flowing motion

Is UK drifting towards a “nothing allowed” culture?

Posted on: July 3, 2009

Idiosyncracies that we love

I am a serial migrant and one thing you learn “on the road” is that every community has phrases and ideas that are deeply coded.  They simply don’t mean what they sound as if they mean.

When I first arrived in UK, I heard people saying “Bless”, quite a lot.  I even asked someone what they meant.

It was a dumb thing to do, of course. When he said “Bless”, he was saying “Oh sod off, I can’t be bothered with your troubles.”  He certainly wasn’t going to translate accurately.

He said he was commiserating.  And no, he did not follow through on what I was asking him to do and what I though he was obliged to do. Lol.

Legal systems differ

I remember someone returning from UK to Zimbabwe after studying for four years here and he told us seriously that he was going to study face recognition because it was important in jury trials.

I remember looking around the room and thinking, “Who is going to tell him?”   No one spoke up, so I said as gently as I could, “X, we don’t have juries in Zimbabwe.”

And we don’t have juries in Zimbabwe not because of the current troubles but because we have Roman-Dutch law.  So does South Africa, and oddly Sri Lanka.

On the look out for deep differences

Because of this difference, I am always on the look out for things that I just “don’t get” – where I might be jumping the wrong way because I grew up in another system.

Look at this quotation from a famous US lawyer, Newton Minow.

“After 35 years, I have finished a comprehensive study of European comparative law. In Germany, under the law, everything is prohibited, except that which is permitted. In France, under the law, everything is permitted, except that which is prohibited. In the Soviet Union, under the law, everything is prohibited, including that which is permitted. And in Italy, under the law, everything is permitted, especially that which is prohibited.[9]

Which category does UK fit in to?

It is my understanding that Roman law fits into the German camp.  Unless I am allowed to do it, I can’t.

And it is my understanding, that English law (I am not sure about Scots law) is in the French category.  Do whatever you like.  We will say if you can’t.

An example of how these differences create confusion

This is how confusion arises in practice.

When I read a sign that says “Parking is Permitted with a Permit from 10-11 and 2-3”, my first reaction is puzzlement – followed by a eh? Why would I want to park here from 10-11 and 2-3?

No, it doesn’t mean that at all.  It means you can park here whenever you want, but you must

a) move your car between 10-11 and 2-3

or

b) buy a ticket.

I bet you thought that was obvious.  I am still confused every time I see that sign but as it only costs 40p to park there all day it is a confusion I will put up with.

Does this difference account for the nanny state and other British wonders?

When I heard the Unions negotiating for workers to go to work in shorts during this past very hot week, I got into a Twitter conversation about the nanny state and I started to wonder if this difference accounts for differences in management style as well.

The differences between Germanic and Anglo meetings

Meetings in Germanic countries are brisk.  You go in armed with facts and figures and MAKE DECISIONS, quickly and definitively.

Anglo meetings swirl around this way and that with no agenda and no outcome.  As an American-trained, Indian-born manager used to say in NZ (nudging me with his elbow and whispering out the side of his mouth):  “Sit back and wait. We will be here for the next hour discussing process and there will be no goal”.  Sure enough, for the next hour we discuss who wants what.  What we are trying to achieve collectively is not mentioned at all.  Who knows whate we were there for but we’ve had a spirited discussion about individual preferences.

What does it mean to ‘manage’ in the two systems?

I think I prefer a system where everything is allowed unless it is prohibited.

But possibly when you grow up in  system like that you aren’t used to designing systems or spaces where things happen.

And then you get a profileration of crazy rules.  10 signs per 100 yards, or whatever the figure is for British roads.

And it also means that one of your choices in life is to sit and do nothing.  Though some people are trying to prohibit that too.  This illustrates my point.  Designing and organizing for action is quite different from banning the few things that we may not do. Banning someone from doing X will not get them to do Y.

Alternatives

This thought process is starting to feel like ‘reaching’ to me.  But to try to illustrate my point.

What if you simply told people to drive safely and they will be accountable for what they smash into?

What if you told people to pay their taxes but that we would display online how much they paid?

Life can be made very simple if we choose.

And we shouldn’t have to tell people what to wear to work.  Really. If it is hot, wear shorts.  If it is cold, wear a jumper.

Of course, if you cannot afford a change of clothes, that would be my concern.  I’ve been brought up in system where managers are supposed to make things possible.  We are certainly accountable if people cannot see the way forward and don’t have the resources to get there.

Have a great weekend!

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