Tag Archives: identity

Awkward Conversations with Foreign People

tea-cup1

Hello, reader!  How’s the world treating you today?

One of the best things about living in England is the mutliculturalism.  (What makes it even better is that every time someone says that, Nigel Farage gets a stabbing pain behind his eye.  I have absolutely no evidence to back that up, but you never know…)  This is particularly relevant in London: did you see the re-imagined tube map showing the languages spoken in different parts of London?  Here it is.  How cool is that?!

I don’t understand why UKIP, racists and other generic twats get their knickers in such a twist about British identity.  Firstly, other nationalities have all sorts of beautiful, fascinating and useful things to teach us, as evidenced by all the purloined objects in the British Museum.  If we didn’t think that foreign stuff was cool, we wouldn’t have nicked it in the first place.  Secondly, we’ve kept all the Britishness we’ll ever need.  Seriously, we have.  There are certain British values which to this day remain undiluted, unwavering and inexplicable to people from elsewhere.  Our identity as a nation and our global reputation rest upon these unshakeable pillars of completely peculiar principles.  Here are some examples of things which we Brits are totally fine with, but which we find difficult to explain to people from other countries:

Bonfire Night
“About four hundred years ago, a bloke with a bit of a chip on his shoulder tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, so now we burn effigies of him.”
“And this is a happy time?”
“Oh, yes.  Fireworks, fairground rides, family outings.  All good fun.”
“You celebrate a four-hundred year-old terrorist attack.”
“…Well, yes.  But it’s a failed terrorist attack, if that helps.”

Queueing
“You just stand in the line?”
“You just stand in the line.”
“What if you’re in a hurry?”
“You have to wait.”
“What if you need the toilet?”
“You wait.”
“What if your feet get pins and needles?!”
“You just wait.”
“What if somebody jumps the queue?”
“Ah, well that’s different!  In that case, you TUT.”
“Yeah?”
Very loudly.  And then you carry on waiting.”

Why Tea is So Important
“It just is.”
“But why?”
“It’s traditional.  It’s English.”
“It’s Chinese, actually.”
“Yes, alright, but we like it over here, too!  It’s comforting!”
“How so?”
“Because it’s…hot?”
“So is coffee.”
“Yes, but…”
“And hot chocolate.  Hence the name, ‘hot’ chocolate.”
“Yes, but you wouldn’t find the queen serving hot chocolate to her guests at Windsor, would you?  She’d serve tea.”
“She’d serve coffee to the Americans, I think.”
“Perhaps.”
“And actually, I don’t think she’d be serving it.  I think she has staff to do that.”
“I’m not having this conversation.  Go and put the kettle on.”

Talking About the Weather
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, comment upon the weather.”
“Why?”
“Because weather is the ONLY thing that you can talk about with absolutely anyone at all, without needing any prior knowledge of them as a person.  Unlike religion, politics, current affairs, art and literature, talking about the weather doesn’t involve having an opinion or risk offending someone else.  It’s an excellent way to start or maintain a conversation with someone by purely stating empirical, uncontroversial facts. No one can argue with ‘nice day today, isn’t it?'”
“If you don’t want to talk to someone about their opinions or discuss interesting topics, why on earth are you talking to them?”
“…I have no idea.”

Sarcasm
“So you’re saying one thing, but you mean the opposite.”
“Yeah.  It’s a type of humour.”
“But why do you need it?  Why can’t you just say what you mean, like America does?”
“Oh yeah, because British people would love to be more like America.”
“Really?”
“NO.  THAT WAS SARCASM.”

So there you have it: the British identity in a nutshell.  Obviously those are all a bit silly, but you know what I mean: we’re a pretty odd bunch, and our identity as a nation isn’t going anywhere.  We are the affable, slightly strange grandfather at the global dinner table, and we’re ok with that.  We also need to be ok with other cultural identities, even if they seem strange to us.  Bearing that in mind, could somebody take Farage’s toys away and send him to his room?  No dessert for intolerant eejits, I’m afraid.

Have an amazing Tuesday!

Sweet Little Lies?

proctorpeque_by_nuriwan-d7lj8dt

Hello there, reader!  How’s your week been?

Last night I got to see The Crucible at the Old Vic, which was excellent in many ways (Richard Armitage as John Proctor being the main one), and exhausting in others (the play finished at 11pm, and in the short time since I got home from Edinburgh Fringe I’ve lost the knack of staying out quite so late).  Arthur Miller’s retelling of the Salem Witch Trials is a fascinating story which, in its essence, examines what can happen when a lie gets spectacularly away from you.

We lie all the time, don’t we?  I’m not suggesting that we make stuff up from dawn ’til dusk every day, of course, but no one can say that they are completely truthful one hundred percent of the time.  Most of our lies are innocuous.  We exaggerate occurrences to add a bit more drama, or we tweak anecdotes to make them funnier.  Moving slightly further along the white-to-black scale of lies, we might hide certain things from loved ones because we don’t want to hurt them, or elect not to get involved with a dispute between friends when we know what actually happened.

There are two things to consider about this: first of all, when we lie in the smallest ways we are editing ourselves, and our lives warp incrementally because of this.  If we can convince ourselves and others that the funnier version of an anecdote actually happened, for example, then we are leading ourselves to believe that our lives are more artfully contrived than they actually are.  We adapt our identities in minuscule ways in order to format our experiences; we are fulfilling a role.  (I wrote an article for Miro Magazine that relates to this – give it a read and let me know what you think.)

The second thing is that we have no way of knowing what effect our lies will have.  If we choose to tell a white lie to protect someone, or hide information that we think would be upsetting, we are depriving other people of the opportunity to respond to the truth.  However good our intentions may be, if we love and respect someone we need to give them the chance to deal with the reality of a situation, even if we don’t think it will be pretty.  We would want the same thing if we were in their shoes, wouldn’t we?

The Crucible is a very extreme example of why lying is bad – people lose their dignity, reputations, property and lives because of a fiction invented by some highly-strung girls.  (It’s also not exactly a context that we can relate to: the story hinges on the fact that some girls were seen dancing in the forest, and dancing was most definitely Not Allowed in Massachussetts circa 1690.  The idea of anyone trying to stop my friends dancing circa 2014 is beyond laughable.)  Having said that, lies can have extreme consequences.  They might not result in death and defamation, but they can certainly cause long-lasting damage.

Also, don’t edit yourself when you’re telling a story.  You are wonderful just as you are, and someone who really loves you will find you hilarious, even if the anecdote isn’t actually all that.

Have a gorgeous weekend.  Make sure you get a decent lie-in at some point.

Get Off the Roundabout

Magic_roundabout

Hello, you lovely thing. How’s your Wednesday treating you so far?

Today is a sad day. Today I have decided to give up on a book, which never happens.  The book in questions is Howards End, and I’m having to give up because so far I hate pretty much all of the characters. Also, E.M. Forster’s writing style is incredibly long-winded and patronising. The story might actually be quite interesting, but I wouldn’t know because the narrative is sending me to sleep.

Anyway, giving up on a book made me question my personality, my priorities and the inner workings of my very soul (or perhaps something a little bit less melodramatic). I’m being silly, but the truth is that when we choose to give up on something that we consider a big part of who we are, it does tend to make us stop and think.

A friend of mine who loves cheer leading is having to give it up due to health problems, which is a huge shame. When we are forced by circumstance to give up on something we love, there can be an element of resentment and feeling hard done by.  Is it better, then, to be able to choose to give up?  Is there more dignity in a decision than there is in obligation?

Yes and no.  Making the decision to give up something – a vice, a pastime, an unhealthy relationship – gives us a feeling of control and self-discipline, which can be very good for us.  Having said that, we are only making the decisions now because we know that later on the decision will be taken away from us, and it will become a case of necessity rather than independent action.

The other thing to consider is that you are not defined by the sort of things that you might find yourself giving up, even if it was a potential (or current) career.  I am not defined by the fact that I read a lot, any more than you are defined by your typical Saturday afternoon activities or your preference of hot beverage.

Besides, people change all of the time.  You are not who you were a couple of years ago, and you are not who you will be next week.  You never know what life is going to give you, and if you have to give something else up in order to move forward, so be it.  You might spend years thinking of yourself in one way, and then find that you’ve been going round and round and getting nowhere.  Get off the roundabout and find something new.

Have a stupendously enjoyable Wednesday.  May your lunch be truly worthy of Instagramming.

CV Essentials

1202 - Bad Job Interview

Hello, dear reader.  How are you?

Have you ever looked at your own CV and thought “who the hell is this?”  Our CV-selves are not us.  They are more smug, they exaggerate their importance in previous job roles, and they are way too hung up on when exactly they got their Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award.

The problem is that CVs don’t say much about who we really are.  For instance, my GCSE in Photography does not indicate anything about my pathological fear of being late for things, and the latter of those two definitely informs more of my identity.

Even when we are allowed to reveal something about who we are, such as when we are asked to list our strengths and weaknesses, we are obliged to transform our real characteristics into meek-faced, employable ones.  For example: your actual weaknesses may be drinking milk out of the bottle and stalking your ex on Facebook.  In a job interview, you would demurely confide that you might sometimes be a bit too much of a perfectionist about work tasks.

So what should actually go on our CVs?  Which facts and figures can we use to truly represent who we are?  I have a few ideas of things that would say a lot about us as real people:

  • Stories from friends – what do your friends say about you?  When they bring you up in conversation, which anecdote would they tell first?  My friends would probably go for “the time Vicki locked herself in her own porch”, which I’m sure speaks volumes about my grasp on life.
  • Speciality dish – what’s your favourite thing to cook?  Is it a big dish that serves lots of people, or a snazzy starter that requires obscure spices?  Where did you learn how to make it?  Did your grandmother teach you?  Is it a recipe you picked up while travelling abroad?
  • Emergency – never mind that “tell us about a time you had to solve a problem at work” stuff – how do you actually respond to emergency situations?  That’s your instincts taking over, which say a heck of a lot about you.
  • Childhood character – who did you play in your primary school Nativity? No, seriously, think about it: everyone knows a pretty, popular girl who played Mary, a mild-mannered ex-Shepherd and a seriously disgruntled Third Guest at the Inn who feels overlooked in life.  (I was a Narrator.  That makes sense, right?  I do like to describe stuff.)
  • Conflict – again, not in a serious “how would you resolve a dispute with a colleague?” way, but in day-to-day life.  Are you prone to bickering with your partner?  Do you lose your temper when a friend tells you that you’re wrong?  Do you bury your head in the sand and refuse to confront an issue?
  • Strength and weakness – what are your actual, truthful, honest-to-goodness strengths and weaknesses?  Are you a Candy Crush addict?  Do your friends usually turn to you in a crisis?  Have you ever cheated on someone?  Do you tend to make newcomers feel welcome in social situations?  Are you one of those appalling people who doesn’t put their hand in front of their mouth when they cough?

Our CVs encourage us to present a modified version of who we are in order to be employable entities.  Of course we should present ourselves in the best possible light to the world, but I think that the real people are far more fun and interesting than their class of university degree.

Have a magical Friday.  If anyone finds Narnia, give me a shout.

Tricky Definitions

definition

Happy Friday everyone!  I hope you’ve all decided whether to sit in the front seat or the back seat.  These are the kind of decisions that can really make or break the start of your weekend.

Today’s blog is about definitions, and why they can be really good OR spectacularly awful.  We use them all the time, perhaps without even realising in some cases.  Definitions are meant to provide clarity and make something that is unknown more imaginable, but in some situations they may do more harm than good.

Let’s start with the basics: a dictionary defines words for us.  This is a wonderful thing, except when people start a speech or essay with the words “The Oxford English Dictionary defines (insert random abstract noun) as follows”.  That needs to stop.

In terms of human definitions, the most obvious initial one is whether a person is male or female.  Without delving too far into the complex issue of gender politics, I do think that this is quite an interesting one.  Firstly, there are people who are biologically one gender who identify more strongly with the other, and some prefer an androgynous identity.  In literature, many authors have chosen to use their initials rather than gender-specific first names: P.D. James, for example, and J. K. Rowling.  Again, I really am not trying to start a debate about whether women are at a disadvantage in literary circles and anonymity is necessary, but I do think it’s interesting that something as arbitrary as gender definition has a role in somebody’s reputation as a writer.

Physical definitions are incredibly tricky, and they come up most often in life.  When you’re talking to a friend and describing someone they can’t remember, physical definition is the first thing you turn to: “You know Simon.  Tall, dark hair.  Always wears a leather jacket.”  That’s not a bad thing necessarily, because it’s an aide to memory, but in some cases it can get pretty nasty.  Online dating profiles, for example, or when discussing the pros and cons of a potential partner: “She’s nice, but she’s got a really big nose.”  “I’m a curvy, bubbly socialite with long, blonde hair.”  Cringe o’clock.  These definitions are more disturbing than the memory aides because they are not about reinforcing a previous observation: they are about trying to create a mental picture of someone that allows you to judge them.  Why is an appearance-based picture of someone more important than what they’re actually like?

Appearance-based definitions are absolutely huge in the performing arts world.  Casting briefs can be incredibly specific about height, weight, eye colour and all sorts of other physical attributes.  As a writer and director I understand that you may have a very clear mental image of what a character needs to look like, but my favourite thing about casting is when somebody surprises you by being like the character, not necessarily looking like them.  On a fundamental level, I resent the idea that you could go through life being an extremely talented actor who doesn’t look “marketable”, and therefore miss out on work.  What on earth is the point of investing thousands of pounds in your education at a drama school, working hard to develop your skills and repertoire, only to discover that you just don’t look right?

Sometimes definitions can be helpful.  In rehearsals, I encourage my actors to work out as much specific detail about their characters as possible: favourite foods, pet peeves, family backgrounds and more.  These definitions may never be referred to in the performance, but they help the actors to build up as complete a mental picture as possible of who they are trying to portray.  But here’s the thing: this mental picture is based on personality attributes, not physical, and it’s there to help them do their jobs.

The issue of relationship status definition is among the most prevalent in today’s society, particularly for people my age: as those of you who have read this blog post will know, I hate the entire damn thing.  “We’re just dating.”  “We’re sort of seeing each other.”  “We’re not official.”  FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, people who are “officially” together do not have a certificate from the government or a permit from their local council; they’re just together.  And whatever you are to someone, it doesn’t matter in the slightest how the rest of the world sees your relationship as long as YOU know what the terms are.  What good does it do you if you tell your friends that you’re “not exclusive” with someone if, when they go out and sleep with someone else, it upsets you because you secretly hoped that the relationship was more serious than that?  Well, you may THINK you feel emotionally betrayed, but actually your social circle can testify that your relationship definition was “non-exclusive”, so actually you have no right to be sad.  Oh, ok.  I’ll switch my emotions off, then.  Ridiculous.

The main thing about definitions is that, if we do need to use them, I think we should use them for good things.  Aides to memory – fine.  Character analysis – fine.  (I hope so, anyway, because I get my actors to do a lot of work on that!)  But definitions that reduce a person in any way, or encourage others to judge them for something completely arbitrary, are a no-no.

Have a lovely Friday.  May your trains/buses/flying monkeys run exactly to schedule.