For the last 15 years of my career in IT I spent the majority of it working outside the UK. I worked in Central and Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East and finally in Spain and Portugal. As a result I got to see, up close, whether the stereotypes we have in our collective cultural consciousness are actually representative of those nations. I found that, no big surprises here, there was normally a grain of truth, but actually most were at best outdated, and at worst plain wrong. For example, although most Spanish workers take a decent lunch break, I found city workers in Madrid tended to put in longer hours than those in London and worked extremely hard – no “mañana” here.
One unexpected result of these experiences was to discover the stereotype that others had of British people – and it wasn’t pretty. According to the cultural norms of other nations, the British are mendacious and greedy – dishonest deal makers who use whatever means they have available to get what they want, often leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. As with other stereotypes there is history here. British empire builders exported capitalism and British cultural values over centuries. UK citizens will often stress the benefits of this: democracy, education, science, rights and freedoms etc…. However, there was a dark side: slavery, exploitation and violence. The memory of these negatives lingers long in the memory of other nations and feeds the stereotype held today. As with other national identity stereotypes there is a grain of truth – you will often find Brits in senior commercial roles in non-UK companies, native English speakers with strong international experience make great deal makers. Clever use of language helps us get through the uneasy compromises required to resolve business conflicts. London has a history of finding the wealth and then being able to construct deals that allow it to take a decent-sized margin: tea, cotton, people, Eurobonds, construction, entertainment…
I was reminded of this today when reading about Gate Ventures. The Times has been investigating this company and in particular, a gentleman from Hong Kong called Johnny Hon. This company was set up in 2015 and Mr Hon was the chairman for the next 2 years during which time he charged £2.9 million in expenses. The stated aim of Gate ventures is: “is to be a leading independent media, content producer and consultant across the entertainment and fashion retail sectors”. The company has indeed invested in West End shows such as 42nd Street, but has also managed to lose a significant amount of money since its founding. Gate Ventures has relationships with many luminaries of British society. Lord Michael Grade chairs the Board of Directors, Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, was a previous member of the Board, Zara Tindell and Peter Phillips have been paid by Gate for consulting services. I don´t know enough about this case to form any serious opinion as to whether any wrong doing has taken place. However, I can see how the facts of this case could reinforce biases or stereotypes already formed. The article in the Times focuses on Johnny Hon´s expenses – the article is in a British paper with a mature readership. Shady dealings with south-east Asian businessmen will play well to this crowd and little is made of the money lost by predominantly Chinese investors interested in British culture. Viewed from another perspective, however, you could easily write this story as yet another example of how unscrupulous British establishment figures have constructed a way to separate hard-working Chinese business people from their wealth. It´s not true, of course. There is no British establishment conspiracy to defraud other countries of their wealth. Like most people we´re trying to get by using the skills that we´re good at. However, it´s not so hard to see how others could develop a different impression.
If you examine stereotypes more closely you tend to find they revolve around negative observations: Germans are rules-obsessed, the Dutch are rude, the British are liars. If you look at what nations think about themselves they tend to focus on the positive: “liberte, egalite, fraternite”, “home of the brave”. According to the North Korean national anthem its people have “a will of iron fostered by the truth”. However these positive attributes tend to colour stereotypes only at a couple of levels removed. Which nation doesn´t think its citizens are brave or truthful? It´s only when we (and by we, I mean people of all nations) behave badly that stereotypical attributes come to the surface. When we are at our best national differences disappear – any nation´s people can be brave, honest, creative, hardworking, kind, beautiful and so on regardless of national or cultural background. So my thought for the day is perhaps we should focus on the positive and appeal to the good in each other. Stereotypes don´t help much, and when they do it´s to work out what went wrong. If we want to get things right we need to focus on the stuff that makes us the same….