On the nature of humans…

30 11 2013

Are you quick to judge?

Prone to speak before you’ve checked the facts?

No? Must be just me then…

Of course, it’s not something I’m proud of, or that I choose to do – I do tend to look before I leap… but there are times, I confess.

We all seem to have assumptions and pre-conceptions. They range from “flames tend to be hot – best not to test this specific one with my finger” through to “it’s best not to trust politicians  – at least while they’re alive”.

Yesterday my colleague told me that he’d heard something on the illustrious CBC Radio 1. There’d been a piece about how the Canadian government had engaged a consultant to teach Canadian businessmen how to speak with “British accents” to help their negotiations run more smoothly. Naturally this spun off into a self-fuelled rant as we fed off each other, and we agreed that it was ridiculous (first clue), and that any North American trying to “put a cockney at ease” by speaking in their own accent would likely turn out at least as bad as Dick van Dyke‘s “Bert” in Mary Poppins. Worse – they’d likely be knifed or otherwise assaulted at some point in the proceedings.

I of course, being all superior and pious, had additional issues with the mere phrase “British accent”. I kept bleating on about there being four countries in Great Britain – not including the various islands (Yes – the UK is the “mainland”… 😉 ) – and that each of them had more accents per square mile than Canada had voters. Or possibly even trees for that matter. This was all easy self-reinforcing bias, and supported the pre-existing assumptions that (i) governments in general were keen to spend our tax money on silly things, (ii) teaching anyone an accent was inherently going to fail – Meryl Streep‘s excellent rendition of Maggie notwithstanding – and most importantly (iii) Dick van Dyke may not be able to act, but he makes a great penguin.

Not a proud moment in QE’s life. Nor, I’m further ashamed to say, an uncommon one.

Fast forward to today when a friend posted on Facebook the following story:

Town in Montana changes its name to Banff Alberta Canada

CBC: According to Mr. Landers, Banff Alberta Canada, Montana is not near the mountains but it does have a great local theatre company for tourists to enjoy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Ridiculous, right? (Déjà vu!)

But wait –  let’s not forget about Leavenworth, WA

Wikipedia: Leavenworth’s main street reflects its modelling on a Bavarian village

Reinventing the entire town as a Bavarian village just to increase tourism is completely batty, right?! Insisting that industry giants like Subway, Starbucks, etc. use signage “in keeping” with the theme (carved wooden hanging signs as in the above photo) is ludicrous, yes? Can’t be true… but it is.

So renaming a ghost-town in Montana to “Banff Alberta Canada” to lure unwary tourists isn’t really any less believable is it? And there of course enters “the bias”. The assumption that well, without putting too fine a point on it, it’s just the sort of thing “the Americans” would do, isn’t it? 🙂

It took all of a few minutes for someone to point out “You do know it’s a satirical program, right?” (I’ll forgive them the omission of the “me” at the end of programme, under the circumstances).

Ah! Burn…

I felt ashamed more than embarrassed. I was so totally ready to believe that this little town would rename itself. And based on what? Prejudice. Assumption that we wouldn’t do that, but they would. Us and them – the core of prejudice. I hadn’t even bothered to listen to the whole piece, and though the photos of the presenters looked a bit glib, I didn’t check further into their programme.

Then a thought…

Yup – sure enough, the CBC 1 programme to which my earnest colleague had referred earlier was the same one responsible for Banff Alberta Canada!

Canadian industry delegates learn to speak with British accent to improve trade relations

CBC: According to Mr. Theodore, the Canadian accent is perceived as unintellegent in the United Kingdom. (iStockPhoto)

Well – don’t I feel silly?!

Of course – the spirit of a good laugh is for it to be believable enough that the punchline is unexpected and funny. Because my colleague had himself believed it to be “straight”, and it played to all the accepted stereotypes, I too fell hook, line and sinker to his retelling. But now I know this programme is actually a satirical one… I’m actually pretty underwhelmed. If you were listening to it, knowing it was a satirical show, it’s a pretty blunt instrument! Or is that my prejudice speaking again?

But these deeply flawed aspects of human nature (at least as far as they are represented in my own case) are only part of the picture. Thankfully!

This morning I took the devil dog for a walk around the local duck ponds. Winter is well on its way, and the deciduous trees are all but bare now. But not quite…

Bigger berry Bauble Christmas cheer

Some local wit had placed about a dozen Christmas-tree baubles on various otherwise sparse trees around the ponds. Nothing too outlandish. No tinsel, for example. No garish lights as the municipality chooses to use elsewhere. Just one bauble per chosen tree, evenly spaced around the park. Yet somehow, these cheap dollar-store ornaments were uplifting as I trudged around in the rain. Someone had thought to do it. Do something unexpected. Worthy of note (at least by me). A bit like when soon-to-be-obsolete pennies appeared on the park benches.

What're you looking' at?

What’re you lookin’ at?

I met a couple of other locals on their morning constitution. One (who I have a sneaky suspicion may have had some involvement) agreed with me that they were a jolly addition to the park, and added a festive air. Another – a middle-aged lady with incongruous headphones disappearing into her pocketed iPod, and a keen and adept hand with mobile phone photography – asked me if I’d noticed the curious additions to the treescape. She too had been photographing them. Perhaps she has her own blog… We chatted briefly and went on our separate ways, smiling and happy at this brief most human of connections.

And as I walked home still grinning, I realised that perhaps this Christmas, if I really tried, I could perhaps be less cynical. These cheap plastic baubles had already caused me to have two friendly conversations with strangers. Even better – somewhere near me lived a kindred spirit. Someone who did weird stuff just for the hell of it. I wondered if it was the same person who had put the pennies out last year. I was in a good mood… and there hadn’t even been chocolate involved!

It would seem that despite my previous assumptions and prejudice, there really can be such a thing as Christmas cheer. A non-commercial, non-marketed, simple, pure, goodwill to others.

Humans can after all still do little things that bring pleasure and happiness to others. It could be an unexpected bauble in a tree (I’m willing to overlook the fact that it’s technically littering), or it could be a few dollars in a Sally Army fund-raising kettle.

But it’s not even December yet. Bah – humbug… 😀