Following on from my post on the Czech's pride at being at the centre of Europe, I got an email from a Czech friend: “I am so chuffed to read this. You are right, we DO desperately care. Perhaps we have a chip on our shoulder, missing the British 'effortless superiority'. Well, I suppose we always had to defend our place against (or whilst) being absorbed into imperial blocks. But I am glad you brought it to attention. As a Brit would say, you are a brick, old girl.” Such a comment merits a number of responses, well at least two.
Let us start with British effortless superiority. This is not the first time my friend has talked about this British attribute. I have to say I have never been entirely sure about it, but clearly it has some validity. Of course there is all that stuff about the Empire, and the effortless superiority that the imperialists had beaten into them at boarding school. But I don't think that is what my friend is talking about; she talks about it as if it is current, and as if it is broader than the privileged few. I certainly don't think I feel superior to anyone, unless this attribute is so inbuilt I am unaware of it.
However there was at least one occasion when my Czech friend saw it in me and commented on it. About fifteen years ago my friend was tasked by a Czech magazine to write an article on the proposed transfer of Hong Kong to China. She complained to me that she was having problems getting enough information and comment for the piece. “Why don't you ring the Foreign Office?” I suggested. Oh she couldn't possibly do that! “Why not?” I said, “I can't possibly.” “Oh, all right I'll do it, tell me what you want to know.” And so I found myself interviewing a civil servant about Hong Kong. He very rapidly started to annoy me, trying to avoid my questions, whilst talking down to me. I, in response, firmly made it clear that he was going to answer my questions. By the end of the phone call I had got the information I wanted and he was offering to send me more.
I put the phone down and looked up at my friend. Her look was one of shock - “How could you do that?” “What?” “Talk to a civil servant like that?” “He was coming it, I just put him in his place. Anyway, who does he think he is?” “But a civil servant...” “Exactly a public servant, I pay his wages, he's there to serve us. Besides he probably went to the same university as me, I learned all the same tricks as him.” It was at this point that I first heard my friend refer to effortless superiority.
Okay, so let us analyse the actors in this little scene. First there is my Czech friend, who despite living most of her adult life in the UK and being highly intelligent and articulate was still sufficiently Czech that she had problems with dealing with authority. My observation as a community development professional is that power dynamics are set in childhood and my friend grew up at a time when “Father” Stalin stared down from every Czech schoolroom wall. Then there is our civil servant friend, whose attempt at effortless superiority failed so dismally, indeed only provoked me. Presumably it normally worked for him. And finally there is yours sincerely. Was it, as I suggested, my three years at Oxford? Not entirely. Certainly it gave me some of the tools for the job, allowed me to counter his blocking tactics, but looking back what I most remember is being annoyed. "Who did he think was? " I suspect that was the more British reaction. Maybe it only becomes effortless superiority when combined with a certain type of British education.