A Point of View: To see yourself as others do
- 4 July 2014
- From the section Magazine
Understanding other people's opinions of us is a good thing, says AL Kennedy.
Seeing ourselves as others see us. Robert Burns referred to it as a giftie - a small gift. "Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as other see us." It doesn't always feel like gift. Back when I was a community arts worker, I once took part in a drama exercise which involved a whole group observing each of its members and then imitating them. And, yes, when it came to my turn and the room filled with various slope-shouldered facsimiles of the way I shuffled round the place I did discover that the only thing more dispiriting than me was me multiplied by 30. What made it worse was that nobody meant it badly - they were just being accurate.
Then again, the revelation of myself as a simian homunculus did make me adjust my posture which was, in fact, a little gift. And I wonder if Britain could do with a taste of that giftie, given our increasing tendencies towards introversion.
When the UK's Office of National Statistics recently released its analysis of European contentment levels, Britain came out a little above average. Now, I have my doubts about the discipline of Happiness Economics - it can seem less about encouraging general happiness and more about observing the usual upwards concentration of wealth and who still manages to be cheery nonetheless. But I was interested to see that Britain was rated second lowest in Europe when it came to feelings of attachment to our communities and that we counted as third lowest in confidence that we can count on others for help. This didn't seem happy at all.
Although it didn't surprise me. I've just returned from a brief tour across France, Austria and Germany where I noticed, again, a stark contrast to the increasing UK habit of public preoccupation - the tablets we stare at, the semi-permanent headphones, the mobiles we constantly have to tend - this eagerness to avoid reality simply doesn't transfer into Europe. It's not particularly evident when I'm in the US. These are only personal observations, but there does seem to be something about Britain, particularly the south-east of Britain, the most densely populated areas of Britain, which makes inhabitants want to retreat into their own artificial environments with virtual companions and to avoid the world as it is. In many other countries people, you know, chat. Simone de Beauvoir might still hang out with Sartre at Les Deux Magots in Paris without Jean Paul's ongoing android game of Plants Versus Zombies intruding.
Don't get me wrong, I love being isolated and for that matter mildly fearful of the outside world and change - I don't, initially relish the unfamiliar. If you invite me round to your place, I'll stay in the kitchen - my kitchen. And yet I know that if I follow what seems to be the UK trend - insulated when outside home, sealed off from neighbours and my community, then I won't prosper. A number of psychologists - Professor Richard Wiseman notable among them - have studied factors that help people live effective, contented and apparently lucky lives. And if you want to be happy and lucky, you can arrange it - open your life to chance events, be aware of and respond to reality, have a wide social circle with lots of support and information being exchanged. Which sounds reasonable, even to me and even though it goes against the grain I do try my best in the recommended directions. And when I read the recent survey from Plymouth University saying that 18-23-year-olds increasingly pre-drink before going to pubs and clubs because otherwise they'd be too scared to go out, I feel for them. Other people can be scary at first. Then again without them, I'd be stuck at home with only my own opinion of myself as it wavers between the apocalyptic and the grandiose. I do need to see myself as others see me, to average out the opinions and find my own right size.
And, naturally, leaving my comfort zone, my own country, having a go at other languages, other foods, other trains - that can be a worry. But, again, being granted an outside eye on my nationality can be highly educational. I remember sitting in a restaurant during one German visit and being asked by chums what I felt like eating. As a joke, I, rather too loudly, announced, in English "Chips and beer and too much beer." I didn't, of course, want chips. I don't, of course, drink. And my chums were mildly amused, but around us the restaurant politely tensed in case there was indeed a cholesterol-craving, hard-boozing, monoglot Brit amongst them, about to be charming in the usual loud and awkward ways. That was how they saw me. So I ordered my salad and mineral water auf deutsche and was very quiet.
It was a healthy lesson. Just as it's been interesting to read the official Chinese newspaper The Global Times' latest comments on China's attitude to Britain - "A rising country should understand the embarrassment of an old declining empire and at times the eccentric acts it takes to hide such embarrassment." Maybe that's not entirely accurate, but maybe it's not entirely false, either. Possibly, if we behaved more like a healthy, outgoing individual as a nation and took account of others' opinions of us then we might get more help, feel more part of the world community and be more lucky, make those chance connections that can change our lives, move outside the rigid habits and assumptions that reassure but also trap us. I know that endless tussles with the EU play well at home, but the EU's view of Britain might be that we're always yelling in a corner about chips. That fight over Juncker, or budgets, or bananas - it might just be that Europe finds our attitude unhelpful, even if we have a point. For some we're the country without craft skills, the ones who can't cope with languages, the cross-eyed puppy in the pet shop window that nobody wants.
But any national identity is complex and external perspectives on them can be fascinating, even moving, rather than just chastening. A while ago I attended an event prefaced by a short film - made by Germans - on the UK. And there were some castles, and a bit of royal glitter and the style we had in the 60s - the close-cut trousers, the gentleman's suits. But above all the film was about the way we're funny. I don't mean that we're a joke. Although we can be - who can't. I mean, I travel a lot, and truly, in general - the world thinks we're funny. We make them smile. Not just Monty Python or Eddie Izzard - Freddie Frinton. Scandanavia adores Freddie Frinton. We don't even remember him, or his kind of slapstick film "Dinner For One" but every New Year in Switzerland, Germany and Austria a musical hall comedian from Grimsby is making people happy in black and white. We return the compliment by saying Germans have no sense of humour. David Cameron might do a whole lot better in Brussels if he turned up with George Osborne and they just hit each other with fish. Or at least ditched the old empire dignity and got real, looked beyond "the way things have always been done", compared notes to see what works best.
We can be outgoing. Even stiff old London during the 2012 Olympics was an opened city with increased disabled access, happy visitors, happy locals, happy Brits who were in a new context and liking it. I recall riding the tube one Olympic day and assisting a stranger with her coat, the man beside me softly offered, "We don't usually help each other, do we ? Or talk to each other." We smiled. And whether we offer courtesy to a stranger or a donation to a food bank, when we're connected we see ourselves differently and we all do better. The Commonwealth Games in my old home town Glasgow may well bring another reminder that we truly enjoy ourselves by enjoying each other, seeing and being seen - as others see us.
A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
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