My first job was in high school as a receptionist and shampoo girl at a hair salon. I learned many important skills while working there but the most valuable was learning how to listen to people on a deep level.
It's a universal law that hair salons are a mysterious safe zone where people open up about their most vulnerable feelings while reading gossip magazines. As the professional, you're suddenly entrusted with a piece of their heart, whether you asked to be or not.
It's like this in weddings, too.
If you expect everyone to be rational, logical, and approach decisions with level-headed analysis, the wedding industry is not for you. Every engaged couple and every wedding brings with it a lifetime of family dynamics and subtext that you must learn to navigate almost immediately.
Some of it you'll recognize right away: the emotional loss of identity when two financially independent people are looking at merging bank accounts, a mom who can't seem to cut the apron strings even though her son hasn't lived at home in fifteen years, divorced parents who will be in the same room for the first time in decades, crazy Aunt Mary who doesn't fall off the wagon but jumps every chance she gets.
Then there's the stuff that's less obvious: the sibling rivalry only heightened as adults because of differing life choices, the unspoken social expectations passed down through generations, the years of dinner table conversations and the perspectives they shaped, the hours of therapy the bride or groom has sat through as an adult because of family circumstances.
Sometimes I'll assist a colleague on an event in order to observe the behavioral dynamics behind the scenes. At one wedding in Chicago a few years ago, the mother of the bride made a tear-filled comment to me about how frumpy her arms looked in her sleeveless dress. On the surface this seems like a common insecurity every woman has had at some point in her life.
What mattered, though, was that the mom wasn't looking at me while she was talking. She was looking across the room at her ex-husband's much younger (translated: bride's age) new wife, whose arms could have given Michelle Obama's a run for their money.
There, in the middle of photographs and makeup and hair styling and laughing over champagne, was a woman who was simultaneously excited for her daughter's wedding and grieving afresh her own shattered dreams. She wasn't interested in hearing that her arms looked fine and she looked beautiful, she wanted to know that she was still lovable and worthy of being pursued.
These are tricky waters to navigate and require the ability to listen and pay attention on a level most jobs do not. They require building a team that practices empathy and isn't solely concerned with their own art, fame, Instagram updates, or checkmarks on a timeline. They require a thick-skin, grit, and a willingness to forgive and forget when people's emotions prevail against their better judgment.
They require consistently paying attention to a world beyond ourselves.
Originally published January 2011