that my relationship with money would change when I began working, but hadn’t worked out how. I thought that handling finances would mean maintaining a balance between the amount that comes into the bank and the amount that goes out. But there’s more to it than that. Money is more complex than the linear scale of less spending = better.
What I’m talking about here has nothing to do with the old maxim “Buy cheap, buy twice”. Financial minimalism isn’t only about making the smallest possible spends. It’s also about finding the sweet spot where low price and functionality meet. But the problem is, when you economise on every decision, you risk over-thinking and taking the fun out of many activities.
So, work was helping me understand my own spending habits. But I was also beginning to see my spending habits from the perspective of business because I was working in one. As I was learning, having a job means you have an active stake in there being money coming into the business you work for. In my experience of working in hospitality jobs, I’ve come across a few financial minimalists. When I say a few, it really is only a small proportion of customers who will take their time working out the cheapest way of being able to stay. That alone helped me understand how my spending habit sits compared to others’ spending habits. On top of that, every financial minimalist I’ve faced has kind of not really approached me as a human in their incessant calculations. Instead, they come across as entitled. It’s pretty annoying to deal with people like this, not least because I see myself in them. Being on the other side of financial minimalists has made me realise my own sense of entitlement might even be making me pretty unlikeable.
Now, when I approach a spending decision, I try to be a bit more thoughtful about the process. Rather than always opting for the cheapest option, I’ll buy what I want if the price is fair. Being less fussy about scrimping on everything has helped me get more enjoyment out of the things I spend my money on. I’m not spending more money, in fact I find it easier to take care of my money budgeting by the month. If I have an expensive month, I can then adjust my overall habits accordingly. I make sure I do my saving by deciding whether or not I actually need to buy something, not whether or not I can find it on the super cheap.
For a long time I’ve battled with the feeling that, no matter what I’m doing, there’s always something more important or more urgent I should be doing – something better aligned with my true path. I call this FONW: Fear Of Not Working. It began at university; “Why am I out having lunch with friends when I have an essay due in a month?” I thought. It was totally irrational. Making arrangements that didn’t involve something productive was somehow always a difficult commitment. “It would be fine once I leave uni and get out of the cycle of constant deadlines,” I thought. It wasn’t: my FONW has not stopped; it has evolved. (As it turns out, simply “leaving” stuff doesn’t automatically solve all your problems.)
I had no real idea what I wanted to do when I finished. So I tried to keep as many doors open as possible in the hope that when I finally realised, I could simply walk through one of them. For that to be possible I’d need to get the best grades possible for myself. I was most comfortable when I knew I would have the whole day ahead with my laptop and my books, no other plans. In actual fact, being at my desk with my laptop and some books only put me in charge of my ability to work; it did not mean I would actually work solidly for those hours. I procrastinated. Thinking critically about what I wanted to do became harder and harder and it felt like my true path was getting more and more buried in the inaccessible pits of my psyche. If I didn’t work out who I was, I’d be stuck in this condition forever.
I now find myself in a similar headspace to the one I was in. My primary concerns may be slightly different, but the basis is the same. It’s like my time doesn’t belong to me. I took a break from career-related work after handing in my dissertation and worked in hospitality, which helped me assess my working habits and figure out what I wanted to do. However, I am finding myself slipping into the same habits as those I had at university. The more I work, the more money I make. It’s simple. Being a freelance writer, I’m in kind of a unique position: I can largely control the amount of time I spend working. But this often means I work more. I’m not complaining. I love what I do. But as I’ve discovered some weeks, the ‘time = money problem’ can become quite toxic. Not least because you never switch off from working.
Things aren’t fantastic for me but they’re definitely way worse for others. The more I’ve thought about it and shared stories with friends entering the working world, the more the reality of the working world, particularly the changes within work structure over the last 10 years, have sunk in. In the world of business, efficiency seems to be everyone’s primary concern. Globalisation has made the world a competitive place. With the online revolution, companies have been required to innovate in order to survive. In a world where anything you want is available around the clock with a few clicks on a laptop, online sales are leading the way. Literally, time is money.
One of my friends in particular frequently has to work way more than he’s contracted to, simply because it’s his responsibility to make sure his projects are done on time. If they’re not, his company will easily be replaced by one that does it better, cheaper and quicker. That’s the brutal reality. WeWork, the workspace company that began in New York and has since obtained almost as much office space in London as the British government have just launched WeLive, which promises to totally merge work and life for its customers.
So while my FONW is maybe not so irrational after all, there must be a better way to handle the constant stress of life as a student or young professional. But I feel, with things as they are, my advice is going to be limp. In the old world, the pre-digital takeover world, my advice would have been to think not just about your approach to your work time but also how you approach your down time: when you’re not working, switch off from work properly and do completely different activities.
Perhaps an increasingly uncertain, increasingly 24/7, increasingly efficient landscape of work in the 21st century, calls for a type of solution that is unthinkable because it needs to be invented, or because it will require changes in aspects of our situation we didn’t know could change. I just hope that, whatever the solution is, it is drafted in the service of what is truly important.
The Culture of Not Replying: Are We a Generation of Ghosters? published by SKINT, 31st May 2018.
A friend of mine – an old friend – a really good friend – recently moved nearby. We’re living within miles of each other for the first time in a really long time. It’s great – it really is. Well, okay: we’ve seen each other twice since he moved, and it has been almost a year. But still, it’s great. Actually, you know what: I’ve just realised I haven’t replied to him. He asked me something about going to the pub in a week’s time. Shit. Now I remember. He messaged me on Facebook. I read it at around midnight. It’s been six days. I find myself in situations like this a lot.
Luckily, this time it’s fine: the next day, my friend and I go to the pub together and catch up. Midway through pint number two, we are talking about his Tinder trials and tribulations. He’s gone through a string of half-relationships over the last year. Some months ago, he was ghosted. He talked about how his immediate response was to pin the blame on himself: “I’m not good looking or interesting enough”, he told himself. He’d been down about it for a long time.
After some weeks, he found out that the girl he was seeing was in fact burnt out, stressed and generally tired – she wasn’t replying to anyone. My friend explained how it was difficult for him to think outside the mindset of her ghosting being a reflection on him and how that was his immediate impulse. One outcome of this whole experience for my friend was that it left him thinking about his habits of social media and online communication in general, and how having so many different means of contact meant that it’s easy to take little things, like late responses, or even ghosting, personally.
While our conversation at the pub continued in the direction of what happened to that relationship (it ended), I found my threads of thought about social contact in today’s world left unprocessed. And in the days that followed, I myself began to rethink my own approach to communication. Was I not guilty of a smaller version of the same offense his then-sort-of-girlfriend had experienced months earlier by not replying for six days?
Taking a step back, it’s easy to imagine a couple of reasons why the reality of the way in which we interact with one another as something which is affected by other complex factors.
Of course, this whole thing goes beyond the dating world. Taking myself as an example: I have two Twitter accounts, a personal Facebook account through which I am an admin of three pages, two Instagram accounts, add to that three different email addresses and a mobile phone with WhatsApp. There are thirteen different ways of reaching me. Obviously, there has never been a time like the one we live in now. Long gone are the days when the only way to reach one another remotely was using a landline telephone or sending a letter.
Life can feel like a constant process of self-administration. There’s never a sudden bombardment of messages – it’s more of a trickle, but the trickle is constant and inevitable. I have several ongoing Facebook messenger conversations with friends I don’t remember the last time I saw. Everyone I’ve ever met is easily contactable all the time – and my freedom to contact them, or reply to them, often ends up meaning that I rarely contact anyone. I live in a continuous state of possibility. More and more, I find myself responding to messages from friends when I’m in the mood to do so. Does this make me antisocial? Or does everyone have a different social threshold?
The thing is, the media we use to communicate can very well blur our sense of social clarity. I feel a little bit anxious when I know I’ve seen an email or a message and haven’t replied. On top of the social requirement to be accessible through a range of different online accounts, some of the communication platforms don’t really offer much help in keeping social matters simple. Take Facebook; I found the “Seen” function within Facebook Messenger incredibly annoying when it was added a few years ago. It felt like I no longer had the freedom to get back to people in my own time without that seeming rude. And not only does this function tell you your friend knows you’ve seen their message, it also tells them when you saw it.
We have to keep in mind that the success of the business model of companies like Facebook is largely, if not completely, dependent on users’ engagement with their platform; we live in the age of the so-called Attention Economy. Facebook’s “Seen” function is one among a number of different strategies used to drive engagement to the platform. The quicker and more often you respond to your messages, the longer you spend on the platform and the greater the chance you may see something that, somewhere down the line, will lead to a sale.
Is it any wonder, then, that in our world, where the profits of corporations are proportional to the amount we contact our friends, we can often find ourselves feeling a little burnt out, indifferent to instant social contact and often a kind of collective malaise? I totally empathise with the girl my friend was seeing. It’s no reflection on our friendship that I didn’t respond to my friend for that amount of time. Really, I don’t think we’re a generation of ghosters.
The late summer days of Croatia’s Adriatic coastal cities linger on like a never-ending song, waiting to reach a final cadence that may or may never arrive. I had gone to Croatia with a friend with whom I share the same frustrating problem: I have just graduated and my bank account is a little fragile (even despite a year of opting for Sainsbury’s basics yoghurt and buying all train tickets months in advance). My friend and I were also desperate to get out of the UK and to make the most out of some European travel before it starts to gyet difficult. Croatia is a country many consider visiting for its cheap alcohol and amazing nightlife. But my friend and I were there with the intention of finding a good time without the hangovers and away from sweaty clubs. We were seeking something a little different.
We ate breakfast in a backstreet cafe in Zadar. There, worn by our previous night’s lack of sleep from sharing a hostel room with someone who evidently suffers from quite severe nightmares, we decide to make our coffees last a little longer over a game of cards. The cafe manager spots us and instantly asks us to leave.
Socially bruised, and with a slight feeling of having become characters of a Kafka novel, we head towards the sea, through Zadar’s charming white-stone paved town centre and Roman architecture. We sit on the steps of the Sea Organ, which is an architectural installation combined with a pipe organ converting waves into music. The therapeutic experience totally resets our mood as we are immersed in nature being converted to another form of beauty. Gradually, our attention is lost to an American man making a success of the seemingly impossible task of floating in the sea whilst keeping his hands above the water.
We take a tour with an old friend, who is a local, when we arrive in the city of Split, which is bigger than Zadar and has a much more aggressive nightlife. (I say nightlife – there’s no shortage of sun-cream clad British boozers for whom nights out start when it’s still very much day.) Standing at the top of the bell tower of St Domnius and looking out at the city, you can almost see the waves of history of this place in its architecture, which spreads out radially from its centre in this order: first, white-stoned Roman architecture, then a little further out, raw and brutal communist-style architecture, and further again, new, luxury flats and expensive houses are visible as the city folds into the mountains. Just as we are lost in admiration for this extraordinarily picturesque city, the bells of St Domnius’s bell tower (which we are a few feet away from) start ringing.
The bells, originally designed to tell the whole town what time it is, send shockwaves through our bodies as we try to descend the 12th-century structure, which has a staircase made of metal grating and wobbles as you move down it. The hard stone floor never felt so solid.
To calm our nerves, our local friend (great guy) buys us a round of Cockta, the hilariously named Yugoslav drink, which was the drink of choice back when Yugoslavia existed. He tells us of his experience being drafted into military service at the age of 18 during the 1990s’ Yugoslav Wars when all he wanted to do was maths, and how the whole place and everyone he knows are very much still recovering. On a walk later, my friend and I spot a lone child tightrope walking along the railway tracks that run into Split central train station.
Things get better. After a roasting hot coach journey along one of the most beautiful roads in Europe, we find ourselves eating breakfast again, only this time in a more friendly setting beneath terrace grape vines in a house outside Dubrovnik, alongside a family who lives in the same block of houses as our Airbnb. We’re struck by the kindness of one of them who offers us some of his homemade grape-based spirit.
Before we know it, we find ourselves on an adventure with this new friend to an abandoned Yugoslav holiday resort down the road that he wants us to see, which used to be the go-to holiday place for Yugoslav army officers and which now lies in ruins and covered in scars from the war in the 1990s. The derelict resort stands as a creepy relic of Croatia’s past, its war and its economic crisis, all in one. We explore the derelict site for hours.
Even without relying on usual methods of entertainment like partying, we were able to experience a country authentically- by immersing ourselves as much as we could in the place itself rather than just what it had to offer touristically.
You’ve reached the part of the year when you have to re-learn the stuff from the beginning of the year, which you had previously dismissed as future-you’s problem and something that might never be needed. And you’ve also reached the point where the reality of life over the next couple of months ahead has hit you, like a restaurant bill you knew was coming yet failed to fully predict in its totality when you had the menu- only on a bigger (and non-monetary) scale. You’ve reached exam season. CONGRATS.
Exam season requires a total change of mindset and priorities. It’s the time of the year where the new, scarce landscape of social activities means gatherings ending at half ten, people saying the three words “I’m not drinking”, and is more or less the only time of the year it’s somehow acceptable to stop off at the library after being out.
Sooner or later, you’ll have to let go of the idea of exam season life running perfectly. There are only two ways in which things will actually happen: you can take the idealist-in-denial route or the pragmatist-who’s-fully-accepted-life-now route. To my mind, the best way to get through the season is to take the latter and try to be aware of what’s actually happening so that you can be sure whether you’re getting work done. So here are some pointers to get your mind fully immersed in the reality of exam season.
Expectation: You’ll do some revision.
Reality: You’re going to find out quite early on that the word “revision” more often ends up involving learning for the first time.
Expectation: You’ll treat revision like a full-time, 9-5 job.
Reality: You stayed up late revising last night after a day of procrastinating and now there’s no way you’ll be up to start at 9am. Repeat. If you’re in final year, you might even come to realise that this may well be the last opportunity you get to sleep in til 11am and work from 2pm til midnight, and you may just find yourself squeezing every last drop out of student life.
Expectation: You’ll get to the library, get a seat and get going.
Reality: Someone you’ve never seen before seems to have moved in all their belongings to the spot at the library you thought no one else knew about.
Expectation: You’ll exercise during your breaks.
Reality: You know you should exercise – it helps.
Expectation: You won’t let hygiene slip…
Reality: By week three you’ll be down to showering every other day. Two weeks later, every three days. Another two weeks, only after exercise (not very frequent). Exam week arrives, there is no longer any certainty. From here on a transition has begun between human and living ecosystem.
Expectation: You’ll get your healthy diet back on track, and maybe even experiment with new types of food.
Reality: You’ll experiment with different types of frozen pizza.
Expectation: You’ll strip your life down to a spiritual minimalist ritual of exercise, study, and sleep.
Reality: Netflix is your god.
Expectation: You’ll save money by not going out.
Reality: You’ll spend that money on Amazon and ASOS.
Expectation: You’ll do some group study with course mates every now and then – a bit of group study will be a great way to take the edge off revision.
Reality: It will be an anxiety-inducing search for evidence that your course mates are equally as unprepared as you.
Expectation: You and your flatmates will all help each other through it, like you imagined when you signed the group lease.
Reality: You have no greater regrets than signing that group lease.
Expectation: It’s your last exam tomorrow morning. You made it. You’ll get a good night sleep before your exam.
Reality: Your flatmate just finished his exams and it’s 4am and he’s making guacamole in the kitchen listening to flamenco (doesn’t even make sense geographically) with 4 booming voices.
Expectation: You won’t procrastinate during study; you’ll dedicate time during lunch or at the end of the day for the internet.
Reality: Here you are reading this.
On a good shift, working in hospitality can be a fun and rewarding experience. On a bad shift, it can be a unique blend of exhausting and stressful. In my experience, nothing you hear about this type of work can properly prepare you for what’s involved. You’re not only communicating with people constantly over the course of 10 hours. You’re also on your feet running around for the entirety of that time on an increasingly empty stomach, all the while trying to make sure that customers have a good time and get what they want (when they want it).
The benefits of such work go well beyond the experience of each individual shift. Up until working at my first hospitality job, I wasn’t that sure of myself: I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished my degree and I wasn’t confident with talking to strangers, let alone dealing with confrontation. But after a few months working as a waiter, I noticed that certain things about myself and my thoughts began to change.
Such is the nature of hospitality work that there is never enough time to do everything. You’re stuck taking an order from finicky table 15 whilst impatient table 9 is twiddling their thumbs waiting for dessert menus, meanwhile 2 cocktails are sitting on the bar top ready to be taken out (their ice gradually melting) and 3 dirty bowls are sitting on the table beneath them, which you know you need to get down to the kitchen straight away for table 13 who just ordered 8 soups—none of these being things you can deal with until table 15 finally decides which wine would go best with tonight’s smoked haddock. Efficiency is essential.
But in a noisy, warm, demanding social environment, your efficiency won’t exactly achieve lab conditions. What happens is that, eventually, and out of necessity, you develop a clarity of thought that can handle urgency and structure sequences of small jobs. And not only do you learn to break things down into chunks in order to create the bigger picture, but you’re thrown into the deep end in order to learn it. Efficiency and clarity of thought are incredibly useful tools.
The work also taught me about the reality of the way some people are. One evening, I took two French 75 cocktails—gin, champagne, lemon juice and sugar, served in a champagne flute—over to a table of two friendly enough men. On seeing the cocktails, the men refused to accept them because they felt the drinks were “not for men” and demanded I get them two new “manly” drinks. The ridiculousness of this reason aside, when I told them that it was not possible as they had under 10 minutes left on their booking, the two men became hostile. They demanded that I went to get the drinks they wanted. “Come on. Stop wasting time, will you? Just get the drinks.” My attention was briefly distracted by another table who was saying thank you on the way out. I turned back to the two men. “You’re talking to me now—not them. Where are the drinks?” one of them said.
I didn’t get the drinks—there simply wasn’t time for them to be made, nor was there enough time for the men to be able to drink four drinks, pay their bill and for us to clean their table for the next booking. The manager weighed in on the situation and calmed the two men down, and, eventually, the two men paid and left. I felt I had been belittled and bullied. But as frustrating as it was, by having to deal with confrontation I began to understand the need to know how to resolve it. I realised that I was learning to rise above these situations and tune my professional approach—something that has helped me deal with a plethora of other issues in other aspects of life, from disputes with landlords to resolving issues at work.
You also learn a certain type of artful communication that leaves customers feeling happy and looked after, even when giving them bad news. The next time I had to more or less tell someone that their time was fast running out and they couldn’t have another drink, I told them “I would love to bring you another drink, but that would leave you 10 minutes to finish them and I don’t want you to have to rush them while you pay your bill.” It was received not as an authoritative “No”, but as good advice. Deliver bad information as bad information and you’ll only create more problems for yourself. Find a way of delivering bad information as good information and everyone wins! (Note: The appropriateness of this varies on a case by case basis.)
Sure enough, by the time I had gone into my final year at university, I took my clearer, more efficient and more confident mind with me. I was more rational with my use of time and had a better sense of how small chunks of time made up the bigger picture of my life.
Beard vs No Beard: Does Facial Hair Affect the Way You Are Perceived? published by SKINT, 13th March 2018.
Over the past few years, and mostly because of boredom, I’ve been experimenting with my facial hair. I grew my first beard by accident: there I was writing my dissertation and the next thing I knew I had a beard. So when I say I’ve experimented with different facial hair lengths, I should also say that I’ve done so without any particular bias to any particular beard length, and that my beard growing, at first, could mostly be attributed to a sort of indifference to not having a beard.
For any young man, it’s hard to navigate your way through society’s abundance of mixed messages about beards. Enter into any debates via the usual routes online and you’ll see that the beard is a topic with many 2D opinions and little general consensus. In 2017, The New York Times published an article entitled “Are Men With Beards More Desirable?”, which responded to a couple of other publications (namely Mashable and Vice) heralding that the beard was now out of fashion. The NY Times article went on to provide an overview of research from various studies that more or less concluded that facial hair is a good thing to have.
One of the reviewed studies found that men with facial hair were, by and large, found to be more attractive by heterosexual women and gay men. But while many people are ok with beards, there are many people who find them abhorrent. According to Huffington Post, beards are actually secret safe havens for faecal matter. For Time magazine, beards are purportedly good if you want respect from other men, but if you want to attract a mate, a beard won’t help you. Overall, across the articles, an equation emerges between beard and masculinity: the more facial hair you have the more “macho” you are.
Is there any meaning behind the seemingly conflicting narratives on the beard? In my experience, not exactly. But it’s complicated. I am someone who frequently rotates my way through the stops on the beard-cycle, and who looks pretty different at each. When I am clean shaven, I look quite young (partly because I am not very tall). And when I am fully bearded, my face is a generous provider of a bountiful harvest of dark, thick hair (partly because of my Mediterranean blood). But overall, my experiences are a little different to what you might expect given the media narratives.
When I do have one, I feel my full beard prompts a mixture of responses among strangers. I also hear myself being referred to as “the man” more often than “the guy”, in those strange situations in public life where it is necessary for someone to refer to you. Yet, I seem not to be the object of question when I have a full beard. Naturally, people who don’t know me seem to think I’m older than I actually am. No surprises there. (Someone I worked with even went some months thinking I was 27 when in fact I was 22.) Being bearded in customer-facing jobs, people seem to want to challenge me less. When I am advising those customers, I feel they trust me more. No one outright finds bearded-me disgusting and says so. The only time my beard has ever been pointed out was by a group at a pub who were trying to work out at what point stubble becomes a beard and who wanted my opinion.
Just as men with beards can look older, men without them can look younger. In my experience, I get asked for ID more when clean shaven. Somehow, despite the supposedly precarious position they hold in society, it is without a beard that I feel I am more likely to experience people paying me less attention or treating me with more scepticism. In points of contact with strangers, I don’t seem to be as convincing: customers are more demanding in various jobs I’ve had; strangers seem to treat me less as an adult in working life and more as a student.
While, in my own personal experience, there are clear pointers to facial hair having an effect on people’s perception of a man, I feel these experiences do not reflect the media narratives mentioned above, nor do they have anything to do with being macho. In my case, having a beard may support an illusion that I’m slightly older and more mature and may therefore have had more life experiences and should be questioned less. And being clean shaven may support an illusion that I am young and maybe relatively immature. It is probably likely that people act according to their split-second perception of my age rather than just whether or not I have a beard. Fortunately, meaningful relationships are not formed on the basis of split-second judgements.
So, does facial hair affect the way you are perceived? Yes, but the effects are superficial.
Bitcoin or Shitcoin? 7 Things the Fanatics Will Tell You published by SKINT, 14th Feb 2018.
Everyone has that one friend who’s obsessed with Bitcoin. That friend knows all about blockchain, distributed ledgers, and cryptography. They know the difference between Ethereum, Monero and Ripple, and they even know the intricacies of a cryptocurrency mine. Most cryptoheads, as I now call those friends, can’t wait to tell you all about the revolutionary optimism of cryptocurrencies, how our lives will be simpler once everything is transacted with unfathomably long codes, and how it’s about time that the traditional banking system had a run for its money.
In the minds of cryptoheads, great ideas need good conversation to catch on and it’s their duty to help communicate the idea of a world run on cryptocurrency. It’s only right that we should be debating issues and phenomena, such as cryptocurrency, if we are to find a responsible way to yield its potential. But in practice, not all of what is said is received with the utopian spirit well-meaning cryptoheads hope to inspire. Some conversations leave people confused, amused and unconvinced.
At the present moment, the world is ablaze with some of these conversations, and I myself have experienced them. On first hearing, some of the things that are said are indeed exciting and make investing worth thinking about. But since I’ve had more or less the same conversation several times now, I’ve had a chance to really think about some of the things that get said about cryptocurrency. While some are exciting, others are jagged and contradictory. Here are some that stick out…
“It’s not dodgy.”
Cryptoheads are often quick to defend Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies against the media narrative that they are pretty shady. But public opinion is not easily swayed by simply negating assertions.
“I know someone who invested back in 2009. They now spend their time surfing in the south of France.”
Most cryptoheads I’ve met know someone who has made their riches from Bitcoin. And maybe it hurts them a little bit to know that this could have been them with a few clicks.
“This is history unfolding. It’s as revolutionary as the internet.”
A key selling point of cryptocurrencies for many people is the revolutionary prospect that you are buying into some inevitable future. This is often the type of sentence that either makes a new cryptohead or creates a staunch critic. You can take being told that ‘you’ve had your head in the sand and are missing out on the future’ in one of two ways. Feel free to not know whether to be inspired or offended.
“I don’t fully understand it. But that’s ok- no one does.”
If you look at a graph of the value of Bitcoin over time, this is the sentence that will explain why you are seeing what you are seeing. In traditional currency trading, a 2% rise or fall in one day can usually be traced to a significant event. Since you started reading this article Bitcoin has probably either lost or gained 2%. Somehow, cryptoheads don’t recognise that advocating for something that can lose a quarter of its value in a day can leave people a little confused.
“Now’s a good time to get in, before the crowd and regulations.”
Here, the cryptohead feels that he/she is giving you some genuinely golden investment advice, but doesn’t realise the unease people may have over the idea of taking part in unregulated activity.
“Well, I haven’t tried to withdraw it yet.”
Very few cryptoheads will tell you how much money they’ve made because many of them haven’t actually made any. And given its volatility, you can’t get attached to any value of Bitcoin you may think you have.
“Blockchain’s the important innovation, not Bitcoin.”
From transport and voting, to charity, insurance and cybersecurity, there’s a long list of facets of society that could be revolutionised by blockchain technology. Its ability to systematise trust by recording everything in decentralised public leger, is often at first an easy way of inspiring anyone in conversation. Yet at the same time, this sentence is amusing. Bitcoin is completely dependent on Blockchain technology. Mention of the technology doesn’t necessarily add weight to the appeal of Bitcoin. Why bet on a horse if the racetrack itself is one of the contenders?
How to Be a Cyclist (from Someone Who Keeps Getting It Wrong) published by SKINT, 11th Feb 2018.
Choosing the bicycle as your mode of transport is one way of raising your life’s danger and entertainment levels simultaneously. But if you’re more the sensible type, and you’d like your danger and entertainment levels to stay low, fortunately, there are things that you can do. The only problem is, not I, nor anyone I seem to be friends with, knows what they are. That being said, here are some things you should consider not doing as a cyclist to at least point you in the right direction.
Don’t get drunk and cycle into a canal on your way home
A friend (who shall remain nameless) once cycled home after a night out and had a sobering fall of three metres into London Fields canal. He spent the next day fishing the bike out the canal with a grappling hook with a hangover. Cycling drunk is obviously one of the most stupid things you could do- EVER- for many obvious reasons. (Well, in fairness, cycling into a canal was a bit of a curveball.)
Don’t jump red lights when the police are right behind you
Well obviously, don’t jump red lights ever… I once watched a cyclist get publicly humiliated by two police officers on motorbikes, who had been next to him at the previous set of red lights when he decided he couldn’t wait any longer. The policemen chased him down, stopped him, and screamed at him next to a bus stop full of people. It was brutal.
Don’t leave your lights on your bike…
…have them nicked, and then get fined by the police on the way home for not having lights. This happened to me and it was just one of those days and that’s all I have to say about it.
Don’t get “FUCK TAXIS” tattooed on your legs
I once saw a cyclist who had “FUCK” tattooed on the back of his left leg and “TAXIS” tattooed on the back of his right. For me, permanently altering my skin to express outrage with other types of road users would be taking things a little too far. Naturally, bad taxi drivers exist. (And hopefully, if this article shows anything, so do bad cyclists.) But please remember, before you go to the tattoo parlour, that it is individuals that make bad drivers, not groups.
Don’t always assume pedestrians have seen you
Don’t always trust pedestrians not to run out into the road without looking. On numerous occasions, I have had to perform my well-practised swerve. Sometimes it is simply reckless pedestrians who lack time that run out without looking. Other times, it is daydreaming pedestrians who have seen other pedestrians are crossing and assumed they can too. They can’t.
A friend of mine had a collision with a pedestrian recently and the two came away with bad bruises. But this pedestrian does not fit either of the types of pedestrian mentioned above – this pedestrian had just stolen from a shop and he was making a getaway. Needless to say, he still should have looked before crossing.
Don’t leave your key in your lock…
…with your lock around your bike. It was by some miracle that one friend managed to keep her bike having left the key in the lock for three hours while her bike was parked in a town centre. Still, it’s not something she’s decided to do again.
Don’t lock your bike around a stranger’s bike
A mate in uni once locked their bike around a lamppost and a stranger’s bike and went to work at a bike shop. A few hours into her shift, a man came in asking if the shop had bolt cutters because some idiot had locked their bike lock around his bike outside. My friend went with the man outside to see what the problem was and if there was anything she could do with the tools available to her at the bike shop. It turned out to be quite an embarrassing moment.
The Short Straw: Does Height Really Determine a Man’s Success? published by SKINT, 22nd Jan 2018.
“I’m going to punch you and kick you because you’re such a m*dget, you deserve it”.
It was the kind of politically incorrect playground insult that a low-calibre 1970s British drama would have considered “good TV”. I was twelve years old when the classic playground bully said this to me. Fortunately, the punching and kicking never actually followed. But growing up as a short guy in the UK, I feel I haven’t had the easiest ride since.
Up until that incident, I hadn’t thought anything of being small – I hadn’t considered it much of an issue. Playing rugby at school, I got the nickname “bullet kid” because my short stature enabled me to shoot across the pitch and slip through tight gaps. What exactly was wrong with being short? It was only a temporary arrangement anyway, I thought. I brushed the comment off and didn’t think much of it.
When I entered my teens, I naturally became much more self-conscious. The growth spurt I had been promised never happened. It felt like everyone was getting taller and I was just staying where I was. And by sixth form, when all other guys around me were six foot and beyond, I found myself entering an unhealthy cycle of self-blame, the root cause of which I could always trace back to my height. Why did she reject my invitation? Why doesn’t this group get along with me?
The answer is my height, I would tell myself. The self-blame was pretty cyclic. At that time, it always stung when someone pointed out or joked about my height, like I was being distanced or made an example of through no fault of my own. Such incidents were infrequent enough for me to forget about it within a few weeks and resuscitate my self-esteem, but just frequent enough that my esteem was never fully healed.
Going to university in London was a chance to start again. I wore elevated shoes that made me an inch or so taller. It gave me confidence when going out. I drank a lot and went out as much as I could. I believed at the time that the combination of a little extra height and a lot more alcohol was making me a new confident person. On a good night, it gave me such a high. On a bad night, I’d end up comparing myself to the 6 ft plus guys in my group, and wondering why they had it so easy and not me.
I overcompensated for my lack of height by trying to sustain as many friendships and meet as many people as possible. I truly believed that feigning confidence in this way could make me a more likeable person. Still, every now and then when someone made a joke about my height or pointed it out, it was like a hole was being poked in a perfect painting I’d created for myself that I would have to patch over. What would happen when there were so many patches that the painting was unrecognisable remained to be seen.
Towards the end of first year, I still went out in search for the glorious highs, only to end up with more dozy night buses and an ice cream addiction. My new confident alter-ego began slipping from my clutches and eventually, after a long drawn out summer, I crashed.
As I spiralled into the lows of pessimism, I realised some things that seem to be undeniably true: our society privileges taller men. A recent sociological study at the University of Exeter found that the shorter you are, the less well-off you are and the lower status job you have. This is particularly true of men. It is also widely reported that around 90% of CEOs are above average height (and, of course, are male).
Taller people are perceived as being better leaders and more masculine. Being short in the dating world is a tough grind, too – there’s no shortage of statistics for the positive correlation between tallness and attractiveness. Some likely reasons for the plight of the short included low self-esteem, discrimination and the lack of development of social skills.
But what’s most offensive about it all for me is not the idea that I will never be the most effective height for socio-economic success, but that there is this widespread assumption that socio-economic status and masculinity are, and should be, determiners of a “successful” life. Realising how these problems had as much to do with society as they did the individual helped me stop placing the blame on myself.
My eureka moment happened when I did this: I gave up. I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t. I looked inwards. I paid more attention to who I really was, the things I truly enjoyed and my course at uni. I rebuilt myself from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
Admitting I could sustain no meaningful new relationships by pretending to be someone I’m not, I realised that what I had previously thought to be my greatest weakness has in fact turned out to be my greatest bullshit filter and the people I could truly form great connections with were those who did not form friendships on the basis of appearances. I’ve never been so comfortable in flat shoes.
At a time when there are not one but two varieties of Louis Theroux-themed Christmas jumpers on the market (‘All I Want for Christmas is Louis Theroux’ is my favourite), it’s probably worth signalling that Christmas jumpers have reached some sort of peak. So we’ve put together a brief history of the garment.
Believe it or not, the Christmas jumper was once a secretive item of clothing that lived a quiet lifestyle at the back of the wardrobe. Each one in existence would tell the story of an embarrassed recipient and an overzealous knitting grandma. But in recent years, there has been a seismic shift in our relationship with the woolly winter wear. So who is responsible for freeing the Christmas jumper from its loneliness?
Some people point fingers to the likes of Noel Edmonds and Gyles Brandreth, who would wear their best Christmas jumper on live TV for Christmas entertainment. Somehow – somehow – neither of the two managed to start a trend and many found them a little cringeworthy. Many people agree that the turning point in our attitude to the Christmas jumper was 2001. When in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget Jones meets Mark Darcy for the first time, she is initially horrified by the cartoonish Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer emblazoned on his stomach. But few could deny that the enduring charm of Colin Firth (playing Mark Darcy) put a convincing spin on wearing Christmas jumpers.
To understand why Colin Firth/Mark Darcy’s Rudolph is significant, we have to look back a little further. The roots of the Christmas jumper go back to twentieth century Scandinavia, where thick knitwear was required to keep fishermen and skiers warm. The classic geometric pattern emerged around this time, too. Seasoned travellers brought this type of design to America. And in the 1960s, the style became popular when the woollen patterns we would probably now associate with Christmas jumpers was worn by Hollywood movie stars like Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. But while these jumpers featured skiers, alpine trees and snowflakes, etc., they were not yet the typical Christmas jumpers we see today as they could be worn all year round.
The rise of domestic knitting, a popular skill in the nineteenth century (Queen Victoria was a prolific knitter), plays an important part in this history – it also explains why the garment spent so much of its time in hiding. For the passionate knitter, a Christmas-themed jumper was the perfect solution to Christmas gift giving. If you can knit, you have time to knit and you want to give Christmas gifts, why not knit something? Makes sense right?
Alongside the benchmark set by Colin Firth/Mark Darcy came a trend that would pave the way for Christmas jumper wearing. Many people had not worn the garment they had been gifted because they wanted to spare themselves feeling like a festive fool. But the change that occurred was one to do with a change in cultural perspective. Rather than make Christmas jumpers actually attractive, people embraced the jumpers’ ugliness. Suddenly, Christmas jumpers became incredibly popular.
The trend all started in Vancouver in the early 2000s. Given the number of second-hand and thrift shops emerging at that time, a group of undergraduates thought it would be funny to have a fancy dress house party in which everyone turns up wearing the ugliest second-hand jumper (or sweater, seeing as it was in the States) they could possibly find. The idea was contagious, and was carried along by the emerging hipster scenes in many different cities across the US and worldwide. The Christmas jumper was now no longer something to be stored away, but an icebreaker at a party.
Enter the 2010s, and this is where the big brands start to pile in. Given the availability of cheap yarn, high-street retailers saw an unmissable opportunity to cash-in on the trend. Now, of course, Christmas jumpers are a staple of winter collections. You can win ugly Christmas jumper competitions having spent less on your Christmas jumper than you did on your pack of 12 Christmas crackers. But it’s not just typical high-street shops that are in on it, designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren have weighed in on the trend as well, selling Christmas jumpers for almost a thousand pounds.
In 2012, the charity Save the Children launched Christmas Jumper Day. Before we knew it, the press was littered with images of celebrities like Cheryl Cole, Richard Branson and Matt Damon donning their woolly wear, and the last Friday before would now have a new meaning. Companies and schools began participating in the annual fundraising event and the wearing of Christmas jumpers became a mainstream cultural activity.
The massive perspective that led to the Christmas jumper renaissance is a bit of a half-truth. In my opinion, nothing has really fundamentally changed with our relationship towards it. I think the Christmas jumper has simply come to find its place as a symbol, within the festive season, of our collective want to be jolly and generous. It was not necessarily the Christmas jumper itself, but a refreshing sense of humility that was being added to the twenty-first century cultural wardrobe.
Identity: Why Are We Still Stealing Everybody Else’s? published by SKINT, 1st Dec 2018.
Past generations of young people have been able to live truly within the culture of their times, but for some reason our generation can’t. The reason? Nostalgia. Nostalgia lurks in our generation’s psyche, and is stopping us from creating an identity for ourselves.
In the swinging ‘60s, a spirit of optimism gripped the young; rock ‘n’ roll stole the world’s imagination and the established order – the old way of doing things – was turned on its head. Bob haircuts, bright colours and miniskirts redefined what it meant to be fashionable.
Ok. Moving on. Twenty years later, padded shoulders were in, mullets were on and sleeves were up. In the cinemas, films like The Terminator, Back to the Future, and E.T. added a seasoning of techno-futuristic dynamism to popular culture. People danced to Madonna, David Bowie and Michael Jackson.
I mean, what is our generation of culture-connoisseurs known for, exactly? Fashion? It has been 4 years since Macklemore dropped his song, but thrift shops are still the thing and everyone’s walking around in old bomber jackets. Music? We seem to prefer remixes of older songs (and let’s not even talk about Vaporwave). Films? Nothing gets us more excited than a good sequel. Isn’t Star Wars back again this Christmas?
Our nostalgia is prompting an identity crisis. All too often, we find ourselves longing for past eras by imagining ourselves living in them- and this can’t be good, especially when the eras we long for are ones we haven’t actually experienced. We might secretly admire the seemingly effortless style of certain actors as they play their roles on screen, but that doesn’t mean we have to walk around in aviator sunglasses in order to look cool.
Usually, it is only the attractive bits of the past that are shown in such films and TV. Rose-tinted spectacles take over and what we think we see of the past is usually the product of some serious cherry picking. But somehow the reality of it all is at odds with our excitement about dressing up in 1920’s gear, surrounding ourselves with art deco paraphernalia and sipping martinis at a Gatsby themed birthday bash.
But what’s all this nostalgia about and why’s it become a thing? Well, the subscription economy is one big factor. With services like Netflix and Spotify, almost any music, film, or TV show you can think of is ready for consumption in any quantity and at any time – the past has never been so accessible. Older TV shows and films have had a bit of a revival. And the demand is there – I overheard my flatmate binge watching The Twilight Zone this past weekend. But it’s not just old films and TV that we surround ourselves with, more recent film and TV helps us to indulge in the past, too.
And to be honest, our usage of social media platforms, a beacon of self-expression, doesn’t help the situation. Once upon a time, aside from the odd family photo, self-representation would rarely go beyond the classic combo of a photocopier and an arse. Nowadays, our professional, social and personal identities are all intrinsically linked. With our audiences on these platforms, even fewer of us have the confidence to truly break the mould and show ourselves living invented identities.
This all begs the question: why do we look backwards, not forwards? Well, I think the reason is quite paradoxical. We want to express individuality through our tastes in popular culture, but our ability to experiment is hampered by our fear of truly standing out. It’s easier for us to judge what works when there’s a stockpile of proven remedies to choose from – especially when that stockpile has already been filtered. But having gone down a rabbit hole in search of ideas, we’re not entirely sure the way to get back out. We’ve convinced ourselves that the old ways are the best ways. We choose to live in perpetual nostalgia because it is easier to borrow from accepted past identities than invent possible future ones.
We need to figure out a way of finding our identity in our own day and age. What might be better is if we each spend a little more time trying to reach a deeper level of self-understanding. Only then, will we reach our own conclusions about who, exactly, is the ‘we’ that we’re trying to define.