Sunday, 28 March 2010

To Lose One Hour May Be Considered a Misfortune...

Proving a hypocrite of myself, after I blathered on about being a night person, it is not yet 11pm and I am knackered. This is because I put the time on my phone one hour forward (BST) just before I set the alarm last night, only to discover this morning that it was automatic. 

So, I lost 2 hours sleep last night....which could be considered careless. 

Is Prejudice in the Eye of the Beholder?

I am OBSESSED with people watching. People having cosy one to ones, people in groups, people having arguments, people enduring small talk - you name it, I’ll have peered at it, spy-like, over the top of a newspaper at some point in my life. Human behaviour, and more specifically social interaction is thick in the air wherever you go so I’m constantly entertained. Breaking it down further, social interaction drips with social convention at which point - ooooh mama - things really start hotting up. 

One of the most curious aspects of social convention is the complexity of how general prejudices - and consequently, hierarchies - are conveyed. All around us are stealth prejudices and society is their cover, essentially providing diplomatic immunity to what, in more blatant form, would cause acute embarrassment. One to watch closely, pun intended, is eye contact or who people choose to look at. This is a group tactic which reveals just how much people seem to know ‘their place‘ and how much we abide by the rules of convention. How? Because eye contact is a highly efficient controller of who gets to speak. Being looked at tells us if we've been noticed, whether we're welcome or conversely whether we are invisible or being ignored. 

At its simplest, when someone of status is in the room all eyes will be upon them. If we want to punish or ostracise someone, we look away. The royals of times gone by would fix their eyes on the middle distance to signify their superiority. And one of the best ways to freak someone out is to stare unblinkingly at them (and one of the most fun). All examples of the power of the gaze and how big a signal it is to us. 

Before you stop reading, I’m not trying to patronise you. Merely trying to ease you gently into the seedy underworld of eye-ball bigotry because it doesn’t stop there my friend. It just gets somewhat insidious. A group of people standing around talking to one another will be subconsciously ranked, rated and judged by each and every member of the group. But where they get placed and what happens next is not entirely under their control. 

Looking at a widely recognised prejudice, such as racism, it is not uncommon for this mindset to display itself in this way, so for example black people may be given less time to talk and fewer opportunities to do so. Using the tactic of switching the focus of the eyes, it tells the speaker that their time is up, the group have moved on. Bit like Britain’s Got Talent really and about as fairly judged. 

It’s such a subtle and apparently meaningless action that it is unlikely to be challenged and in fact manners dictate that it would be petty to do so. More likely it will go totally unnoticed by all. However, it’s the repetition of such actions that concerns me. Victims of prejudice will see this same pattern repeated time and time again in their lives. It reinforces the sense of privilege in the ‘dominants’ and diminishes the self esteem of the ‘victim’. So it’s not so much the enormity of the action itself, but the repeated nature of it that speaks volumes and shapes how people view themselves. 

This shows up in examples of racism, sexism and homophobia but also (and you don’t need to look too carefully for this) illustrates the class system is still alive and well. I’ve witnessed this based on physical appearance, attractiveness (not as straight-forward as you think, depending on the group, you could be on the bottom rung for being pretty), education, money, height. 

The dynamics of the group matter certainly and some people will always be attention grabbing, controlling little despots whoever is unfortunate to be around them. Others are oblivious to any signs put out by others anyway and will steam into any conversation regardless. And so, as the age old idiom tells us, does personality matter - it goes a long way apparently. But while being a gloriously loud-mouthed strumpet may get you noticed and win you a slice of the conversation, it doesn’t protect you from being judged more harshly and so isn’t always the answer it seems to be. 

Conventional attitudes work in mysterious ways and I would add that the perpetrators may be adhering to stereotypes but may themselves not be the stereotypical perpetrators. I find women to be pretty harsh towards other women in this context. 

So, effectively (or ineffectively, you decide), what I’m saying is that there are still ways in which we discriminate and belittle people, completely without our knowledge. If you feel yourself taking umbrage at what I’m saying then please don’t. It has nothing to do with blame. While those who come right out with wincingly prejudiced comments can be held accountable due to the amount of information around in society today, the rest of us are merely acting in a manner we witness in others, unchallenged, every day and have done since we were children. This is why I hold convention responsible rather than interaction. It just doesn’t hurt to rethink it once in a while. 

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Help! - Not Just Anybody...

For reasons you wouldn’t thank me for going into, I have spent a couple of hours this morning talking to someone with serious relationship problems. Sobbing, wailing, shouting, “Why?! Why did this have to happen?!” - I eventually calmed down and decided to try and help her. 

‘Not the compassionate type then Antigone?’, you may say. But actually (she says defensively) it has nothing to do with being uncaring. And here is my defence: what should be the outcome of caring about someone who is in need? What should said caring amount to? Surely it should be doing something that would actually help them. 

And this is where my problem lies. Or maybe more accurately, my dilemma. It’s not a new one for me as I used to work in care work and had to endlessly fight against the common public belief that you mollycoddle someone better. Nice idea but one that is utterly toothless. Not that there’s anything wrong with a cup of tea and some sympathy from time to time but for anything more complex than a rotten day it’s not going to cut the mustard in the long term. Potentially it feeds the self pitying (however justifiable) and prolongs the heartache.  

Before you judge me to be totally heartless, can I add that tough love isn’t much of a solution either. This approach is mostly ego driven nonsense in my opinion. It makes the Tough Love Terminators amongst us feel somehow superior but invariably they offer no more real help than the cup of tea & sympathy types. They change nothing - other than the atmosphere in the room, of course. 

I’ve yet to meet anyone who combines the two by throwing cups of tea in people’s faces for their own good, but beware. 

So why is it that these two types seem to be the most popular - the acceptable faces of help? In a nutshell, because they are so much easier. Those who care - professionally, voluntarily or those just helping a mate - know it’s much more demanding than either of the above but are rarely acknowledged for it. 

Helping means affecting actual change wherever you can and this entails battling away at getting people to face up to the truth and then ultimately helping themselves. 

This is where society’s disesteemed ‘do-gooders’ sometimes fall short. I say ‘sometimes’ quite deliberately here as they get such a bad press it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. They may fail or even make situations worse but they are criticised and vilified by those people who are busy doing precisely nothing. And at least they’re trying. I bet some of that ‘good’ has got to hit the mark sometimes! Maybe the more practical types who dislike the pipe dreams of these gentler souls would care to lend a hand once in a while? Thought as much. 

Doing the right thing is commonly the hardest option. Helping is no exception to this rule. Ongoing tea and sympathy can be used to avoid the responsibility of actually doing anything, tough love protects you from having to actually feel anything. Find the friend who’ll empathise and get cracking with a plan of action until you’re strong enough to take over the reigns, and you’re onto a winner. 

So, back to my hapless friend, and the reason why I’m getting so defensive about those trying to offer real help. Turns out she doesn’t think it’s high time she started to let go of her now long finished relationship and take control of her life a little more. Neither does she think that changing the present is her only option because changing the past isn’t possible. And she doesn’t seem to think I’ve been much help. 

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Why I'm Always Broke

My life is one long list of excuses. This is because I am very good at lists. If I’d concentrated on lists of things I’m good at or have achieved then I never would have discovered my talent for list making in the first place, so every cloud has a silver lining. 

One of the excuses that remains consistently at the top of my list though, is why I never have any money. You might assume this to be because I’m a spendthrift who’s incapable of appreciating the value of money. Or a firm believer in the importance of keeping money in circulation. Or really dumb. This is not so (mostly). I’ll have you know that I’m actually quite careful with the pennies and can tighten my belt when needs be. 

I know people who always seem to be well off. I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as the most talented or intelligent amongst my friends but money seems to actively seek them out. I very much doubt that it has anything to do with them finding their money bagging vocation either. It seems that whatever they turn their hand to, they’ll rake it in. 

Being good at making lots of money is a skill. I however, lack an aptitude. I’m good enough with ideas, reasonably intelligent and have been lauded enough in jobs past and present enough to feel that I’m not a useless klutz. But I can never quite translate that into mega bucks - or more accurately, pounds. I think I lack the killer instinct. Money makers always seem to be those who rabidly chase after opportunities - they lock their goal in sight and stop at nothing. At other times it seems to be about people skills and natural net workers always seem to be rolling in it. 

Mostly, no one seems to begrudge them their success however and they’re praised and respected for their achievements so why do I always worry that I’ll offend if I go for it? I simply cannot get past the fear that people will see through me. That they’ll find me shallow or vulgar. Or maybe it’s because I’d find myself shallow and vulgar?

It’s not only a fear of what people will think of me though, it’s also that I cannot translate what is happening right now into the rewards of the future. I am Queen Shrug of Shoulders when it comes to steely determination. I’m fine with working hard but must be engrossed in the moment for it to matter to me. Picturing the piles of money that will come my way if I beaver away at inane and boring tasks is frankly crazy talk in my world. ’Fancy a quick drink?’ however, is talking my language.  

So how do these people do it? Have they no souls?  Well actually in many ways, no. Sales people are the obvious examples here. They are of a type that can look another human being in the eye and see nothing but the chance to grab some of their precious loot. It may not make them evil, but it does make them pretty two dimensional. For me, any interaction will always be more complex. It may well have been in my interests to strike a deal, it may have been the sole reason for my meeting them in the first place. But if I can tell that they are not really going to benefit, I will walk away happy that there was no harm done - with a ‘royal ‘shrug. 

So I came to the conclusion a long time ago that I would never be rich, I’d never mine my talents with the same zealous drive that I witness in others. Quality of life seems to be too important to me to give it up and sell it off. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Early To Bed, Early To Rise, Makes You Sanctimonious, Pious and Someone To Despise.

Have you ever heard a night person boasting about how much they get done at 2am and that anyone not up at this time is missing the best part of the day? That anyone who slobs about in bed after 10pm is a lazy good for nothing? I doubt it. But in reverse, these are the views I associate with the unfailingly sanctimonious morning person.

I am not of their kind (a morning person that is, I freely admit to being pretty sanctimonious). A quick poll of the people I know very much divides us, placing us in one camp or the other. I am proud to say that on the whole, night people acknowledge the idea that we are all different; that we function better at one end of the day or the other, and we don‘t choose which.

Morning people however…God, where do you start? They’re just so blinkered. How can you trust people who favour yawning and washing up those last few cups (they are always the type to do this) at 9.30pm over a full, life enhancing evening at the pub? Fair do’s, with 24 hour licensing laws now allowing them to nip off for a pint at 7am, in theory they could claim to be having as much fun as the rest of us, but I doubt that’s on their to-do list. We all know who, and which end of the day, those laws were really aimed at.

The other thing that irritates me about morning people is their insistence that others get up at the same time. My dad is one of the main offenders of this ’rise and shine’ tyranny. And he thinks it’s funny. Not once have I ever once burst into someone’s bedroom at midnight sniggering about how it’s time to get up, giggling at their bleary eyed confusion and whipping off the duvet cover while remarking that the bottles of wine in the kitchen won’t drink themselves. And if I ever had at least I’d have intoxication as an excuse. Their behaviour is unpardonable.

So if you are a morning person, I’d like to address this directly to you. The reason that I don’t get up at 6am is not because I am interminably lazy. It’s because I’ve only just gone to bed. And failing to appreciate the quintessence of idyll that is the lie in does not make you noble or more productive, merely the sort of person everyone else wants to avoid. And lastly, what time does the post arrive? I’ve always wondered.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Who Cares?

Many years ago I used to work in social care - working with people with learning disabilities to be more precise. It was the best job I ever had, the one job I ever felt truly good at and to this day I still feel pangs of regret for leaving it. So a new government TV advert encouraging people to consider a career in care grabbed my attention. Take a butchers, if you fancy:

Needless to say, and I sincerely hope it is, I have nothing bad to say about those featured. Joe and Laura perfectly represent the people I met in my time as a carer which means staff and clients alike; people I count amongst the finest I have ever met. Are you getting the picture? I LOVED MY JOB! So, with that said, sadly, there is just so much about this ad that makes me uncomfortable.

Firstly I don’t think it sends out the right message. There is an emphasis on social care being a job that doesn’t feel like a job. And if there’s one thing that ever annoyed me whenever I encountered the public (always too often for my liking), it was their perception of my role. As a carer, you are routinely subjected to comments about how kind, special and virtuous you must be.

Nothing bad about that you might think, what‘s your problem? Answer: such accolades come with a price. After the praise followed the questions about whether you lived in the house with your clients, whether you even got paid and what you planned to move on to next. Well meaning but laden with stereotypes that ultimately feel judgemental. It’s quite hard to feel your job is taken seriously when the fact that you get paid is met with, “that’s nice”. People were almost always surprised to find that I classed my work as a career and floored to discover that I had a degree. The same as for many of my colleagues in fact.

I’m not stupid. When it comes to public perception I’d rather be a carer than a traffic warden. But it’s the idea that it’s part of who you are rather than a (valuable) job that you do that rankles. It’s incredibly limiting because in reality it’s a job that takes skill, dedication and at times, nerves of steel. You do need to be caring but you also need to be perceptive, quick thinking and incredibly tough.

During my time as a carer I was kicked, punched, and head butted. I had a cup of tea thrown in my face and was told by my charge that they hoped I died that evening so I never came back (although to be fair, that’s happened in all my jobs). I’ve had to sit in the middle of the road in peak time traffic, cope with gushing head wounds and chase screeching clients through shopping centres. All while remaining calm and ALWAYS having a plan. After all, that’s your job.

So, going back to the ad, can I call that work? Yes, actually, I think I can. And so should everyone else while we’re at it so I’m a little disappointed to see a national, government commissioned ad implying otherwise. There is so much that can be said for working in care that making out it’s not proper work should never made it into the list. What’s next? Maybe ads for fire-fighters: “Do you like playing with fire? Then come and play all day!” Or perhaps, “Is heaven missing an angel? Is it you? Well bless your cotton socks, how about a job as a nurse.”

You may think that none of this really matters or that it isn’t relevant to you. But these jobs are critical in a civilised society and a safety net for us all. I think the least we can do is bother our arse to pay the work, and the people who do it, some much needed respect.

I left care work when it became impossible to class myself as sane for tolerating such paltry wages. Financial ruin was just around the corner. Thinking about it, maybe this is what the ad is implying when they ask if it’s really work. Again, I repeat that it was the best job I ever had and one that was heartbreaking to say goodbye to so they are right to big up the sense of satisfaction and sheer joy that care work can bring.

But if you doubt that the stereotypes I mentioned above are restricting in any way then this is because you haven’t sat opposite blank faced, clueless interviewers. You may be a saint but you’re a two dimensional one who probably won’t be able to work the photocopier.

I’ve done my bit since. Having since worked in positions where I have been responsible for recruitment, I automatically take note of anyone with a background in care work on the basis that I know they will be able to think on their feet and get on well with others. Oh and they’ll WORK really hard.