as xyz said

I am getting increasingly annoyed with useless utterances of “as person xzy said” at the worksplace. The problem is not the attribution of credit, as such a laudeable practice, but its inflationary usage, which is skyrocketing faster than inflation in times of quantitative easing.

“As xyz said”, is used from anything to waking up dozzing colleagues, trying to score cheap points with superiors and to convince others of whatever one is currently arguing for. What is annoying is that the original purpose seems to have been lost out of sight. Instead of attributing a good idea to someone else, or to draw people’s attention to something useful someone has actually said, it regrettably no longer involves picking up on something substantial the “quoted” person has said, but merely to catch the persons’s attention or to ostensibly give weight to whatever the utterer is arguing. (then person xyz is someone really important)
Variants include quoting something someone has actually said, but then to continue talking about something completely different, and others.
One problem is that it is remarkably effective as a rethoric tool. I have been caught of guard repeatedly, when I had supposedly said something, while all my counterpart wanted was my agreement with something totally unrelated to what I might have said. Yet it is fact that our brains seem to evaluate an idea more favourably if it supposedly comes from outselves. (Did I really say something that intelligent?). I must admit that I have also put it to suprisingly effective use, mostly to better sell an idea to someone who might be wary of me having an idea.
If the practive was not destroying real attribution of credit, I would almost be tempted to continued usage.

Do I need oppression to feel free?

I have always wondered why I feel attracted to one of the darker corners of the world. On a recent trip to Iran I suddenly had this feeling of attraction again. Sitting in a taxi driving me through nightly Teheran I was overcome by old memories and had one of these rare moments of total satisfaction. As I was recognizing roads I used to roam and the driver’s chatter brought back Iran’s language back to me, I wondered how the intenseness of these feelings could be explained.

The last time I had had this feeling before was in the same country, when I was approaching a bus terminal. Knowing that I would soon explore a new place and the bustling atmosphere of the terminal, I was also invaded by this sensation. Other memories include taking boats to set over the Red sea, riding Sudanese lorries through the Sahara or boarding planes to Morocco. The feeling is best described by a sensation of unlimited freedom, certainty about the future and a deep satisfaction.

One explanation for this is that traveling gives me this sensation of freedom. Travelling to a new place means leaving behind obligations; unlimited opportunities seem behind the horizon; no need to take any decisions now, only the focus to arrive at the other side. These are certainly attractive traits for me.
But this still leaves open the question why I feel attracted to the Middle East and not to Iceland.

I certainly like the friendliness and pride of the people in the Middle East. Like for example the taxi driver, a dignified 60 year old man with white temples and friendly sunburnt face clearly marked by the experience of his life, who would drive me from my hotel to work and back every day. Eventually we got to chat and I noticed his excellent English, much better than the current generation’s. He told me that he was a military man and how he would be trained by American instructors in the Shah’s army. He spoke about why he was driving a taxi instead of enjoying his retirement after 40 year in the military. After the Islamic revolution, a second military, the revolutionary guards, were created by the authorities as a safeguard against the regular army which was deemed to have been too close to the Shah. Nowadays resources are above all pumped into the revolutionary guards corps and the regular army starved of funds, so that while revolutionary guards enjoy a comfortable life in retirement, regular soldiers need extra jobs to make ends meet. Yet it was with pride that he showed me his war hero card, he was wounded in an Iraqi attack on his missile battery, and I could see in his honest eyes how there was no doubt that he would fight to defend his country even though his new masters were about to starve him.
 But while Middle Eastern people are certainly among the world’s most friendly, there are also friendly people elsewhere. How is it that I precisely like the Middle East so much?

There is a fascination about the place that has a powerful appeal to me. Ever since I first saw the Arabic alphabet I have been enchanted by the letters and I am enthralled by oriental architecture. In Iran to this come overwhelming mosques and the beautiful parks. There is something about 1001 nights to them, especially at night when they are lighted in red, green and blue colours and one thinks to spot trolls and other creatures walking through the trees and bushes. Fountains and springs are another characteristic of the country. I remember walking through Isfahan at night to visit the many bridges spanning the river Zayande, when we suddenly saw a fountain combining the mysteries of 1001 nights with those of Iran’s waterways. On a concrete square small fountains arranged in a quadrat and illuminated in different colours would rise and sink in turn. Children would play, yet a silence hung over the place. The fog that seems to suffocate public expressions of joy, mind boggling in the light of playing children and pickniqing families, yet an omnipresent cult is holding down emotions as a tribute to the martyrs in a country that seem to be driving with the emotion hand brake put.

I suspect that my fascination also has something to do with this darker side, for freedom certainly lacks in many places of the Middle East. Yet it is precisely there that I feel most free. This begs the questions if I don’t need oppression to feel free? Maybe freedom is like oxygen, the more you lack it the more you need it and the more aware you get of your need for it.

vestis virum reddit (clothes make the man)

Mark Twain suspected it, Gottfried Keller wrote a book about it and now the globalisation’s mitrailleuse affirms it. Clothes make the man, as in the quotation, the novel, the article

My personal attitude to dressing up has always vacillated between disdain and indifference, so the findings of a study quoted by the article above seemed to confirm my suspicion about the superficiality and vainness of clothes. In short, the study shows that people wearing fashionable clothes are more often recommended for jobs, afforded a higher salary, and surprisingly also given more money when collecting for charity. The point though is that this behaviour is entirely dependant on the visibility of the brand label. The same persons in the same clothes minus the brand label, fail to live up to the label-induced performance.

In this everybody might find their views confirmed. My personal scorn certainly feels exonerated, but it is unclear what exactly follows and whether several issues are intermingled.

First of all, my mother was manifestly up to something when she sowed crocodiles onto off-the-shelf polo shirts, for the social recognition seems to turn on the label, not on the cloth. This seems one of the issues that ravaging bankers and other brand-wearers fail to grasp.
Second, I should also note that a person might dress well one day and come back totally shabby the next day. I have to admit that I will judge her differently, although she is clearly the same person and this tells me something about my supposed indifference to superficialities. 
Third, the powerful incentives for dressing up, shown by the quoted study above, need to be considered. It seems that above all the mediocre and deceivers have an incentive to blend others with their dress, since they do not have anything else to show, hiding incompetency behind glamorous garment.
Finally and on a sidenote only, the UN has also its own share of “dress to impress“, although on the account given there it seems that its impressiveness in the gown field equals the one in its core competencies.

What to make of all this?

First, dressing up for success seems to amount to something of a zero-sum game, as the following example shows. Nowadays a strict dress-code is imposed on staff in Swiss banks, as reported some time ago in the media. The banks in question are quoted as saying that “proper dress inspires confidence and underscores professionalism in customers” when asked about the measures.
One wonders if an incompetent staff will turn into a competent one, just by virtue of dressing well? The question also begs itself what difference it will make if all banks enforce such rules, thus supposedly increasing their customer confidence across the board. The only explanation that comes to my mind is that perhaps less people opt for keeping their savings below the pillow, due to this newly acquired assurance. What is clear is that dress inspired confidence is an illusion.

Forcing people to dress up might, on the contrary actually backfire since it will, on this account, be harder for customers to spot the rotten apples in a bank or elsewhere. 

Second, how can my attraction to some flavours of dress be explained, while I am clearly repulsed by others. I think that the motivation behind ones acts can help explaining these reactions. I appreciate individuality, clothes that underscore personality and that do not merely serve to transmit a precooked image of professionalism or beauty. On the other hand I dislike uniform dress, like the clone armies marching up and down my work places cafeteria, clad in colourful cloth, yet vain and characterless.

In my view assessment of people should be based on merit not on superficialities such as clothes, which put reason and facts on the back-seat and my and others decent style can be interpreted as begging to be evaluated based on merit rather than on appearances.

Since the study quoted above clearly shows that such fair treatment has not imposed  itself, it is time for some affirmative action.I shall thus postulate my own rule by which I will give dressed-up persons in implicit moral malus while giving “normally” dressed ones a bonus and call on likeminded people to consider doing the same



Laboro ergo sum (where do you work?)

I shall start with a quotation of RenĂ© Decartes, the father of modern philosophy. “Cogito ergo sum” is Descartes answer to his question what about we can be sure of ourselves. I think, (thus) I am. The essential property of our being ourselves is the capability to be conscious, to think. Without thinking, we would cease to exist.

These very existential questions still seem relevant to today’s international organization or company workforce, although uttered differently. “Where do you work?” is a question I am asked frequently in social venues and I am growing increasingly tired of. What shocks is how much people seem to define themselves in terms of their work, instead of who they are. I wonder what people would talk about if they lost their work and who they would themselves consider to be?

A typical example of such a conversation took place the other night. Having chatted nicely about this and that in a picknique in Parc la Grange, I was approached by one of the other pickniquers. “Hi my name is Rachel”.. and without stopping, on she went “where do you work?”, sending shivers down my back and rage into my throat. I froze and the conversation ended after some meaningless exchanges about the workplace.

I would like to know how to behave in such situations. The w-phrase is clearly asked with no evil intentions as a common point or reference. Admittedly most people in Geneva have moved here for work. It seems fair to make this highly likely common point the starter in a conversation. It also reflects the general feeling of uncertainty in the international labour market, where self-marketing is essential for obtaining the next short-term contract. As a matter of fact the w-question will duly be followed by an extended elevator-speech about your opponents work situation. Each social gathering is turned into a potential recruiting event. Having listened to experts in the art of casual self-promotion I have been amazed for how long it can drag on and how much experts in it seem to be enjoying themselves doing it. Over the course of a party I have witnessed this going on for the better part of an hour, the obligatory final appointment for lunch (to do more of the same) included.
I suspect what makes me react in such a negative way to this seemingly innocent behaviour is that fact that clearly I will be judged by the answer and thus in terms of my usefulness for my counterparts work ambitions. Laboro ergo sum.

I have considered three possible answers to the w-question.

A friend has suggested to tackle the issue upfront and to answer along the lines of “I wipe the WCs at WIPO”, which has the advantage of straightforwardly pointing out the potential danger of making the unbeknown work situation of your opposite side subject of conversation, (some may remember a related pitfall consisting in asking, as there were no thing more natural “what do you study?”). The onus of saving the day is put on the initial culprit who can do this by admitting mistake or remaining in ignorance. Expect embarrassment though as most people will be confused and find you rude.

Another option is to bite your tongue and to go along. After all your aversion is clearly just another cultural difference, such questions are the order of the day in Anglo-Saxon culture. Maybe you will actually learn something interesting by stepping out of the ignorance of your own culture centric behaviour. In a way it might also help to get real about your own situation.. you are most likely to have moved here for work anyway, one day you will have to come to terms with this fact. And you might even find a better job. On the other hand there is a risk of boredom, especially on a Friday evening.

Lastly, the precious diplomatic middle-ground would combine the virtue of the previous two approaches. Supposed you do not want to talk about work or think that there are more interesting things in the world but not embarrass your counterpart you could briefly answer and change topic. This has the advantage of maybe getting to know an interesting person as well as in the process subtly showing that there are matters more worth being discussed.

I shall, depending on the mood put options one and three to a test, with, conscious of the potential for ennui, Descartes’ Meditations being the aim to lead the conversation of option three to.