Being disliked on scant evidence by a group of Americans leads Charles Handy to understand the dangers of stereotyping
Years ago I went to America, to Boston, to study for a new degree. For the first week, the 12 of us new students would gather for introductions, the idea being that if we got to know each other, we could help each other in this strange new world we were all in.
So we sat there talking about the timetable, and what we expected, where we came from, what we hoped to get from this course, and where we were heading. It was all quite interesting. After five days, the professor in charge said, “Well now, you have all been with each other for nearly a week, I think it will be interesting to discover what you think of each other. So, take a piece of paper, write your name at the top and pass it around. And each of you write one or two words to describe your impression of the person whose name is at the top.” I thought this was quite a dangerous exercise, but I had nothing to fear. Being a stranger in the country I had said nothing, and so I would get an empty piece of paper back.
Or so I thought.
No way! I had 20 comments under “Charles Handy”. They said, “arrogant, rude, supercilious, unkind, snob, upper class, thinks he’s better than us” and so it went on.
“They can’t possibly be talking about me,” I said to myself. “I know what has happened. They think, because of my voice, that I am an Englishman, and this is what they think they are like. I had no idea that to be English was to be like all these things. It is as if the sins of my forefathers, of other Englishmen are being visited on me and I am being held responsible for all the faults of other Englishmen. They are labelling me with their stereotype of an Englishman.” I got so angry, I jumped up. I banged on the table and I said, “I am not an Englishman, I am an Irishman, do you hear me, I am Irish. They conquered us, or tried to. I dislike them as much as you do.”
Ever since then I have been very careful to make sure as soon as I can, in any new group, that I tell them that I am Irish, not English, otherwise all the faults that they dislike in the English are going to be heaped on me through no fault of my own. I said to them, “look, I know you judge me for my accent but try to listen to what I’m saying. I’m me, Charles Handy, forget where I came from. I am my own brand, I don’t march under any other people’s flags.” Over time, they learned to like me (I hope) as me, not as Charles the Englishman with a funny voice, or Charles the Irishman who wasn’t very Irish either.
How successful am I? I don’t know, but at least my friends know who I am and don’t get confused by other people’s stereotypes. And with other people I try not to burden them with all my impressions that are piled up over the centuries. I try to find out what they as an individual stand for, what their values are, and what they want to contribute to this world. And if I succeed, I seem to make a friend for life.
Charles Handy is one of the giants of contemporary thought. His books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke last year following the death of his wife in a car crash. This piece was dictated to his carer.