Take a good look in the Mirror – today (1/3)

Photo by Enrique Cropper

“In a multi-cultural organisation like the ERA”, spouted George at the first Christmas drinks party he had been to in over three years, following the COVID hiatus, “we all need to work that much harder to maintain good relations amongst ourselves…”

Almudena, George’s long-standing colleague from the analysis department, a sharp, dark-eyed brightly dressed woman from Cordoba, in Spain, was listening intently.

“But what you’re saying, Almudena, just goes to show that by far the trickiest relations for us to hold together are those we have with others of our own nationality!”

The subject of miscommunication between colleagues had come up again, as it so often did in the ERA. Almudena had been sharing with George her impressions from a quarrel she had witnessed on-line. It was a dispute between two French directors, Rabot and Lautrec, following what she had described, using that popular ERA euphemism, as a ‘misunderstanding over some fine detail of fiscal policy’.

“Think of it this way” George continued, “Rabot and Lautrec really find out lots more about each other when they are talking in French, between themselves. You see, most of the time now, most of us in the ERA are speaking English as a lingua franca. Basically, this means people are not using all the non-verbal signals of English – those peculiar tones and gestures, accents and socio-political references – which we do when speaking with someone from their own linguistic background.”

Almudena nodded hesitantly, her eyes following the rolling action of George’s hands as he tried to emphasise the complexity of what he was saying.

“You see,” said George tipping his hand at the wrist, a gesture which others had come to associate uniquely with him, “once we’re talking with someone who was brought up in the same country as us, or who worked and lived there long enough to really get to know the place, that’s when things can get a bit problematic”, he persisted, stressing the word ‘bit’ in a sign of classical British understatement. “It’s what I call cultural mirror bias, and it’s usually sub-conscious.”

Almudena stopped and gave George a blank look.

“It sounds like that’s what’s happened with Rabot and Lautrec. I’ve seen it before with them. Let’s face it, in the French context, the two of them know far too much about each other. What  for you and me is an insignificant detail in a conversation between the two of them, passes us by, because we have limited knowledge of the ins and outs of French culture. But, for them, that detail looms large, and finally ends up irritating them like crazy.” George paused. “It’s like one – or both of them – sees in the other some aspect of their Frenchness in a mirror, that you and I can’t see, and they don’t like it!”

The bemused frown on the face of Almudena, who had come to the drink’s party to have a moment’s relaxation, after a hard year tackling Europe’s rampant price inflation, showed George she was having some difficulty processing what he was saying.  

“You know, it’s like those mornings when you look at your own face in the bathroom mirror. And what we see, warts and all, is not always the prettiest of pictures!”

“Oh, oh, oh” tittered Almudena, as she gently grasped George’s forearm, “my dearest George, you do come out with some funny ideas! Where do you get them all from?”

Almudena’s doubt encouraged George to reformulate what he was saying.

“I guess I just picked up the idea working here, it’s happening all the time, as far as I can see,” he replied. “Let me put it another way. It seems to me that when we are talking with colleagues of the same nationality, some of the traits we see in each other can somehow add to, or detract from, our own sense of identity. It’s as if we’re looking in a mirror and we’re seeing something that either improves, or damages, our own self-image, through its reflection in someone else.”

George could still see he hadn’t quite conveyed his meaning to Almudena, a puzzled look lingering on her face. This prompted George to explain himself even more directly.

“I’ll give you an example. Every time I meet Maxwell, I can feel it. You know, his sense of humour, it’s so refined.” George’s expression softened. “It reminds me so much of my own father’s wit. You see, in a strange sort of way, when Maxwell’s in good form, he makes me feel even more British than I am myself! That’s what I call positive cultural mirror bias!”

With that, Almudena broke into a giggle, her face turning to delight.

“Oh, jes, jes, it’s so true. Maxwell is so funny; he tells such a good story!”

(to be continued)

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This entry was posted in In the mirror, Mark, Observing Brussels and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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