London Internship Program 2016

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July 2016

Playing along

Needless to say, my interactions with British people has changed drastically from the beginning of the trip until now. The two main reasons for this being Kate Fox’s Watching the English and picking up on social queues in every day interactions. One of the biggest misconceptions i’ve identified with my 20/20 hindsight is the etiquette of greetings. Bobby and I discussed how on our first days of our internships we felt like we crushed it with our colleagues in the office.  We greeted them all with a nice big smile, handshake, and introduction. Little did we know at the time this is not how most English greetings go. Sure, there are different regulations for professional environments, but we were completely unaware of the common progression. After reading Fox, however, we were able to piece together bits from different chapters to help find a way to make friendly conversation around the office. Fox opens her book the same way any Brit starts a conversation with a stranger, by talking about the weather. I found the idea of using weather as a common ground for conversation interesting, but have never been a fan of talks about the weather. Besides, I feel like even Brits know that talks about the weather are somewhat forced when people have nothing else to talk about. That being said, I found Brexit as a good substitute for the weather this summer. It can get fuzzy talking politics in the office, but in casual discussion, everyone has an opinion on it they can discuss. It was then easy to implement Fox’s self-depravation humour by mentioning Trump and letting the Brits poke fun at American politics for a little bit to diffuse whatever Brexit rant they had usually started on (one way or another).



Work Hard, Play Hard versus Work Hard, Play Modestly

“Working hard or hardly working?” appears to summarize the British mentality towards work and play. During the internship class that was held on Tuesday, it was interesting to see the different ways in which the work-life balance varied across different classmate’s internships, and the varying influence each business’ practice of this principal had on its office environment. Several of my classmates explained their office culture promoted a work-life balance through a relaxed office environment. “Relaxed” in this context means a variety of aspects regarding the workplace, from a laid-back dress code to getting lunch or drinks with co-workers. On Tuesday, I explained my internship had more of an “American” workplace culture rather than a relaxed British one. However, after reading Kate Fox’s chapter on “Work Rules” I’m rethinking my previous argument that my workplace isn’t stereotypically British. Fox argued that although the British claim to “work hard, play hard” and have an ideal work-life balance, in practice the Brits have a “work hard, play moderately” policy. I came into my internship with the expectation that Brits had a relaxed culture in the office, and a “play hard” lifestyle after, that they filled themselves up with pints during their breaks and after they leave work. In some cases, maybe this pattern is true, however “work hard play moderately” is far more fitting in my office environment. At work, my co-workers are serious about getting their job done to the best of their ability. Working hard is especially important in a non-profit workplace where doing one’s job effectively has the potential to make a significant difference on the lives of others, and my colleague’s commitment to their jobs and the organization’s mission make it clear they are aware of this significance. However, there is a life balance, and a “moderate play” to the office culture as well. I’ve seen my office alter employee hours for religious holidays, one of my co-workers is an avid painter in her spare time, and my offer to check work emails and make a phone call during a travel weekend was thought of as “absurd.” Consequently, based on my office experiences and those of my classmates, I agree with aspects of Fox’s chapter that describe the British office environment being more relaxed than that of America. However, the extent to which her proposal that the British have a more relaxed work environment varies. Overall, I think there is a happy medium between “work hard play hard” and “work hard play moderately” that exists in the British workplace. It will be interesting to compare and contrast office environments in Britain with those in America as I hold consequent jobs at home.



The English Home, DIY, and Uber Drivers

Honestly, do-it-yourself decorations and home improvements are things I have never had the patience or artistic prowess to create. I tried to make a ribbon wall for my Polaroid pictures in high school, but I kinda gave up a tenth around my room, so it just ended up making my room look very awkward. I quickly learned how much the English were into DIY projects when I was researching how-to-do lists for gardening/decorating/fixing the Heron Way allotment. I researched how to make squash arches from PVC pipes, chicken runs, pallet furniture, and creative ways to reuse old tools. I could not help wondering if it would be cheaper and easier just to buy a tool holder instead of using a pallet to make one.  I guess for Americans like myself, this is the simple (and lazy) approach. But for the English, buying everything would take out the excitement and connection with the task. As noted in Fox’s book, DIY tasks give their home a sense of identity versus buying it off of Amazon, like I do every week. I guess to the English I am “basic.”

 

The English also like to keep the location of their home rather secretive, which Jack and I learned the hard way. The Saturday of the Wireless Music festival I left my keys and Gray’s keys in the backseat of an Uber (not my brightest moment). After calling the Uber driver several times, I finally was able to get an address of his “workplace” where I could go and pick up the keys. Jack accompanied me to pick them up on Monday. We had an Uber drop us off right outside of his workplace, but we found out once the Uber drove away that the side of the road we were on only was even numbered buildings. In order to get to the odd numbered buildings, we had to walk all the way across Finsbury Park. Thirty minutes later, we were outside the rather sketchy “workplace.”  The moral of this long-winded story is that it is easier said than done to find the English’s addresses. Real talk, though thanks Shahu for not using our keys to rob us. You’re the real MVP.

The help request I sent via Uber
The help request I sent via Uber


Work to Rule

Typical-Office

During my initial days of my internship, I found my new work environment confusing and unique from any internship I’ve had at home. As I read further into Kate Fox’s Watching the English, specifically the chapter on work, I began to understand that the things I found “weird” about my workplace, co-workers, and bosses are simply a part of English culture. Exemplifying the English “importance of not being earnest” that Fox stresses throughout the book, my bosses create a relaxed and friendly environment in our five-person studio. Unlike the typical American workplace in which workers sit at their individual desks and plow through work without really talking to their co-workers, my workplace is a very social and integrated environment. We all talk and help one another with work, and we sit down at a large table in the middle of the studio to eat lunch with one another everyday. We generally avoid talking about work while at lunch, making me feel as if I’m sitting down to eat a family meal. Even when I worked as a swim coach at Rice University last summer, the coaches, lifeguards, and I usually ate lunch individually, and our boss definitely never joined us.

While my bosses at my internship care about their business and getting efficient work done, they are also very lenient with arrival times. I attempt to arrive on time at 10AM everyday, but even on the days when I’m running late, I’m often the first one to the studio. My co-workers arrive late almost everyday, and my bosses occasionally run late as well. This further demonstrates Fox’s point that the “importance of not being earnest” rule in English culture extends to the workplace. Fox discusses the fact that if you’re work is interesting, then you are allowed to be interested in it. The nature of my bosses work makes itself thought provoking- they write articles and interview a wide variety of people in the community who they believe challenge the status quo of society. Thus, according to Fox, it is socially acceptable for them to act interested in it. However, Fox also states that while it’s acceptable to act invested in you’re work if it’s interesting, workaholics are still regarded as “sad and pathetic.” My bosses’ relaxation with arrival times and the friendly culture they create in their studio demonstrates that as interested as they are in their work, they avoid the English taboo of being workaholics.

Photo courtesy of Google Images



Shock to the System: the British Workplace

At the completion of my fifth week working in a British office space, I have come to notice that both the overall atmosphere of the workplace as well as the general mentality of those occupying it differ rather sharply with the American outlook. Indeed the contrast is about as stark as it is between the UK and US versions of “The Office”. As a general rule, the American workplace tends to support firm hierarchical structures and uses that as an incentive for employees to work harder. Such is not the case inside of the United Kingdom. Here, the office seems to maintain a decidedly more horizontal power scheme. At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, everyone works in the same room, the boss included, and stand on relatively familiar terms. In such an environment, promotion would likely have little motivational value given that a higher position would not come with any noticeable changes in workplace life.

This approach seems to generate a more casual, less industrious approach to work than we see in the United States. Kate Fox describes what she calls the “Importance of Not Being Earnest Rule” which she asserts describes the British need to not seem overzealous by working excessively hard. While this might raise the eyebrow of an inexperienced onlooker, I learned rather quickly that this is indeed the case. During my first week, I eagerly tackled every major assignment that I could and sought to produce quality results in a timely manner, as any American would. At times, I would complete an assignment that was meant to occupy substantially more of my time and my supervisor would be somewhat surprised. This isn’t to say that the English don’t value hard work, merely that they don’t see the need to push oneself excessively hard.

Moreover, Fox describes another trend which she calls the “moaning rule” by which it is essentially mandatory for one to complain about work and deliberate avoid the appearance of actually enjoying it. To be seen as overly content with a workload or even to actually enjoy it, where one does or not, would be to venture into the territory of being too earnest as mentioned above. It seems the rite of the complaint is not meant as an expression of genuine distaste for one’s assignment but is actually just a staple of office conversation. I was shocked at the casual attitude with which one of my fellow interns loudly declared his inability to focus and that he had not completed any significant work during the previous hour. As the Chief Executive was within earshot, I turned to him with a feeling of dread. Surely, this callous intern would receive some sort of reprimand for such gall? When I turned to him, he was simply laughing. My horrified response to the intern’s declaration seemed to have generated substantially more interest amongst the staff. It seems to me that, though the collective attitude towards work in Britain seems to be more casual with a collective acknowledgement of the ardors of work, the British workplace does maintain a level of professionalism necessary to operate a thriving commercial sector.



Unexpected Culture Shock

Before coming to London, I did not expect my internship to differ much from jobs I’ve already had in the States. Sure, I was aware that people in the UK speak with funny accents and that there would be some slightly different cultural nuances that I’d have to get used, but overall, I did not anticipate having a much different experience working here than I’ve had in my past. Over the past 6 weeks, however, it’s become clear that my initial expectations were wrong. Though Britain is America’s closest ally and claims a similar culture in many ways, I’ve really had to adjust to the workplace environment that I’ve been immersed in at Britannia Student Services.

In the United States, careers are taken very seriously. Throughout my life, I’ve seen young teens compete to get into the best private high schools, and young adults compete to get into the most prestigious universities. I’ve witnessed competition in the classroom and in extracurricular activities and clubs. For the most part, I’ve noticed that a large number of students do everything that they can to get ahead of one another with the ultimate goal of positioning themselves for success later in life. Now, at W&L, I’m surrounded by students competing to get the best, highest-paying jobs after graduating from college. I’ve learned that being successful in American society takes somewhat of a cut-throat, nose to the grindstone mentality. Though this outlook does not apply to all American students and workers, it has certainly been prevalent in my life thus far. In London, people’s attitudes are completely different.

Like Kate Fox said in her chapter on work, the English take their work seriously, but not too seriously. They avoid talking about money, and find trade and business to be awkward. Additionally, they carry into the workplace all of their cultural rules. In my experience at Britannia, I have found all of these points to be true. While maintaining a sense of seriousness, my workplace is laid-back and casual, rather than strict and intense like many work environments in the U.S. In my office, money-talk is a taboo, and is avoided – my coworkers often dance around business talk, instead of getting straight to the point. Again, this is unlike my experiences in the U.S., where conversation not related to business in the workplace is often short and sweet; it’s more of a forced formality. Finally, I’ve been exposed to the humor and culture of the English in my office more so than any other time or place in London so far. The societal rules that Kate Fox has outlined, including those on humor, the weather, and conversation show themselves regularly in my office, and I had never experienced any of them before in my life.

As an American, I expected British workplace culture to parallel that of the States. In my opinion, the fact that I started off my internship with this outlook is likely the main reason why I have had so many moments of perplexity and disorientation in my office; if I had expected cultural shock, the foreign aspects of my office would not have been such a surprise to me. Where I expected an environment of complete compatibility and mutual understanding between U.S. and UK culture, the oddities of English work culture have proved me wrong, and this has been truly humbling.



Rules of the Road

TaxiReading Fox’s chapter on “Rules of the Road,” I noticed some big differences between English and American culture, especially with regard to to the part of the States where I’m from. Fox observes that interaction between English commuters on the train or Underground is almost nonexistent, with a few interesting exceptions. While I haven’t spent much time on public transportation (there’re no underground lines in Kennett, Missouri or Memphis, Tennessee or Lexington), I feel that I talk to people when I am taking a shuttle, bus, or train. I’ll usually try to find common ground by inspecting them. For example, when I see someone in an Ole Miss shirt, I’ll drop a subtle “Hotty Toddy” and ask them what they think about the Rebels’ chances next season. If they are reading a book I’ve read, I’ll ask them what they think about a particular chapter or section. I find that the ride is much easier and less awkward when you recognize each other’s presence and acquaint yourselves.

Fox mentions that English people commonly open up to one another and ignore the “denial rule” when they can moan and complain together. This was one thing I do think is common in the US. When I’ve been at an airport gate and the flight is delayed, everyone will say “Delta does it again” or “this happens every time when I connect through Atlanta” (people complain about the Atlanta airport a lot). While this is a great icebreaker, I don’t find that Americans then follow the complaint with a strong fear of continued conversation. If anything, it’s an easy way to get to know someone.

“Oh, do you fly through here often?”

“The same thing happened to me just last week when I was headed to…..”

I also found the car rules to be different. For me, this difference applies more to small town America than bigger cities in the US. Growing up, I always found it common to wave and nod from the car to people passing through town. I would even honk when passing a friend or pull up next to someone to wave hello if I recognized their vehicle. This is a change from the “invisibility” of the car “castle” that Fox discusses.

I think I prefer our way of interacting when traveling. It’s a small world, and you never know when you’ll run into a friend of a friend or someone with an interesting story to tell.

Car wave



Home Rules

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At W&L, there is no privacy. Everyone knows everyone, we see each other all the time, and there are no secrets. While W&L might represent an extreme due to its small size, I imagine that most other colleges in America are the same way. As a generally private person, one of the things I look forward to on breaks is the ability to go back to Houston and relax in the privacy of my own home. Relative to college life, my home is incredibly private. However, after reading “Home Rules” in Kate Fox’s Watching the English, I discovered the extreme extent to which the English appreciate privacy in their homes. Kate Fox describes the fact that English streets are windy and change names often and house numbers are very obscure making it incredibly hard to find people’s homes. While I consider my home private, it is easily traceable on a map. Fox calls this difficulty in locating English homes the “Moat and Drawbridge Rule”- the English treat their homes like their personal castles, and the convoluted street names and numbers are their effective moat and drawbridge.

Other characteristics of English households that Fox describes further reiterate the importance of privacy to the English in their homes. According to Fox’s “Nest-Building Rule,” the English take great pride in implementing DIY work in their households. I did not find the implementation of DIY work in English homes any different from American homes- my father insists on building everything in our home himself, fixing everything that breaks himself, painting all the walls himself and so on. While the DIY rule itself does not differ much from the culture of American households, the class rules surrounding showing off not just DIY work in the household but general household décor differs between American and English society. According to Fox, showing visitors around the household is characteristic of the lower and middle-middles class. From the upper-middles and above, showing off the household is disapproved of, and it is considered improper to notice one’s surroundings when visiting someone else at their home. These class rules struck me as unique from American culture. Whenever my dad builds something new, redesigns part of the house, or redecorates, he is eager to show other people. This eagerness to show off the home is not just unique to my father and is characteristic of many other families of every class in Houston as well, including the wealthy ones. In driving through some of the incredibly upper-class neighborhoods in Houston, it becomes obvious that many wealthy families build their homes for the sake of showing off to others. They welcome visitors by hosting dinner parties and various other functions just for the sake of showing off their homes. The difference in American and English attitudes towards showing off their homes further demonstrates the intense English desire for privacy in the household that we lack in America.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.



Mastering the Rules of the Road

As I was reading the “Rules of the Road” chapter of Kate Fox’s Watching the English, I felt like I was reading a summary of everything I’ve learned on public transportation since arriving in London. As soon as London Week, I realized that whenever we all travelled on the tube as a group, we were typically the only ones talking. That’s right, not just the only ones talking loudly – the only ones talking at all. For fear of being the stereotypically obnoxious American tourist disrupting the locals on their daily commute, I almost immediately learned to avoid eye contact, remain silent and keep all of my limbs and personal belongings confined to my own little box. I learned these rules by simply looking at the Englishmen and women all around me who were taking their tube ride in a similar fashion, being extremely respectful of each others’ comfort and respecting the “box” of space dedicated to each person (similar to the boxes mentioned in the “Home Rules” chapter, except instead of house and garden boxes, the boxes on tubes and busses can be seen as confined to a single seat or standing area just large enough for one person and perhaps a small bag). While it was rather easy to pick up these unspoken rules and even easier to follow them, I think doing so has actually been one of the wisest things I’ve done on this trip. Understanding and following through with these Rules of the Road have allowed me to camouflage my “outsider” status and further immerse myself in British culture.



The Weather

When I saw Watching the English began with a chapter on talking about the weather, I was not enthused. From my perspective, talking about the weather seemed to be a universal small talking point – it certainly is in the United States. However, as I read further I see it is a much more nuanced topic of conversations.

When I think about our interactions with local tour guides and Sara, some mention of the weather almost always starts off their spiel. At work, a comment is made either to me or out loud on multiple occasions. Most strikingly, I had a ten minute walk to the tube station with a coworker and our conversation only covered the weather in London, the weather back home, the weather in Florida, and the weather in different countries in Europe he had been to.

I thought the weather as a member of the family was a particularly astute observation. The weather as a family rule speaks to the subtleties of English culture in contrast with the volume focus of American culture.

Fox is correct in saying English weather-speak is a form of code, used to overcome our natural reservations, but that does not explain why it is so prevalent here. I disagree with her dismissal of Jeremy Paxmann’s theory. He says that the English fixation with the weather is a product of the variation in weather. I think to a certain extent talking about the weather’s popularity is certainly related to the volatility. I can’t imagine the consistent sunshine of the beaches of Spain is a popular talking point. London is by no means a tropical paradise and the fluctuations must contribute to their propensity to bring up the weather.




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