Friday, 13 March 2015

I’m sorry if you think I offended you...

For those of you living without television there is a hoo-ha, or should that be a “fracas”, going on about Jeremy Clarkson, the main presenter of a television show about cars called “Top Gear”.  He allegedly had a “fracas” with a member of the staff and has been suspended by the BBC and the remaining shows cancelled. We wait to hear the outcome – if you want to know about his history put his name into google and you will get 42,500,000 results in 0.25 seconds.

At the time of writing over 750,000 people have signed a petition to have him reinstated. His show is hugely profitable for the BBC and is sold around the world. He is very talented, very funny and, at times, quite offensive. For me the offensiveness outweighed the rest a while back and I no longer watch the show.

It may be regrettable but we all find someone else’s discomfort funny at times. Otherwise we would not laugh at someone slipping on a banana skin – real or metaphorical - not play practical jokes or laugh at them.  As someone who was bullied at primary school I find these things less funny than most – but when does this “jokiness” cross over into bullying, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism etc.  When someone said to me that his family called a Jaguar car a “Jew’s canoe” is that funny or a racist slur?

Then there are apologies: when is an apology not an apology?  The title of this blog is an example. You may not have thought (!) what you said was offensive but I was offended. You either say, “I am sorry I offended you” or shut up. 

Last year John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, criticised MPs for being “sexist, snobbish, yobbish” at Prime Minister’s Questions. This didn’t stop him from intervening when a female Government Minister was answering her 14th question on mental health saying, “I am reminded of the feeling when one thinks the washing machine will stop — but it does not!” In the scheme of things this is not the most offensive thing I have heard but would he have interjected in this way had a man been speaking? 

His apology was also somewhat hedged - “If I caused offence by what I said, I am very happy to apologise to that Member… It was an off the cuff remark, and may well have been a foolish one, and I apologise for it.”

Shall I rephrase for you Mr Bercow:  “If I caused offence by what I said I apologise to that member. It was a foolish off the cuff remark and I apologise.”

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What is racism?

There has been much in the press recently about racism and particularly “political correctness” which appears to have prevented horrendous cases of child abuse being properly dealt with.

Trevor Phillips, the former Head of the Race and Equality Commission, said in an article in the Daily Mail that “we were wrong to try and ban racism out of existence ..... campaigners like me seriously believed that if we could prevent people expressing prejudiced ideas then eventually they would stop thinking them....... only a willingness to talk more openly about race, despite risk of causing offence, will help those in need.”

I welcome these comments. You cannot control people’s thoughts – I hope that you can change their minds and modify their behaviour but when does comment become racism?  Is it comment when someone is suspected of fraud that he is a “Jewish businessman” when other suspects are not identified as a Catholic/Methodist/Presbyterian etc.  If child abuse in a particular area is perpetrated mainly by one religious/ethnic group – is that relevant/significant? 

We are comfortable with “people like us” and there is nothing wrong with that in our immediate circles but we absolutely need to get on with people who are not like us – whether it is because of race, religion, nationality or even education and this has to be taught, experienced and practised.  The more diverse our groups are the more creative we will be.

A friend wrote on Facebook about a racist cabbie he encountered who said he isn't racist because he 'only has a problem with Polish and Bangladeshi cab drivers’.  This reminded me when I came to London in the late 1960s, as white South Africans we were vilified, verbally abused and even spat at – by white people. No one asked why we had left or why we were here.
On the other hand there were people who, when they found out we were white South Africans, made really vile racist comments and were surprised that we were offended. 

As it was International Women’s Day I should point out that prejudice isn’t only confined to race and religion. There is a large population group – too large to be called a minority – that is discriminated against and not sufficiently represented.  They are called women. I quote from the House of Commons note published on International Women’s Day.

“In the UK, on average, women working full-time earn 9.5% less than men. Although women make up 51% of the population in the UK, only 23% of MPs, 25% of judges and 21% FTSE 100 company directors are female.”

We await the results of the election in May – not holding my breath.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Look them in the eye and shake hands

Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays Bank, was widely quoted last week saying that not only do young people need to develop work skills they also need to develop social skills – social media is no substitute for personal interaction.  Employers want to see your work skills but they also want to know that you will integrate and collaborate with colleagues. 

He said “There is absolutely the danger that we will have a lost generation of youngsters if we do not help them develop the skills they will need for the new world of to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and hold your shoulders back.”

Number One Daughter and family live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and everyone shakes hands.  From your guests and their children, your host and their children, the plumber and electrician – anyone who comes through the door to your home and everyone in the home or office you visit. Everyone you encounter will shake your hand on arriving and leaving and the children shake hands with each other too. (That is unless you are friends in which case – three kisses – left, right, left.)

Body language is so important: I remember some years back working for a specialist employment agency where one of my roles was to recruit our own support staff.  The person who handed the job over to me advised me to “watch candidates walk to and from the lift – if they walk slowly, don’t hire them, they will never stand the pace”.  Not sure how you would square that with HR these days but she was surprisingly accurate.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

An imperfect man perhaps, but a perfect hero

Fifty years ago this weekend Winston Churchill died.

I had only been in London for a very few weeks – the first time outside South Africa. If you can imagine, coming from mid summer in Johannesburg, sunny hot days – to a London which was grey and cold. This was before they cleaned up most of the buildings and everything was so dark and so grey and the days so short.

Churchill was old and frail and yet we felt stunned. He was lying in state in Westminster Hall and we went after work. I think we queued for about three or four hours.  It was slightly surreal – cold, damp and the WRVS had trucks serving tea to the people waiting.  I felt as if I had been time-warped back to a war I had never experienced.

I have never felt the need to share in public grief or joy except for this. It was extraordinary and I will never forget it.

My parents were also pleased that we went. In WWII there was no conscription in South Africa – and it was touch and go whether the government of the day would support the Allies or the Axis powers. It was an anxious time, they knew something of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. My father felt morally compelled to act to support Britain's actions in the war – not all did. He volunteered and served as a surgeon on a British hospital ship – the AMRA. 

He felt, and I still do, that if it weren’t for Churchill we would not be here today. Certainly there would be no Jews in Europe – at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, Reinhard Heydrich said that "Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west”.

I am sure that this is simplistic but I do feel that Churchill was the only man in the right place at the right time and I will always be grateful. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Those were the days – well some of them

A friend posted a link on facebook which contrasts the more laissez faire attitude of parents in the 60s and 70s to now.  In some cases I think the changes are a shame – playgrounds that are so safe that they hinder children’s development and in others, no seat belts, smoking everywhere and products to make you suntan faster – thank goodness. 

This set me to reminisce a bit:  growing up in Johannesburg we were desperate to get a tan and sat in the sun as much as possible.  As if that weren’t bad enough, far from using sunscreen we used a variety of things to make us tan – ie burn – quicker.  Two of the ones I remember were salad oil (you stank like a chip-shop) and Brylcreem (smelt equally revolting).  My saving grace was living in the UK most of my life and not getting much more sun – at least I haven’t developed skin cancer as some of those friends who stayed in sunny climates have.

From the age of about 13 or 14 we went out on our bikes for hours on end.  We lived on the edge of suburbia so not much traffic and there were always at least two or three of us.  Our parents couldn’t contact us (no cell phones dear grandchildren) and as long as we were back before dark no one bothered. Not that they were uncaring – that’s just the way it was.  When I started dating and went out with boys in cars – they waited up for me!!

We would drive the 1,000 miles to Cape Town for the summer holidays, mostly driving straight through – about 23 hours.  Our parents would build up the gap between the back of the front seat and the back seat with various bits of luggage and use towels and rugs to make a “bed” for my sister and me. 

The tradition also included stopping for picnic breakfast with omelette sandwiches (in freshly baked challah).  In later years we stopped half way at De Aar and stayed the night in an hotel.  (De Aar is the equivalent of Atlanta for flights – wherever you go you have to change in Atlanta – well De Aar, despite being a small town was (and possibly still is) the same.)

The other vivid memory is the canvas water bag, two of which would hang outside the car.  Dear grandchildren – bottled mineral water didn’t exist and thermos flasks held hot drinks. You filled the canvas water bag with water and the very slow evaporation kept the water cold.  If we were very lucky a garage would sell soft drinks – you could choose between Pepsi, Coke, and fizzy red or fizzy green – goodness knows what the flavours were.

The holiday was an adventure - one year the roof rack flew off the back of the car and we all had to get out, unpack the luggage, put it back on again and repack the luggage – my parents then held it on, each with one arm out of the window (father no doubt driving one handed) until we came to a garage – probably a hundred miles or so.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The boxer, the football pools magnate and my dad!

In around 1952 my father came to London for an operation on his jaw.  It wasn’t a very major operation but as he was a surgeon himself there was some nervousness amongst his colleagues in Johannesburg who would rather it was someone else’s problem.  So to London they came.

Close friends of theirs, Alf and Jessie Cope, were amazing, helping every step of the way.  Surgery was successful and – the story goes – Alf visited my dad in hospital and asked what he would like to do when he was discharged.  Dad said that he would really like to see a boxing match and so it was. The women went to the ballet (of course!) and Dad (on the right) and Alf (centre) went to the Café Royal.  Another guest was Freddie Mills (on the left).

Some background:  Alf was the founder of Cope’s Football Pools. The Football Pools were a major British institution and, until the National Lottery, were the most general gambling pastime. You received your coupon every week, filled in what you thought would be the draws in the football matches on Saturday and hoped. If there were lots of draws the payout was very small but if there were only 8 and you got all of them it could be quite significant.  At a time when I was earning £15 a week we won £1,000 between four of us. 

Freddie Mills had been the World Lightweight Boxing Champion and was very much the post-war golden boy of British boxing. He never made it as a heavyweight and after retirement did some acting, TV presenting, owned a nightclub and apparently associated with some very dodgy characters. He committed suicide or perhaps was murdered in 1965.

Back to the night: I can’t verify any of this as my dad died in 1968 but the story went that after the event he found out that, when Alf couldn’t find a boxing match taking place that week he arranged a programme including putting up the purse. It was apparently reported in the newspapers the following day.  I would love to be able to verify this – but even so, what a great story.

Friday, 28 November 2014

To wear or not to wear – your personal brand

Seems like “brand” is the topic of the week.  I spoke last night as part of a panel at a “Women in Business” seminar at law firm, Taylor Wessing.  The topic was personal brand.  I kicked off with the following:

“Shirley Bassey sang – “The minute you walked in the joint I could see you were a man of distinction”.  For women it isn’t so easy. A male Australian news anchor wore the same suit for every programme for a year. There were no comments.  His female colleague regularly receives comments on what she wears. (see here, especially for her brilliant response).  Margaret Thatcher changed her dress style drastically and lowered her vocal register and Angela Merkel wears black trousers and what looks like the same tailored jacket in different colours every day. We have almost stopped looking at what she is wearing because it is unremarkable.

Some orchestras have blind auditions where the player is behind a screen so that the judgment is made solely on performance – that is unlikely to happen anywhere else. When you walk into a room or up on the podium – people make snap judgments in the first 30 seconds – not intentionally, not accurately, it isn’t fair ...   but that’s the way it is. 

So if we are talking about your personal brand – how you look counts and it is much more complicated than in the 70s when John Molloy published a book called Dress For Success for Women when the boundaries between business and casual dress were clearer. When I left the City I opened my wardrobe and there were the suits – black, charcoal, navy.  On the other hand when I was Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, wherever possible I wore pink, the more dark suits there were in the room, the more visible I was.”

The rest of the presentation and much of the discussion covered a wide range of issues around personal brand but what was glaringly obvious when you walked into that room is that 90% of the women (including me!) were wearing black and this provoked quite a discussion.

One of our hosts spoke about Barack Obama who wears the same style of suit every day because he has enough decisions to make and doesn’t want to have to think about what he wears. He is not alone – Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein the same. Gary Player has always worn all black and that was quite shocking amongst the lurid colours on the golf course. The great British dress designer, Jean Muir, wore black in winter and navy in summer and Grace Coddington (Vogue) only wears all black. 

There are two motivations here – the first is not to have to think about what you are going to wear and the second is to make a statement.  Obama and Merkel don’t want to think about what they are going to wear and are taking your attention beyond what they are wearing. Player and Coddington are perhaps making a statement.

If you want your audience to move beyond what you are wearing I am afraid that it needs to be unremarkable in the specific environment – unless you want to make a statement and build this into your personal brand – Suzy Menkes’ rather strange hairstyle is an example – but then she is in the fashion business.