I’m sick today. Physically ill and heart-sick. I wrote to my teaching colleague this morning to tell her that I was sorry that I wouldn’t be in and that I was sorry that my country had voted to treat her – a Polish citizen – as ‘not one of us’.
One of them
Because that’s the flip side of the referendum. “We don’t want to be part of them” says something to them. Like the boy who moved his chair as far away from the girl in the neighbouring place at a shared desk. “How do you think it makes her feel?” I finally asked, in exasperation, as he resolutely refused to sit within two feet of her.
The thing is, I’m one of them. I always have been (born in Iraq, lived in Dusseldorf, Malaysia and Pakistan before living for two years in Luton and then spending all my school holidays in Swaziland and Paris until I turned 18). I have little recollection of Germany but know it felt good not to be confined to British affinities when I was in other countries.
And that word sums it up. Affinity. Its etymology derives from ad (meaning ‘to’) and finis (meaning ‘borders’). If I find a border, I want to stray across it, explore it, absorb some of what it means, what it feels like to be from across that notional line. It also derives from the concept of marriage. We choose who we marry – thankfully, in civilised societies, regardless of gender identity and sexual preference. We are different individuals but we seek – and find – common ground.
I’ve worked a little with people from other nationalities. My most striking experience was running a series of training events for 3M Europe. Most participants were German, though there was a scattering of French, Italian, Belgian and American citizens. I and my colleague, a South African of Afrikaaner heritage, found that we felt most affinity with the Germans. We were struck by their collaborative approach, humbled by the way that they switched their conversation from German to English the moment we walked up and most closely identified with their ability to articulate both sides of arguments. We laughed at the way in which, when we announced the end of the coffee break, the Germans were sitting ready to start and the French were waving from the door as they went to light up another cigarette.
The Americans, by contrast, seemed very different. While we spoke the same language and had some common cultural experience, we were very different in the way we dealt with others. The Americans (and a sample of two isn’t at all representative) always seemed to be right, always seemed to be condescendingly baffled by their European colleagues. Graham and I concluded that we were Europeans, first and foremost. I found the same when working with American consortium partners in a major construction project. It is not an experience I would want to repeat.
Nor, I might say, would I want to see a repeat of an incident in which the British head of construction in one of our national utilities used an open-book alliancing arrangement to get one over on a much larger European engineering ‘partner’. Rather than ‘British values’, or even ‘European values’, I’d like to work with people who espouse ‘respectful values’. I know people of many nationalities – not just European or American – who live by these values.
I’m going to describe a situation I oversaw as it illustrates the very best and worst of behaviour. I’ve been training adults and children since 1994, using a variety of team games to draw out lessons in collaboration and leadership. I could pick many examples but this is about one group of young people. Their tasks were really tough: as individuals in the group, they stood little chance in achieving the stated goal. Where they collaborated (and, of course, this was the point), success was entirely possible. I mixed up the participants so that there was a good balance of genders and approaches.
In one group, a very intelligent and talented boy destroyed the cohesion of the team to such an extent that his fellow participants said they wanted to work in different teams. Individually brilliant, he became so angry when he wasn’t listened to that he separated himself from the group and, worse still, set out to sabotage what they were doing.
In another group, a girl took the lead, not by saying she wanted to be leader but by having the best idea and saying, “Hey guys, let’s do this.” When they followed her lead, she encouraged and directed them. When they suggested their ideas, she listened and, where it seemed to make sense, added her support to the idea. When they complained, she told them to shut up, which they did. That team succeeded: all the other members said they wanted to work with her again.
You could infer the nationalities of these two young people, and might possibly be correct, but that’s irrelevant because we can choose the way we behave towards others.
The Morning After
And last night Britain chose to behave like an aggrieved partner, a sulking child, a “my way or the the highway” kind of person. So we’re looking at a divorce.
I feel like the unhappy child of those divorcing parents. I know I’m made up of both of them, just as I am less directly related to all of humanity. They’re going to be talking – in calm voices so they don’t upset the children – about how to divide up their belongings, their finances, their hitherto shared lives. I don’t want to have to make a choice over which parent I live with, with which siblings I most want to associate. I just wish our parents – and here the metaphor collapses in on itself and fails – I just wish we had been more grown-up and thought about our children’s futures.
It’s not just our children we’ve stuffed up. My parents who, as French residents, couldn’t vote, are paid their pension in sterling, that currency which just took a nose-dive. They are trying to sell their house so that they can end their days securely. Our desire to rid ourselves of migrants will now impoverish these migrants. My mum and dad. That’s one reason why I may not be talking to you.
I heard back from my bright, hard-working Polish colleague. She is devastated. Happy now?