Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cultural stereotyping

Since relocating to Scotland I have noticed that this country brings out the archetypal Swede in me. No, not running about naked, indulging in group sex, suicide or any of the other activities Britons seem to think make up our culture.

No, I've found myself becoming more organised and structured, and increasingly annoyed by the lack of organisation and structure in British everyday life. Having lived most of my life in Gothenburg I am of course used to buses and trams being late, but nothing had prepared me for timetables being works of fiction with absolutely no resemblance to reality.

I once rode with a Somali cabby in Gothenburg, grumbling a bit about having to take a cab because the tramline I used to ride had technical problems, but he gave me valuable perspective on the whole thing. He told me the following:

"I was back in Somalia recently to visit my family, and my dad and I were going to take the bus to the nearest city to see some cousins. We left early in the morning, walked from our village to the nearby road, sat by the wayside and waited. It was a nice morning and we sat there talking. After a few hours we took out and ate our packed lunch. After a further few hours I started getting fairly restless, and as dark came creeping I got really annoyed and said to my dad ""Where the fuck is that bus?"" He looked at me with surprise and said ""If it doesn'’t come today it'’ll come tomorrow""”, and THAT'’S when I realised just how Swedish I'’ve become"”

As I said Scotland has brought out the anal retentive Swede in me, and those who know me well will be surprised by this. Back home I was disorganised and happy go lucky, but over here I might even start alphabetising things. Some examples of what it is that drives me to distraction:
1. Buses that may or may not come - you really just have to trust your luck and always keep cab fare handy.

2. Web pages for big companies or institutions that contain NO FUCKING INFO WHATSOEVER, not even contact info for further inquiries. *wipes angry spittle from computer*

3. The total lack of logic and structure in small things like taxation or banking. Britons combine a lack of applied logic with a flair for Stalinist bureaucracy. In Sweden I would normally expect a bank to be able to transfer money even to banks abroad. Here we have found it easier and safer to send the money in an insured envelope. Don'’t even get me started on opening a bank account or proving your identity...

And still I'’m really happy here, and I find the Scots in general friendly (once they realise I'’m not a southern fairy from below the border) and charming, so maybe I can let their habit of guessing when they don'’t know the way to wherever you're going, or their "rules-apply-to-others"” traffic culture pass. Also, if you have any preconceptions of Scots being tight-fisted let them go. They're extremely generous towards others, they just don't like to spend too much on everyday stuff that you can get cheaper elsewhere, and I for one can't blame them.

But then we come to the fact that I try not to believe in generalisations. This is because life has repeatedly smacked me over the head with a big stick all the while screaming "you are all individuals". So - to conclude - Scots are a mixture of terrifically nice people, utter wankers, and all the shades inbetween, and I've just wasted a minute or two of your time.


The key concern with stereotyping is that it can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypical attitudes to gender and race have led to prejudice and discrimination, which will be considered further in the next section.
Another weakness is that stereotypes are greatly oversimplified and so do not account for the complexity of the world.
The fact that stereotypes are oversimplified can help us make sense of the complexity of the world.
Furthermore, not all stereotypes lead to prejudice. Research suggests that, when people who have first-hand knowledge of stereotypes from the group they are stereotyping, they are not necessarily inaccurate. Thus, the fact that the stereotypes are distressing does not make them untrue—stereotypes may well possess a “kernel of truth”."

Excerpt from

Friday, June 02, 2006

Entropy watch

I am, to quote Bill Hicks, not a physics major. Humanities have always appealed more to me. However I find myself fascinated by some parts of natural science, including the second law of thermodynamics.

It states that “The entropy of an isolated system not at equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.” or, if I understand it correctly, that energy tends to flow from being concentrated in one place to spreading out evenly. The fact that there are forces slowing this process down is what makes life possible. At this point I was going to sort of segue into the whole idea of heat death – where all energy is gradually dissipated until the universe just stops – which in turn would have lead us to entropy and the gradual falling apart of all systems. My devious plan was to apply this to office work, namely everyday life in the multinational for which I work. Imagine my dismay when I go on to find that corporate entropy is already a recognised term and that business consultants are making millions telling corporations that this is something they should watch out for.

Obviously I’m not quite as original and innovative as I would have liked to think.

However this does not invalidate my point. Large organisations exhibit this tendency to entropy. I know, I know – to natural science entropy concerns energy, nothing else, but I’m applying my artistic license here, ok? Surely companies can be viewed as systems, subject to internal and external forces (this is of course where all my scientist friends scream as one, since the key to entropy is "an isolated system", but I pay them no heed) the. Besides sociologists use the term entropy to describe the gradual falling apart of systems, so from a humanities perspective I’m in the clear.

Anyway, things slowly fall apart, with management applying reorganisations or whatever buzzword treatment may be flavour of the month with the desperate urgency of a little Dutch boy running out of fingers by a leaking dyke, all to no avail.

For example: in my 18 months with this large hardware company – let’s call it Big Blue – I’ve seen one major reorganisation and at least 20 process changes, none of which has increased efficiency one iota. In fact some of the new processes have been such disasters that they require incessant tweaking, but we keep trying to adjust to this constant change for the worse.

This is what really baffles me; the ease with which we seem to accept the forced application of half-baked ideas, spawned by someone with absolutely no insight into our current way of working, ideas that inevitably change our situation unfavourably. So far, and I admit my perspective is limited, no change or new process has been for the better.

Adaptability has been a survival trait for us as a species, but I’m beginning to suspect that this isn’t always the case. Take my team leader for example, fresh out of surgery but with stern doctors’ orders to take it easy and avoid stress. Her job in our dept is basically to slow down our entropy as much as possible, which would have been a stressful job even against the natural background radiation of bureaucracy, but since they hired my half wit/half German colleague it looks as if it is going to bury her.

So in fact her working to prevent the sociological kind of entropy seems to be speeding her towards the chemical/physical entropy I started out with, and if that’s not a lesson I don’t know what is…