In spite of its troubles, Britain has a couple of endearing qualities that seem to get it through most things. The first is that we not only tolerate eccentricity, but we actively welcome it. Silliness and absurdity are good here, and we have plenty of it (witness the drop-down box for 'Title' on the Royal Opera House registration here -> http://goo.gl/cWdlr ... How posh are we!). We even have a political party founded upon it (http://goo.gl/WfnMq).
But to understand why it so revered, you need to understand the second quality -- a rather peculiar form of humour that uses silliness, pompousness and any other form of posturing as raw material for good natured exposure. You find this in healthy families and workplaces, but it's in traditional English pubs that it's most visible. There you see little groups engaging in a form of mockery and character assassination that anywhere else in the world would be classed as mental abuse.
A lot of this is quite subtle, and difficult to at first detect. A pompous, self-righteous or boastful person will often be encouraged ("Oh, did you really?" "Do tell us about it!") purely to harvest material that can then be carefully laid out, in all its mis-glory, for everyone to laugh at. If you have a tendency to take yourself a little too seriously or enjoy the sound of your own voice - beware! Any attempt to impress will have the exact opposite effect. And nothing is sacred. Don't be surprised if you walk into your 'local' with a new girlfriend and -- after the initial pleasantries -- your sexual prowess is immediately brought into question!
Most foreigners just don't know what to make of this, and tend to give these groups a wide birth in case they their own persona becomes fodder for their teasing too.
But look close and you'll see there's nothing at all sinister here. Even though insulting or even heated words may be used, the relaxed postures and quick smiles reveal something else is going on. Teasing is a sign that you are liked, in spite of the mask you wear -- your faults and follies are amusing, not distressing. Watch carefully and you'll see there are as many perpetrators as 'victims' - everyone and everything is fair game... and even though nothing is off limits, everyone ends up laughing.
It's laughter therapy of the most brutal kind, but by God it works. No matter what kind of day you're having, you cannot leave without feeling humbled, yet closer and better. (BTW, my kids are all experts at this. They know just how to keep each other -- and me -- real. They are masters of irony, and can keep such a straight face that it's often hard to tell whether they are joking and teasing, or not).
Look closer still, and you can actually see a well-defined structure to all this:
The unwritten 'constitution’ prescribes reciprocity, equality, the pursuit of intimacy and a tacit non-aggression pact. There's also two unspoken commandments enshrined in this ritual, knowledge of which is mandatory for effective participation. The first is: 'Thou shalt not take anything, especially yourself, too seriously.' And the second: 'Be prepared to laugh at yourself, because you most surely will be teased." These unwritten rules are not at all restrictive or inhibiting -- quite the opposite -- they are designed to crack the toughest shells, opening to more communication and to places we would normally never dare to go. And finally, the golden-rule that ties this all together is, 'don't forget to laugh!'
But here's the beautiful paradox of this ritual: It is both social-bonding on steroids AND it gives you permission to go and express your Self without holding back (regardless of the outcome of that Self expression and no matter what fears or foibles come to the surface in the process). You are free to be as eccentric as you like when 'eccentricity' is cherished... and fear of failure or ridicule disappears completely when the idea of 'everyone laughing' includes you! It's the perfect environment to learn and grow.
It also allows for arguments that are incredibly joyful affairs, where real meaning is created.
Steve Jobs was aware of the effect of this (although I'm not so sure he fully understood the 'why' and the 'how' of it). He told Tim Cook,"My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts." What actually happened was throughout the massive changes and pressures from suddenly being shot to stardom, they engaged in this same good natured barracking that kept them grounded, kept them cheerful and kept them creative. You saw this every time they were together, in interviews and in private, 'on screen' and off.
This is a great model for business, but it also a great model for any community.
There are many 'serious professional types' who would scoff at the frivolity of this simple approach and question its relevance to the big issues we face today, but I would disagree. Restoring and maintaining the happiness and wellbeing of your people as 'job 1', is to put the horse back in front of the cart... and it's only in this frame of mind that we become truly creative. And that's all we need do. The resulting inspiration and new found creativity takes care of the rest. When you have the ability to create what we really want, you no longer have to worry about what you don't.
So please... don't forget to laugh! :)
DEDICATION: I dedicate this post to my four children -- Jedi Masters in the art of persona dissection and playful teasing, and to my partner and step daughter who had such a shock walking into this... but are now appear more real, more radiant and more lovely because of it.
PHOTO CREDIT: +Chung Huynh
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