I travel a lot and when I travel I meet people. I meet 5 to 10 new people a week. I engage with people as I learn about the city. I might walk into a busy café, sit near some people and make a point of initiating conversation with them. I don’t crowd them of course. I just broach something simple and then leave them in peace. Often they will insist they continue the conversation with me, I assume if they find me interesting.
So for example, if I’ve been taking photos all day I might say something like:
‘I notice this city is a very green city, with dark brown buildings. It has marvelous colouring and it’s a great city to photograph. I’ve only seen the centre but do you know if there is anywhere I should definitely go for good photos’.
I don’t just say, ‘where is good for photos’. I make it a bit more interesting, let them see a part of my personality. Half the time they just give me a location and then smile and go back to their own conversation and that’s fine, but another half of the time, and it is about half and half, they enthusiastically pursue conversation with me. ‘So where are you from’. I tell them ‘London’ and they push for more, ask about London, ask what I am doing in their city, where else I have been. It’s their choice and they pursue my company, so I know I am not intruding, like a horrific tourist version of David Brent.
I’ve met so many great people and made even some long term friendships this way. A week in a city will typically turn up at least 10 new acquaintances from all walks of life who I will have actually spent extended time with, going to bars, parties, picnics, whatever. The point being though… I meet lots of people from all over the world, of all demographics, far more I expect than the average person.
One thing I find astounding is how the rest of the world views social politics completely differently from the UK. I’d say the UK, USA, Canada and some northern Europeans have such determinedly enlightened views on social issues that you have to tread a bit carefully, because if you don’t conform to the general consensus, you can end up in quite serious trouble. A slip of the tongue or a slight generalization can cause deep offence.
Example: A few years ago I worked at a large blue chip in South London. My colleagues knew I was about 34 and my girlfriend at the time was 23. They used to lampoon me about it on an almost daily basis. They’d joshingly call me ‘Glitter’. They’d make allusions and offer their gentle disapproval. They’d ask me why I can’t get a woman my own age and insist that my girlfriend was only with me for my money.
When I one day suggested my girlfriend liked me being older because women often like men with leadership, I was two days later called into a meeting with my line manager and given a verbal warning. I was no longer to say that men are better than women and make sexist statements in the office. I disputed I’d ever done that and I was told ‘well whatever you say, don’t say it’.
I’m still not 100% sure what happened. My only theory is that I didn’t say the word often clearly enough, or maybe I should have said sometimes, or maybe not discussed men or women as homogeneous groups. It was simply that I just didn’t carefully think before speaking. They were pushing me for an answer.
In the newspaper recently, one of the Trojan horse ringleaders in Birmingham was being lambasted for being sexist. He said ‘Women are emotionally weaker than men’. Taking away the fact he is a despicable character, the statement ‘women are emotionally weaker than men’ is seen in the UK as being abhorrent, unacceptable and sexist, whoever is saying it. If you say it, you’d better watch out.
Then comes the rest of the world. They believe that women are emotionally weaker than men. As the sky is blue. I meet a lot of people. None of them hold the same attitudes to the UK. It’s like another planet. Bigotry is not banned, it might not be accepted, but the opinion isn’t banned. Keeping with the gender issue, they are actually firmly on the other side of the coin to us. Here is a conversation I had in a café last night with a beautiful Russian girl.
Me: ‘……. So we dated for about a year and it was great, she was marvellous girl’
Her: ‘Then why did you break up’.
Me: ‘Well she went back to Australia’.
HER: ‘She should have stayed here with you. When a woman meets a man she loves she will follow him, she will join his life. The man doesn’t follow the woman, she wants a leader.’
Can you imagine someone saying that?!? It’s astounding. I’d be fired for saying that. I have to tell you though, this is not an isolated incident. This is accepted, unassailable dogma across most places I travel. I hear it all the time.
They lag so far behind the UK in their thinking, they are almost in the dark ages.
I get to thinking sometimes if maybe we’re not arrogant a little bit. ‘They lag behind us’. We’re a minority so damn sure of our beliefs that we view the entire rest of the world as lagging behind us.
Their central themes seem to be that people are not the same. There are clear differences between the races and the sexes. They point to scientific evidence. It runs contrary to my entire life’s learning. I cannot accept this thinking of the dark ages, but I am struggling to find a way to deny their position.
On the one side, in the UK, while I am on their side of the coin, I do feel worried now when talking about certain subjects, so I keep my mouth shut these days in case I accidentally step on a trap. If something happens in truth, I have to filter the truth and represent a slightly coloured version that hopefully fits the individual sensitivities of the audience I am addressing. However, on the other hand, in Europe I am exposed to old fashioned values by gentle, friendly people who never harm me and argue with science rather than threats of dismissal.
Is there any way we can discuss things kindly and truthfully without denouncing each other to the authorities?
My current strategy is simply to tone down my social interactions here in the UK, to not get involved in work discussions and to just have a slightly under the radar personal life. I am very careful about who I befriend and really, while here, I just get my head down and work and bank the money. It’s not safe to speak too freely. While the Europeans have some dodgy opinions, they are wonderful, gentle, open, company and I prefer that, so I will go there.
While I am not comfortable with the Europeans position, they’ve never denounced me to my bosses and risked me my job. The rules are a bit clearer: They’re a bit old fashioned but they do allow people to hold and say whatever opinion they like so at least things can be discussed. If a Russian girl is happy to tell me she wants a man to support her in life, then where are my grounds to attack her for it?
I told this story to a friend of mine here in London, who is an enlightened, socially engaged lady, committed to a fight against bigotry and her response was: ‘Well those Eastern Europeans still have a village mentality, they are all in the dark ages a bit’.
I hate to say it, but I see not a small amount of irony in that.