It's 1:10 am London time, meaning I will enjoy no more than six hours of sleep tonight (including thirty minutes drooling on the breakfast table). Because I'm running on fumes, and therefore no longer playing with a full deck on the top floor, I have decided to post the assignment that kept me up so late.
(The essay that follows refers to the InterCultural Edge, an experimental tool for evaluating cross-cultural interactions out of Duke's business school. Otherwise I hope it stands on its own. Also, it's important to understand that the assignment was to post the essay in the program's community blog. I inferred from this a license to use a much less formal style than I would ever use in a business essay. I will report the accuracy of this inferrence sometime later.)
Imagine a crowded commuter train at the end of the working day. You’re tired, you’re on your way home, every seat is taken. You find a seat that has, instead of a person in it, a large, heavy, malodorous, aluminum-framed backpack. The kid across from this monstrosity grasps the situation after an uncomfortable moment and stuffs the backpack in the luggage rack overhead. All is well.
You open your newspaper, the train pulls out of the terminal, and you settle in for the hour-long journey home. Ah, good: your football team won, your shares have gone up, and—
—A large, heavy, malodorous, aluminum-framed backpack lands on your head.
On your head.
It hurts. It knocks your glasses clear off, tears your newspaper in half, and for good measure falls bounces off four other people, just missing horrified kid who no doubt feels as shocked as you do but doesn’t have your torn newspaper, bent glasses, or bump on the head.
What do you do?
Before answering, some more context: You are going from Victoria Station to your house in West Sussex, a well-to-do semi-rural area of south-west of London. You are British. You were brought up a Certain Way. You don’t Do Certain Things. You have a Stiff Upper Lip. (You also have a Headache and Blurry Vision, but that’s Irrelevant Right Now.)
What you do, therefore, is this: you apologize to the shocked-but-suspiciously-uninjured American kid while he struggles, panicked, to put his backpack somewhere it won’t hurt anyone else.
Yes, you apologize, quietly and politely, to your assailant. For good measure, and despite your throbbing head, clearer vision (another traveler has unobtrusively returned your glasses to you), and anticipation of new challenges reading the Times, you help the kid wrangle the backpack to a different luggage rack, one that is actually wide enough to support it.
Many years later the kid grows up and, after taking the InterCultural Edge Survey, has a tool to describe what happened and why he found it so odd.
(You can stop imagining now.)
The above describes my first trip to the U.K., right after I finished college. I had heard about British stoicism and watched a lot of British TV in the U.S., but until then, I had never seen it in person. Watching my backpack fall on the guy horrified me; his reaction shocked me.
See, I grew up in Chicago and went to school in New York. In either city, had my backpack fallen on someone during rush hour, I could reasonably have expected being cursed out, sued, or beaten up, possibly with my own backpack. In New York the other commuters might even have held me down while he pummeled me. So why had this person apologized for having the temerity to sit under the thing while it fell on him?
ICE doesn’t explain the incident, but it does provide some vocabulary around it. The gentleman and everyone around him wanted to diffuse tension, avoid conflict, avoid disagreement, and avoid letting their feelings guide their behavior. In sum, they showed a preference for the “Reserved” communication style.
Of course, at the time, their reactions made no sense. I spent the four years immediately preceding the trip in a city not particularly associated with avoiding conflict or restraining feelings. New Yorkers typically tell you what they’re thinking, when they’re thinking it, and without caring if it starts a conflict, because to them, conflict means you’re “getting everything on the table;” they tend toward the “Expressive” communication style. Chicagoans, while more reserved than New Yorkers, stay firmly within the “Direct” style. (These are generalizations, of course. People in both cities range from Reserved to Direct to Expressive, sometimes in the space of a single day.)
In England, people seem to prefer the “Reserved” style. This comports with the popular understanding in the U.S. of British people generally, and of English people specifically. People on the Reserved end of things want to keep interpersonal interactions smooth and painless. Where a stereotypical American would argue with the statement “When I disagree with someone, I avoid direct conflict,” a stereotypical English person would nod politely. In the same vein, an English person might say, “I avoid clear-cut expressions of my feelings when I communicate with others,” while a New Yorker might counter, “When a heavy object lands on my head for no apparent reason, I swear like a sailor.”
I never found out what happened to that guy. I got off the train before he did, and he didn’t seem interested in getting my address or calling a lawyer. Possibly this is because he had a severe concussion, but none of the people around him chased me down the platform either. To this day I imagine him returning home with messed-up hair and bent glasses, answering his wife’s “What happened?!” with a quiet, “Oh, nothing, mustn’t grumble.”