London Internship Program 2016

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Leaving London

As I sit alone in the apartment that once housed nine more members of my class, I’m thinking about all of the adventures that happened over the past seven weeks. It seems like time flew by so fast. During the first week, we visited so many different firms across the city. We’ve learned so much about British politics and culture it now seems weird that we’ve never paid as much attention to our own. I wonder if when we return, we will make all sorts of social and anthropological observations about America now that we have studied a society in-depth.

While working at the TaxPayers’ Alliance I was treated to firsthand experiences with British politics as the firm is an influential lobby group. My experience there has helped me to better understand how people in politics gather and present information to back up their positions and legislative initiatives. It was truly a treat to be here in London working for a lobby group at this uncertain time in Britain’s politics. I have benefited so much from being here through the Brexit referendum and the selection of a new Prime Minister. I’ve learned so much about the British parliamentary system which presents a stark contrast to our rigid constitutionalism in the United States.

While I certainly loved working at my internship, it’s perhaps my weekends that I will remember most distinctly. I have such a vivid memory of barely arriving to our first contemporary Britain class on a Monday morning. I came into London on a train from Derby at 8:00 am. I had sneaked off there on Sunday in order to attend a music festival which featured Iron Maiden as the headline act. That was just one of the opportunities we had in this country. We spend a full weekend in Edinburgh and managed to visit several Scottish regions while there. We spent a weekend in Bath and Welles. I even was able to go horseback riding in Windsor Park last weekend while only making reservations a few days in advance. London, one of the largest cities in Europe, offers so much that we have yet to discover.

I don’t doubt that many of us will return to England as soon as we can. I do think however, that I will attempt to spend more time in the countryside while “on holiday” as they say here. While London may be great, I know there is more still to England to Great Britain as a whole.

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.

Lord of the Castle: Home Rules

In the United States, it is considered part of the “American Dream” that one should own their own home. This idea became mainstream in the post-war period with the construction of uniform neighborhoods like Levitt Town. Despite the the abundance of affordable homes, the circumstances of their construction did not allow for a particularly strong tradition of individuality in the field of internal and external decoration. In Britain, the concept of home ownership has developed differently given the more clustered and urbanized environment in which the majority of people in the UK reside.

In Britain, “a man’s house is his castle” and homeowners take great pride in the maintenance of their dwelling places while also seeking privacy. Kate Fox suggests that British homeowners tend to name their estates rather prominently display their numbers. This is done to minimize attention and preserve privacy. Conversely, many Americans would find the naming of one’s home to be extremely pretentious and prefer to clearly display their addresses. Indeed, the practice of naming one’s home has frustrated me tremendously as some of my work for my internship has necessitated the securing of full addresses. Fox further suggests that the vast majority of British homeowners tend to improve their homes through do-it-yourself projects as opposed to private contractors. This comes in stark contrast to the American tradition, at least in the cosmopolitan part of the nation where logistics can often prohibit personal home improvement. Such practice is more common in the suburbs and rural areas of the United States.

Humorously, it seems that British society may adhere to the similarly fussy rules about matching furniture sets and general decoration. Fox specifically chooses to cite the necessity of a matching bath and toilet within one’s restroom. While I have not made a habit of observing the layouts and color schemes of the many bathrooms of which I have made use on this trip, I can attest to my own home. All of our bathrooms have white toilets and bathtubs. The same is true for the flat in which I currently reside. It seems, to violate this arrangement is considered a cardinal sin of British home decoration.

Yesterday, I was watching a sketch-comedy television series called That Mitchell and Webb Look. In the episode, British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb made fun of this exact phenomenon. The sketch depicts a real-estate agent showing a couple a new house while filming them for a reality show. The agent shows the young couple the bathroom which the find satisfactory. Though he tries to apologize for the state of the bath, the couple doesn’t understand, to the agent’s disgust. He demands that they take another look to see what is wrong with the bath. When the couple again find nothing wrong, the real-estate berates them for being fine with a avocado bathtub, sink, and toilet insisting that white is the only appropriate color. He continues to insult them when the female interrupts and declares her partiality towards the color scheme. At this point, the male prospective buyer, her husband, strangles her saying that it is for her own good. Sobbing, the man declares that he just “couldn’t live with it” to which the real-estate agent replies that he did the wright thing.

I have to say that, while I completely agree about the absurdity surrounding a colored bathtub, sink, and toilet scheme, the extent to which the British prize their home decoration rules does seem a tad odd.


Dionysian Labyrinths: Pub-Talk

After gallivanting  about London for nearly a month, I feel it is a safe assumption that I have frequented enough public houses to constitute an adequate sample size for assessment. While naturally each establishment is home to its own unique charm and atmosphere, the consistent nature of the social dynamic experienced myself seems to validate many of the assertions made by the anthropologist Kate Fox regarding the “Byzantine” nature of the appropriate social etiquette.

As the initial thoughts of an entrant pub-goer tend to primarily be concerned with the procuring of a drink, it only makes sense that the etiquette of the counter would be the first foreign atmosphere encountered by the prospective reveler. Fox discusses what she calls a “pantomime rule” in force when attempting to signal the bartender. Essentially, one has to effectively convey their need for service without resorting to verbal utterances or obvious physical gestures. This was one of the first strange customs I observed upon my arrival in the United Kingdom. At a crowded bar, the patrons are oddly silent unless already served and conversing with others in a similar situation. Those who are waiting tend to either swirl their empty glasses for all to see or make awkward eye contact with every bartender who passes their way. I’ve often found the best way to hail for service is to make a brief point of eye contact and to motion with my eyes towards my outstretched hand holding money.

Moreover, the order in which one is served seems to be based on an acknowledged, unspoken custom. It seems one simply has to trust that the bartender has noted the in order in which all patrons has arrived to the counter and is doing his best to serve them accordingly. Fox insists that the English bartenders tend to be particularly good at this though I personally have had mixed results. Sometimes I have witnessed several individuals come and go well before I have even been acknowledged. In such cases, I have no qualms about violating the “pantomime rule” and establishing my position in the queue. It’s also likely true that the adherence to these rigidly defined rules fluctuates depending on the level of business currently experienced by the bar staff. A crowded or understaffed establishment is more likely to see violations of these rules as the logistical burden caused by the larger number of patrons will affect the bartender’s ability to formulate a mental queue.

Nevertheless, Fox does seem to be accurate at least when it comes to the general social dynamic of pubs. They do seem to be places where normal rules of social etiquette tend to be relaxed. She notes that a pub may be the one place where it is considered socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger and even to proffer one’s own name with liberality. Indeed, on a recent trip to Edinburgh, our entourage went on a pub crawl and were actually engaged in conversation by two locals on the merits of gun control and the likeliness of a Brexit. While I am certain that they introduced themselves, I must confess that their names have since escaped me. Thus far, the pub does seem to be the venue that offers the most colorful of experiences.

Mixed Results: Is Grooming-talk Real?

When one visits a foreign country for an extended period of time, it is only natural that one will eventually have to go through the ordeal of meeting new people in this unfamiliar environment. Customs may different. Behavior that, to an American, may seem entirely appropriate and indeed, even polite, may seem unkempt or merely strange to the observant Briton. Kate Fox describes a societal concept prevalent in England which she calls “Grooming Talk” as a means of obtaining information about another person in a circumlocutious manner.

Fox asserts that, to the British, it is something of a breech of etiquette to offer up one’s personal information to quickly, including one’s name. As she would tell you, explicitly asking for one’s name or inquiring as to their profession, place of residence, marital status, or any other piece of personal data is evidently impolite. She suggests using “grooming talk” to gradually accumulate modest amounts of information and then to make the inquiry in the form of an interrogative statement. This is allegedly British social orthodoxy.

My experiences thus far in meeting new people lead me to question this assertion as a universally-held social point. Depending on the context in which I’ve met various individuals, this concept of “grooming talk” has and hasn’t been prevalent. When first arriving at my internship for example, the context was slightly different as my name was already known to the staff. I was greeted with a form a “grooming talk” as the interrogative statement made an appearance. “I assume you’re Ben, the new intern correct?” was my welcome to the office. In a change of direction however, the pretense of this grooming talk was dropped in favor of very direct questions about my background including my areas of  study, personal interests, and experiences in London thus far. This was certainly a far cry from the mandatory bashfulness and awkward disposition demanded by Fox.

Outside of work, the use of this “grooming talk” seems to vary with age. While as an initial means of beginning a conversation, grooming talk seems to quick disappear from the conversation with younger individuals in favor of a less subtle frankness. An early excursion to a pub in the first week saw a table of local college-aged girls engage me in conversation, initially on the pretense of my evident foreign status which they inferred from hearing my accent. Quickly however, they dropped all subtlety and simply asked a flurry of direct questions while freely offering up their own personal information.

Mirroring this disuse of “grooming talk” amongst the young, is its prevalence amongst older individuals. While touring Scotland, our tour guide seemed intent on following Fox’s guidelines to the letter. Fascinated by the abundance of historical knowledge in his possession, I spoke with him at length regarding the Scottish Wars of independence and exercise tact just to learn where he studied at University. While perhaps my sample populations may be skewed in that, in the case of the tour guide and my supervisor, names were presented earlier, it does seem to me that there exists a clear dichotomy between the social practices of the younger and previous generations with regards to “grooming talk”.

Pride in Professionalism: The Work Week

With my completion of the first week of my already memorable stint with the TaxPayers’ Alliance, I continue to progress through my protracted initiation into professional life. I began this venture in earnest on Tuesday, arriving at the complex somewhat prematurely. Upon arrival, I discovered my future workplace associates engaged in a preliminary planning meeting. Believing I had unwittingly intruded on their administrative planning, I remained quiet, in an admittedly awkward fashion and waited patiently to be addressed. Despite this mild falter, I was well-received by the head of the organization, one Jonathan Isaby, who rescued me from that potential social quagmire. I was immediately set at ease by his demeanor, though he wore a full business suit and carried himself in a relatively formal manner, every ounce the right and proper British politician, he seemed enthused by my presence. I strongly suspect that the place of my nativity played a critical role in fostering this apparent amiability as all of the workers seemed curious as to my interest in British politics.

I was quick to note marked prevalence of youth within what the Guardian had called “the most influential pressure group in the United Kingdom”. By my estimate, nearly all of the staff could not have claimed over twenty-six years on this earth. Even Mr. Isaby himself could not be more than forty years of age. I quickly found myself in the favor of my supervisor upon learning of my associates’ names. Working closely with me were three men, all of them named Harry. I was informed that they were to be addressed as “Harry I, Harry II, and Harry III” to which I responded that the office was a veritable House of Plantagenet. Mr. Isaby, an apparent lover of history found that remark humorous and it was clear that I had earned his good graces. I felt confident within the first ten minutes that this office fostered a workplace environment conducive to positive reinforcement and competent administration.

With essentially no orientation, my supervisor, Harry I, set me about my first task. Every year, the TaxPayers’ Alliance produces a report on the combined impacts of the Air Passenger Duty, the Insurance Premium Tax, and the Value-added Tax on the British taxpayers which attempts to illustrate the hindering effects of these excises on the average British holiday maker. With minimal guidance and only a single suggested source, I was instructed to produce this report. Initially overwhelmed by the level of autonomy entrusted to me, I resolved to complete the report by the end of the week. To my delight, I would accomplish this ambitious goal albeit barely within my personally-allotted timeframe. I spent the majority of my first week rifling through datasets from the Office for National Statistics, reading over Parliament’s various finance acts and excise notices, and researching travel insurance quotes for different locales and group sizes. Upon final review, it is my understanding that this report will be officially published on the TPA website and circulated to the organization’s mailing list which includes several prominent Members of Parliament and United Kingdom politicians. I eagerly await feedback from the general public.

Landing in London: Culture Shock

After but a short time in London, I quickly abandoned any and all preconceived notions of English culture and society that I had previously held. Though not my first visit to Her Majesty’s realm, more than fifteen years had passed since I last set foot on British soil. What pretensions to expertise on the region I maintained were fostered largely by history books, network news, and of course a plethora of Charles Dickens novels. Though I hardly expected visit the England of David Copperfield, my sources of information combined to impress on me a strong perception of exoticism surrounding the nation that had once ruled the United States.

Landing at Heathrow Airport, my cab ride into London did much to dispel my incorrect beliefs about the city. What first stirred my curiosity was the presence of modern edifices in the city center. My exploits in Iberia the previous summer took me to remote villages and major cities alike, all of which retained the distinct architectural and cultural aspects of the Romantic Era. Unlike the cities of Spain with which I had become closely acquainted, the major commercial districts of London were at the city’s heart. Modern buildings were interspersed in haphazard ways between Tudor and Victorian edifices. It occurred to me that this was the result of the London Blitz and IRA bombings which left many holes in the city blocks to be rebuilt after the war. This first, markedly visible disparity was a loud message that England had moved beyond its past and entered the 21st century.

Firmly aware of the United Kingdom’s current and historic role as a major stakeholder in the global economy, I was excited to visit the centers of industry and meet with enterprising capitalists over London Week. This was a sobering experience as I admittedly did hold to a decidedly Victorian image British enterprise and corporate culture. Traveling to many major firms among them Ernst & Young, CNBC, and Facebook, I was amazed at the informality of the corporate culture across all industries. Suits were viewed as relics of a by-gone age. Vertical hierarchical structures were viewed as organizational technicalities. Even relevant education as a hiring prerequisite seemed to have fallen by the wayside. This presented stark contrast not just with the Britain of the Imperial Era but with the modern American corporate world.

Indeed, the only bastion of the traditional order of things was Lloyd’s, Britain’s historic and still-thriving insurance trading center. Though the building was decisively modern, loosely resembling a coffee machine, the organization was everything I expected. We were greeted and accompanied by two incredibly polite gentlemen sporting three-piece suits. Here, the traditional dress prevailed. Enterprising underwriters and brokers cavorted with one another to secure international cargo among other assets. I was fascinated by the rich history of the industry and indeed, our guides seemed only too thrilled to discuss the exploits of their Admiral Lord Nelson and the hey-day of the British fleet when Lloyd’s was still a coffee shop. It seems I found one thing that hasn’t changed.