In true group therapy style, I’d like to start this week with a brief exploration of my own inadequacy.  On holiday in Crete this summer (it was wonderful, thank you for asking) I took great delight in pointing out the hilarious spelling mistakes on Taverna blackboards (you know the kind of thing: Traditional Greek Cousin served here, Come To Irish Pub and try our Genius, etc). How could I stoop so low?  And me with a University education as well.  

I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for indulging in this patronising pastime.  It is, after all, an all-pervasive form of humour, known to intellectuals as The Civilised Snarl. Ostensibly, we are baring our teeth in laughter, but subliminally what we are doing is what pack animals do – baring our teeth at the weaker members of the group to show them who’s boss.  In this case, the weaker animals are the foreign buffoons who are too thick to use proper English.

I’m fascinated by this indelible correlation we create between errors of language and limited intelligence. I mean, they’re Greek, for goodness sake! How many of the British holidaymakers delighting in these malapropisms could themselves invite someone for a meal in a second language?  Yet we relentlessly take inadequacies of self-expression, abroad or at home, as demonstrations of inadequacies of personality – as John Prescott knows only too well.

And it’s not just the words, it’s the way you say them.  I was running a Development Centre a while back when the client took me aside and asked me to pay particular attention to a certain participant.  “I’ve been trying to convince him that his accent holds him back in his career,” said my client.  The accent in question was a particularly strong regional accent from the North of England.  Was it holding him back in his career?  I’m sure it was.  It’s a moral minefield but, as anyone from the West Midlands knows, a part of reality.  Margaret Thatcher, Trevor McDonald and Nicholas Parsons all sacrificed their natural accents for the sake of career success.

Are you depressed by all of this?  Hang on, it gets worse; it’s not just your vocal channel which gets you into trouble.  I was once invited to bid for a series of high profile management programmes in [insert name of global merchant bank here].  Anxious to make a good impression at an early stage of my independent career, I wore what at the time was the smartest outfit I had: a black blazer, white shirt, tie, and dark grey trousers.  I looked rather like the night duty manager at a Holiday Inn.  The day after the presentation I phoned my contact in the bank to get some feedback.  “They loved the content,” she told me, “but they weren’t sure they could trust you.”  And what, I asked, gave them that impression?  There was an awkward pause.  “You weren’t wearing a suit.” 

And me with a University education as well.  You must have seen it coming, but I certainly didn’t.  It’s a sobering reminder.  Research suggests that most hiring decisions are made within the first 30 seconds of the interview.  That’s probably enough time for you to come in the door and take your seat, even before your Estuary English vowels have filled the room.  Just to tip you further over the edge of despair at this vacuous world we live in, a senior manager once confided in me how his organisation made their promotion decisions: “We watch you walking along the corridor, we half-close our eyes, and we ask: does he look like someone the next level up?”

When I tell that story on workshops, I get howls of outrage.  But, just privately at least, challenge yourself: have you never made such a judgment? Many people in this world measure brainpower by the words people use and the accent they say them in, just as they measure suitability for role by the way people move and what they wear.  It’s back to the pack mentality: is this person one of us?

Am I suggesting that success in life is dependent on having your colours done and talking like Joyce Grenfell?  Well, it rather depends what’s in it for you I suppose.  All I know is, you can value Authenticity all you like, but if you’re so true to yourself that no one lets you through the door, then the gifts you have will go to waste and the shallow minded nincompoops who control the means of entry will win anyway.  As the author Stuart Wilde puts it, “To get beyond life, you have to join.” The creative question is: how do you show the world what it wants to see while holding on to your sense of self-worth?

© Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved