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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category


Monday, August 14th, 2017

I have a colleague who is a non-native speaker of English, but who speaks basically fluent English. One gotcha is that he refers to “scrap paper” as “crap paper”—which, when you think about it, isn’t too unreasonable. It’s not unreasonable that “crap paper” could be a commonly-user term for paper that doesn’t have any focused use. I’ve been procrastinating for years about whether to mention this infelicity; it is probably too late now.

Bigger lesson—it is hard, when learning a language, to hoover up those that 0.01% of erroneous knowledge.

Dilemma (1)

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Here’s an interesting situation. Several times a year, I take part in university open days, where I sit behind a desk answering questions about courses from prospective students. Typically, at the undergraduate open days, the punters consist of a shy 16/17 year old and one or two rather more confident parents.

Here’s my problem. I don’t want to make the assumption that the older person is the accompanying parent and the younger person the prospective student. I’d be mortified if I made that assumption on the day that a parent, bringing their child with them for moral support or lack of childcare, was the prospective student. But, this happens so rarely that the parents and student just sit down assuming that I am going to read the situation as the obvious stereotype.

How should I react in this situation? Asking “which of you is the prospective student?” is treated as a joke or, more troublingly, as evidence of density or weirdness on my behalf. But I still feel uncomfortable making the assumption. I’ve taken to starting with a broad, noncommittal statement like “So, what can I do for you?” or “What’s the background here then?” and hoping that it will become obvious. That isn’t too bad, but there might be a better way.

More abstractly: we try to avoid stereotypes and making assumptions about people and situations based on initial appearance. But, what do you do when the stereotype is so commonplacely true that even the people being stereotypical are expecting that you will react using the stereotype as context?

Social Anxiety (1)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The idea that there is such a thing as the “thing to bring when you’re told not to bring a thing” (cf. last year’s Cadbury’s ads) is the sort of thing that brings the socially-anxious part of my brain out in a cold sweat.

The Squeezed Middle (1)

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

A few years ago I was having dinner in London (around 50 miles from home) when I felt ill towards the end of the meal. As a result, my journey back to the train station was delayed—I had to walk slowly, pause from time to time to avoid vomiting, etc.—and so I arrived at the station with only a couple of minutes before the last train home.

That got me thinking about what would happen if I had missed the train. I could have dealt with this by myself, by trying to find a hotel room or paying a fortune for a taxi all the way home. But, there are circumstances where this might not be possible—a smaller town with little accommodation, someone who, rather than being ill, had lost their wallet and train ticket and only realised this at the last minute, or who just didn’t have the money for this circumstance.

Had I been more seriously ill—say, if I had collapsed unconscious—then I would have been whisked to hospital and kept in overnight, even if the eventual cause had turned out to be fairly trivial. Bizarrely, I would have been in a better overall situation to have been more ill than less.

But what would have happened in the seemingly more minor situation? Would the police be in any way sympathetic, or would the situation be dismissed as trivial? Would a request to sit (awake, without disturbing anyone) in a police station foyer or a hospital waiting room be acceptable? If so, why is it acceptable for me (as a person with a house and job to go to who has just fallen on bad luck of an evening) to make such a request whilst a similar request from a homeless person would be dismissed out of hand.

This can have serious consequences. In the news this week was the story of Caroline Coyne, a severely drunk woman who was murdered. Earlier in the evening she had asked a police car for help with getting home, only to be dismissed with “we’re not a taxi”.

Shibboleth (1)

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

It is commonly stated that in-groups within e.g. careers or activities use specific language as a way of ensuring the coherence of the group and to exclude outsiders. I’m not too sure how reasonable this is—I can see some examples of it, but the argument often just boils over into the whole “all jargon is just obfuscation” argument, which seems wrong to me.

However, there is a variant on this which I think is more interesting. That is, the use of specific generic terms by people within a group. Comedians always refer to the places that they work in as “rooms”, and people in the theatre talk about “spaces”. IT people call computers “machines”. Classical musicians refer to the individual bits of music as “pieces”, and in music theatre the words are called the “book”. Is it possible that these specific choices act as these kind of in-group markers? Or is that just arbitrary—you have to call it something, and so you end up settling on one specific term? But, that argument seems a little flaky—there are also some perfectly good non-generic terms that could be used instead, that are if anything more informative—e.g. “computer” rather than “machine”.

I wonder if this has been studied properly at any point?

Subcultures and Social Class (2)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

It is a common failing of parents to view all subcultures as drop-out underclass cultures. When I was a teenager there were no significant subcultures at our (suburban, working-class) comprehensive school; by which, I mean that no-one was part of a recognisable national subculture like punks or skinheads. The view of my parents, and I suppose my own view at the time, was that these subcultures were all an underclass, people who had completely rejected the regular society around them.

It was a surprise, following this, to meet a lot of people from various subcultures at university. In particular, it was a complete shock to realise that some subcultures (Goth is a canonical example) were primarily middle-class. I think my parents were rather shocked to see me hanging around with what to them were the dregs of society—in practice, I was hanging out with people from what they would have viewed as respectable middle-class families.

Subcultures and Social Class (1)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

There have been a number of articles, a book even, about the idea that the concept of the Chav is anti-working-class. I’m not so sure. The problem that I have with this is that it has in the background the idea that the Chav subculture represents the core working class culture, rather than being a fairly small subculture within working class culture.

It is a pity that the idea of the decent, hard-working working class has faded into obscurity over the last couple of decades. To a lot of commentators in the media, the term working class means feckless underclass; anyone who holds down a solid job and has a fairly stable family life is portrayed as being a member of the (perhaps lower) middle class. I feel that this rather misses out on a large chunk of the population, the “respectable”, hard-working, law-abiding working classes who don’t see being middle class as a necessary aspiration (but probably don’t mind if people do have that aim). As someone from such a background I find it particularly unpleasant that this group is more-or-less invisible in current British society.