Different People

pencilsAs a HR professional and coach I spend a lot of time encouraging diversity.  Diversity in terms of race, creed, nationality for sure – but most importantly diversity of thought.

It is patently obvious that none of us knows as much as all of us. Having a pool of knowledge, ideas and interests that is as a broad as possible can surely only be a good thing.

Yet there are increasing calls to protect our historic culture and values by keeping ‘different’ people out.  This goes much deeper than mere (ill informed) protectionism around jobs and wealth.

Most people judge their worth by comparing themselves to others.  If others are judged to have achieved less  (on whatever criterion is most damning) they are clearly inferior.  They must be lazy, stupid, untrustworthy etc.  We see this in in society at large – increasingly the poor are seen as undeserving.  If my riches are down to my effort your poverty must be due to you being feckless.  It has to be your fault as it cannot possibly be mere luck or family ties (or old school ties) that made me successful.  Penniless immigrants washed up on the shores of Europe are not only poor but foreign and must be kept out at all costs. Never mind that they have the resourcefulness,courage and strength to undertake a massive, highly dangerous journey.

This then creates a real problem when we find someone has achieved more – that surely makes us lazy, stupid, feckless… Of course that can’t be right.  They are obviously undeserving of their success – they stole it, got lucky, had rich parents…  But above all else they are different and must be made to conform or be driven out of the tribe.  After all someone ‘better’ than me is a constant reminder of my shortcomings.

We are social animals.  In our evolutionary past remaining part of the tribe was a matter of life and death.  We have evolved to be conformists, to fit in and follow the strong leaders rather than risk being exposed as ‘different’ and face expulsion.

Many (in)famous experiments have shown how we conform even when we ‘know’ our actions are questionable.  Otherwise bright students gave obviously wrong answers to very simple questions when following the lead of the planted stooges.  Subjects gave what they believed to be potentially lethal electric shocks to others when instructed to do so by ‘authority’ figures.

And so those who feel they have achieved less than they desire attack those who threaten their cosy mediocrity by having the talent, skill, persistence and creativity to achieve success.  They also deride those who have achieved less, those who choose not to or can’t afford to wear the ‘right’ brands and those who are poor as they are an unwelcome reminder of what might have been. Others in the tribe soon join in – maybe too weak to start the the pogrom they are still eager to conform and join the mob.  Some may feel uneasy but make sure that they are seen to throwing their support behind the attacks for fear of being next.

In this connected world of social media these attacks and exclusions are no longer physical, hiding behind a smartphone they are easier to commit by the weak but are no less wounding for the victims.

It takes real strength to dare to stand out by being different.  It takes strength to champion high achievers and see them as aspirational role models rather than threats.  To discover what can be learnt from them instead of silencing them for fear of having your own accomplishments diminished shows a real desire to be the best you can be – not simply the top dog in a weak pack.

It takes equal strength and compassion to stand up for those who have less than us, to support and nurture them.  Help them to be the best they can be. It takes real humanity.

Despite the fact that our differences make us collectively stronger it takes real courage to stand up to the mob and declare support for difference.  When we understand that the mob attacks from a position of fear and weakness they become much less intimidating.

Ask yourself if you have gone along with the status quo and stood silently on the sidelines, supported the mob or even joined in the attack.  How good do you feel about that?

Baby when you hold me
I can feel so wrong
You’re trying to console me
Your chance has long gone
So baby won’t you take my hand?
So we can do what the others can
We are alive tonight, we are alive tonight

I am going home forever and ever more
No I was never born and there’s no such thing as home
We used to stand so strong
That’s why the others have gone

Different person, different argument
In my shadow, no more compliments
One more person breaking the rules again
I’m still waiting for someone else to join in

Stand where the others stand
We’re alive tonight
Land where the others land
We’re alive tonight

Biffy Clyro – Different People

Different People

L21281

We’ve recently returned from holiday. As a family one of our favourite things is people watching and a holiday provides the perfect blend of time and interesting people to watch. I say interesting, all people are fascinating of course and all human life was there. Or at least that slim section of life that can both afford and choose to lie by a pool in the Mediterranean.

There was this one guy, big, overweight, bald headed, no neck and tattoos including a crude England (or should that be Engerland?) flag across his distended gut.  He looked like a builder who had done well, you could imagine him on the terraces roaring the team on.  He spent all day from around 8.00 am under an umbrella, head on a pillow.  He was a hard man for sure, no one was going to invade his space. I wondered how he felt about being surrounded by well heeled Germans and Russians.  Not my kind of guy looking like that.

One guy spent most of the day on his laptop. He lay by the pool tapping away on the laptop or yelling at people down the phone while his younger ‘trophy wife’ baked in the sun.  It was clear that he was utterly indispensable (or he had hired a bunch of muppets and/or was unable to delegate). Twice a day he would swim a lap of the pool with his partner before she went and brought him a cocktail and he returned to his laptop. In his Vilebrequin shorts and designer sunnies he was making sure that we all knew who was the alpha male. I wondered how his partner felt about the lack of attention. Again not my kind of guy behaving like that.

Then there was this guy who had the most loving and tender conversation with his daughter.  He was a bit loud and then repeated it all to his partner (presumably not the mother from the way it sounded).  They were arranging to meet up and he sounded like a truly loving father.  More like my kind of guy expressing feelings like that.

As I said all human life.  And these three blokes all came together – in the same body.  Which just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive, first and even second impressions don’t tell the full story.

Different person, different argument
In my shadow, no more compliments
One more person breaking the rules again
I’m still waiting for someone else to join in

Stand where the others stand
We’re alive tonight
Land where the others land
We’re alive tonight

Different People  – Biffy Clyro

Smile like you mean it

suru portraits 073

We’ve just returned from holiday and yes thanks, since you ask it was very nice.  We stayed in a large hotel complex and round the pool all shapes and sizes of humanity were on display in varying levels of undress.

It struck us how many of the young women who had enviable figures seemed unattractive.  One such girl with ridiculously long legs kept her boyfriend running round after her like a lap dog.  Others seemed to maintain a perpetual air of bored indifference, many refused to smile.   I christened these types ‘butter face’ (nice legs, but her face!).

Then there were others less obviously perfect specimens who seemed to be open and friendly, who clearly cared about and enjoyed being with their friends and family.  These were much more attractive.

Ah ah I thought, there is a blog post in there.  Maybe you can think yourself pretty.  Maybe if you just adopt the appropriate behaviours and smile like you mean it then you become attractive.  Of course if you are too skinny or are overweight, have a genuine physical imperfection these won’t go away, but maybe most of us can and do look beyond such superficial things when really evaluating someone as a friend or partner.

Whilst we were being tourists, sunning ourselves in Greece my eldest daughter was travelling in the Himalayas. Trekking and working on a couple of community projects.  She returned the day after we did.  With tears in her eyes and a passion I have rarely seen she talked about the two sisters who had given her a henna tattoo in Leh.  The girls were about the same age as she is but there the similarities end.

As my daughter put it:

“While we were stressing about what outfit to wear that night, whether our A-level choices were perfect and precisely which new laptop to acquire these girls left school so they could support their families.  Day after day they sit on the hot dusty kerb.  They might not want to be in this situation but they somehow accept it, they still have ambitions but they accept that for now this is how it is.”

“We get jealous because someone has some ‘stuff’ that we don’t even need and these girls have nothing, they have the one set of old clothes they wear everyday. Their faces are worn from lack of care and sun. They were so happy and smiled so readily and they found genuine pleasure in talking to us about our lives. ”

“They wouldn’t accept a small tip, even knowing how little is is to us and how much it is to them.”

“They said that we are beautiful, but they are the beautiful ones.”

Yes.  That’s what I was going to say.

Save some face, you know you’ve only got one
Change your ways while you’re young
Boy, one day you’ll be a man
Oh girl, he’ll help you understand

Smile like you mean it
Smile like you mean it

Looking back at sunsets on the east side
We lost track of the time
Dreams aren’t what they used to be
Some things sat by so carelessly

The Killers – Smile Like You Mean It

Identity

Having dusted my old bike off and headed out for a few short spins recently I was accused of being a mamil (middle aged man in lycra).  It is true.  Form fitting clothing is simply more comfortable, allows ease of movement and does not flap about.

It reminded me that during the Winter Olympics a few months ago that for every high intensity event the uniform is one piece, skin tight, lycra. These established sports and athletes have huge research budgets and so it seems probable that there are advantages to this that extend beyond showing off their impressive physiques. Less drag, ease of movement etc.

But the freestylers wear baggy clothing – one competitor, Henrik Harlaut, had his trousers fall down in competition.  I may be wrong but it seems that these clothes are not simply about performance.

 Sweden's Henrik Harlaut performs jump during men's freestyle skiing slopestyle qualification round at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor

We humans are highly evolved social animals. In prehistory our survival depended on our being supported and protected by our tribe. it’s no surprise then that we are all keen to show our belonging and to conform to social norms. Being evicted from our chosen tribe isn’t simply a matter of identity it’s one of survival.

Our innate desire to conform is possibly why stereotypes tend to have a degree of validity. It also is a great part of the success of many Brands. A Brand, the marketers will tell you, is the encapsulation of the customer experience. It’s what is promised and delivered. For the consumer a Brand can be a shortcut to an identity, a stereotype if you like. And identity is generally not about individualism it is about belonging.

Dressing in a certain style or wearing a certain Brand makes a statement. In one simple logo a whole raft of information about your ideals can be broadcast.

Marketers exploit this strong desire to belong and it’s very hard for an individual to truly break free. Indeed there is arguably a tribe one can belong to whose central doctrine is ‘not belonging’. This tribe of course has a set of rituals, social norms and a dress code just like any other.

Historically freestyle ski-ing and snowboarding were the choice of the rebels. The free spirits. They showed their individuality by dressing in a baggy, looser style of clothing and that has carried through to those competing at a high level, even if it carries performance penalties.

It will take a real individual to start competing in a suit scientifically designed to enhance performance, rather than ensure belonging. A change of identity from rebel to high performer.  That would take real courage.  A need for authentic leadership perhaps?

Identity
Is the crisis
Can’t you see
Identity identity

When you look in the mirror
Do you see yourself
Do you see yourself
On the t.v. screen
Do you see yourself
In the magazine
When you see yourself
Does it make you scream

X-Ray spex: Identity

Golden Brown

Lion

I was just marvelling at the retina display on my new mac (thank you Santa).  I have the background set to cycle through all the pre-loaded pictures and this close up of a lion’s head came up.

I could see each individual hair and I noticed how varied the colours were.  If asked I would have said that a lion was ‘brown’ (or ‘dun’ if trying to impress).  Yet the hairs ranged from red, through oranges, shades of brown and beige to a near white.  Together they appear brown (or dun).

It struck me that we tend to see the world in these generalised terms.  Lion’s hair is brown, foreign migrants are benefits cheats, politicians are untrustworthy…. and yet all groups of people are made up of many different ‘coloured hairs’.

Likewise we find a handy label and apply it to individuals and assume it is true in all aspects of their life.  ‘Rock star’ conjures up a very different image to ‘father’.  Yet many Rock stars are fathers and good ones too (and most migrants are hard working and the occasional politician isn’t a complete fraud). Individuals are also made of many strands to create the aggregate, but we do tend to project a stereotype around a single facet of their being onto them.  

Worse still it seems that negative stereotypes hold more power.

If someone deceives you they are a cheat and a liar, they almost certainly have many other redeeming features too.  You should not condone the bad behaviour but equally don’t write off the person.

Generalisations help us make sense of a complex world and as such are very handy.  Maybe it’s time to see them for what they are and look beyond the label at the individual strands of colour.