What works for me, won't work for you (but listen anyway)

8 June 2014

When I was starting off my professional career, I was lucky to receive a number of pieces of advice. I absorbed them gratefully, very conscious of my naivety and inexperience, but slowly realised that many of the tips just wouldn't work for me; not because of my inability to implement the hints, but because of circumstances beyond my (immediate) control.

For example, my first business trip saw me travelling in the Middle East, in a conflict zone (Libya, in September 2011; Tripoli was under rebel control, but Gadaffi had not yet been found).

“If you get into trouble, be as authoritative as you can.”

Okay, I thought. So – speak loudly, and try to be intimidating.

“If people in positions of authority – at border crossings, army checkpoints, or airports – question you, speak louder and don't show them you are intimidated. Try and project your own importance as much as possible- no weakness, and if you need to, get angry at them, and they won't question you.”

Right. Any unexpected questions by army men with guns, I should respond with... anger. Hmm.

“Never let on that you speak anything but English, especially not at border crossings. You're British, you have a British passport, you speak only English, and pretend you are always more important than they are.”

Project self-importance. Don't let on any understanding of local culture. Duly noted.

There were lots of wise words, from well-respected and experienced people; I noted them down carefully, and resolved to be as intimidating, angry and self-important as possible, if it came to that.

Only... for those of you who know me, associating me with those adjectives will probably bring a smile to your faces. I don't think I've ever been intimidating (all 5”3 of me) – and I hate confrontation. Still, though, I tried... and, of course, it didn't work. At first, I thought I was doing it incorrectly – I wasn't being angry or loud enough, I wasn't acting the part of self-important Brit convincingly enough, my English accent wasn't pronounced enough... but after a few (in retrospect, far too many) attempts, I realised it wasn't my fault that the advice wasn't working.

As it turned out, that kind of behaviour worked for some combination of physical traits that I, unfortunately, did not possess. For those people, it worked better than I could ever have imagined, and it was almost astounding, the inherent respect assigned to a kind of behaviour which to my mind was, in a way, obtrusive and rude – but there was no denying that it worked.

The way that I could get out of (luckily, the very few) tricky situations I found myself in was by playing to the judgements and preconceptions that people made based upon my physical appearance. I wore a ring on my ring finger, and made up a fictional husband; I smiled at potentially threatening looking men, and tried to disarm them with small talk of their sisters and mothers; I laughed far too much at unfunny jokes... and realised that I'd found my own 'wise words.'

But while doing so then, and now, I'm conscious that I am, in a way, strengthening the very judgements and perceptions which frustrate me so much. Clearly, me getting angry at an egotistical man at a border crossing is not going to get me anywhere; but is me smiling and laughing along with his awful, self-important jokes in order to play to his ego and get myself across the border, actually any better?

Sadly, pragmatically speaking, yes. It gets me safely out of that situation, and that (in this case) is the main thing.

But then, how to change their perceptions and judgements? I suspect the answer lies not in behaving differently in difficult situations – there, I stand by the tactic of doing whatever you can to get safely out of said situation – but through other means, coming from the culture in question itself, namely education and awareness.

Being aware of how different cultures react to different demographics, and bearing that in mind while receiving advice has been very valuable, though. In retrospect, it probably took me longer than it should have done to reach that conclusion rather than simply trying, trying and trying a failing method again.

It's also made me, I hope, a bit more conscious of what I say to whom when I'm attempting to impart advice upon people; the tactics I use would in many cases not work for other people from other demographics, with different physical characteristics. I'm not saying by any means that this is right, or this is the way it should be; but pragmatically speaking, giving and imparting advice needs to take into account external factors as to whether it would, or could, be relevant for the other person. 

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