Struggling with English negativity

One of the difficulties of trying to develop new ideas back here in England is the culture’s all-pervasive undercurrent of negativity.

English negativity is like the English weather. Back in Australia, a storm would often dump as much as a millimetre of rain a minute: you knew when it was raining… In Ireland or Scotland or Wales, or even up in the north of England, a break in the cloud can be an event rare enough to occasion lively comment. Here, in the south-east of England, the top end of the scale on the rainfall radar is barely at the start of the Australian one: but what it lacks in volume, it makes up in uncertainty. There’s not that much rain: but we never know when it’s going to appear without warning, dampening every spirit. Everywhere, all of the time, there’s always that subtle threat: “scattered showers”, says the forecast – day after day after day… The sun may shine briefly, just enough to lull us into a sense of safety, of warmth, of ripening; and then down comes the rain once more, nothing much, a miserable drizzle, perhaps, but dampening everything, dampening spirits, dampening any option of enjoyment. The rain may not be much, but it pervades everything, soaking to the skin, chilling the bones; you catch a cold; get ill; maybe not die as such, but shrivel to a debilitated nothingness. The death of purpose, of creativity, of reason to be. After a few decades of this smothering greyness, there’s not even enough energy left to despair: all that’s left is an all-pervading sense of pointlessness, with nothing to point to to say why…

English negativity destroys all possibility of innovation and inventiveness – “it’ll never work”, people say; “it’s been done before”. It doesn’t even have the personal touch of the Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’: here, the poppies never get a chance to get out of the ground, let alone tall enough to notice. You have to be strong to survive this: unfortunately I’m not… I’ve had perhaps far more than my fair share of this, though, because by nature the ideas I work on tend to be ten, twenty, fifty or more years ahead of the market – which is not a good place to be, financially or otherwise. Quite often I’ll have so-called ‘friends’ come up to me and ask what I did with some or other ‘brilliant’ (their word, not mine) idea I’d worked on a decade or so ago: the short answer is that it came to nothing – because they all jumped on it from a great height, whilst purporting to help by putting it (and me) down, constantly, persistently, day after day, month after month, year after year…

In its way, it’s a kind of terrorism – but the worst kind of terrorism, because it cannot be touched, cannot even be seen, yet causes people to give up all hope. I often wonder whether any other culture than the English could have created Eeyore, or Marvin the Paranoid Android – two of literature’s greatest depressives, infectious in their unrelenting pessimism. It’s no wonder Australians dismiss the English as ‘whingeing Poms’: a vapid, stultifying nothingness, supercilious in its assumed superiority, vampiric in its draining of all energy and joy.

Welcome to England and the English mindset, folks: you’re welcome to keep it…

And I’m stuck here for the while. Oh well…

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8 comments on “Struggling with English negativity
  1. Caroline says:

    Hi Tom – I’ve read some of your books and recently noticed you had a blog too.

    I know what you mean about English negativity… but isn’t it odd that there are quite a few innovators here all the same… you included!

    The vampires are more of a problem…

  2. Tom G says:

    Hi Caroline

    Yeah, agreed “there are quite a few innovators here” – I just wonder how many more there would be if there wasn’t this cultural addiction to negativity. A lot more, would be the answer, I suspect…

    Notice, too, how easy to pretend it doesn’t happen: “isn’t it odd… quite a few… just the same”. First requirement in facing down this type of violence – and yes, don’t delude yourself on that, it is indeed violence, using the flat definition of “propping self up by putting other down” – is to stop denying that it happens. Once you stop pretending, stop defending the violence, then you’ll start to see just how prevalent it is: it’s a full-scale addiction at every level, right the way up to the national scale. Then start adding up the real cost – especially as ‘opportunity cost’ – and you’ll start to realise just how destructive this obsession really is.

    But first, please, don’t defend it; don’t deny it exists. It hurts enough already without throwing that into the mix, y’know… for those of us who can see the sheer scale of the sheer bloody waste of so many otherwise-creative lives, it does indeed hurt like hell…

  3. Caroline says:

    Ouch.

    Clearly not as encouraging as I’d meant it to be… and now I feel thoroughly beaten up by your response to me!

    I used to work in research and had plenty of negativity thrown at me. It was clear that “creative Caroline” was an insult rather than an encouragement… despite being in Hewlett-Packard’s Research Labs! I’ve even been told off in an art class for being too happy whilst being creative. So no I’m not blind to it, or denying it….

    I feel you are yourself being extremely violent here. You need to get off this dimension not keep on twanging it!

  4. Caroline says:

    Sorry, I think I was being rather defensive there…

  5. Tom G says:

    Hi Caroline – apologies for the way-too-long delay in replying – been way too tied up in getting the new book to bed…

    Quick comment would be “oops”, on my part – we’ve done a beautiful job of pushing each others’ buttons, I fear… Not intended… just me being “rather defensive” too, from what felt like a putdown even though (from your following comment) it wasn’t intended that way. Apologies on that too.

    Yet, yeah, notice how the energy gets wasted – those of us who actually _are_ creative (which doesn’t seem to be a choice, but a sometimes painful fact of our lives) get so raw and prickly from the endless assaults and putdowns that it’s all too easy to overreact. Which we _both_ did. Oh well.

    Surviving the putdowns is one thing; counting the cost of the sheer _waste_ is another… Just how much opportunity-cost did HP accrue through all those oh-so-‘funny’ putdowns of “creative Caroline”, I wonder – it hurt you a lot, but it hurt them hard too, even though they’re too blind to see it…

    English negativity ain’t fun: it’s a carefully-concealed culture of violence, from which _no-one_ wins. And the first requirement for facing violence is to stop condoning it – stop pretending it doesn’t exist. We all know it’s there. We all know the cost of it. We all know that no-one wins from it – especially in the long term. So why not turn round and call it for what it is?

    But gods I do hate my ‘home’-country sometimes… hey ho….

  6. Bessy says:

    Appreciative Inquiry (AI) has something to offer in facilitating transformation from negativity to what is life-giving. Speaking from an Australian perspective, AI seems to be striking a chord and taking root in particular communities and organizations. For inspiration, the Appreciative Inquiry Commons is a worthwhile browse.
    http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/whatisai.cfm

  7. Tom G says:

    Hi Bessy – thanks for comments. I came across Appreciative Inquiry a couple of times when I was back in Australia – mainly in the futures space. But it seems to be all but unknown here in Britain – yet another illustration of how backward the ‘big countries’ are in their understanding of whole-of-enterprise architecture, I guess.

  8. Bessy says:

    Hi Tom, as someone steeped in an analytical and systemic/structural framework of thinking (and proud of it), I was sceptical about AI at first as it unfolded as the preferred model in my current workplace and quickly gained momentum. Did it have a sound theoretical base or was it a tad Polyanna-ish, I wondered? I had real concerns that AI’s exclusive focus on the positive, held risks for sweeping painful aspects of organisations under the carpet and allowing them to remain unattended (a great out for those who are uncomforable dealing with conflict). I felt considerable resistance within myself about its wholesale adoption as the only framework for community and organisational change (a great believer in drawing on a range of frameworks and methods). But, lo and behold, in time, I’ve found AI appropriate for particular contexts and outcomes. P’rhaps the epistemologist in me is mellowing. Must be old age 🙂

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