“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:”
“To a Louse”, Robert Burns, 1785
For many years I used to run cross-cultural skills courses for businesspeople engaged in doing business across borders. This was not diversity training, designed more to tick boxes on some Human Resource department’s management development programme than actually change anybody’s behaviour towards their foreign colleagues. I chronicled my low opinion of such courses in September last year and got plenty of abuse and some praise for doing so.
Nor was the cross-cultural training an instruction in etiquette – e.g. don’t show the bottom of your shoe in the Middle East, never arrive late for a meeting in German-speaking Switzerland, don’t use a handkerchief to blow your nose in Japan and then return it to your pocket. You can find all that stuff online for free.
My aim was not to change my clients’ world views, remove their prejudices or radically change their behaviour. It was to get them to understand the world views, prejudices and behaviour of other people and, armed with that information, successfully manage, persuade and negotiate in the real world of international business.
One of the exercises I and my colleagues did (including fellow Only Connect writer, Jehad Al-Omari) was something called As Others See Us. The title comes from Robert Burns’ poem addressed to a large louse which was crawling inside the lacy bonnet of a pretty woman in Church. She thinks all around are admiring her beauty and fine clothes when in fact they are watching this “wonner” (nasty creature) creep into her hair to suck her blood. In the last verse Scotland’s national poet wishes that if only we could see ourselves as others see us, it would stop us making stupid mistakes. The same can be said for those who work internationally: learn what stereotypical view of you and your fellow citizens that foreigners may have. You can then work out how to overcome the negative aspects of that image and build on the positive elements.
In the exercise, I would ask the participants what stereotypical image they thought the people from the target culture had of the participants’ culture(s). I would usually have some research ready to show them how, for example, the Chinese really did see them. If I’m honest, I probably learned more about cultural differences from the participants’ reaction to doing this exercise than they learned about how other cultures regarded them. The British would invariably think that others had a much more positive view of the UK than they, in fact, do. If I had an American HR manager in the room, I would probably be told that the exercise encouraged racism and must immediately stop (much to the chagrin of the non-HR Americans in the room). The Germans hated doing it because they assumed, wrongly, that everybody dislikes them. The Swedes loved doing it because books on “What the world, aside from those devious Danes and dim Norwegians, thinks of Sweden” have long been a source of income to Swedish publishers. The Japanese knew that everyone regards them as peaceable, hard-working, environmentally-conscious people who were only difficult to understand because they did not speak English well. Very sorry. And the French? They knew exactly how the world sees them – arrogant, rude, selfish – and could not give a damn.
I have been reminded of this exercise over the last few months as I have followed the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programmes in different countries around the world,
especially in Europe. The relative failure of countries such as Germany and France to get
going quickly and proceed at pace is partly because of the negative stereotypes that the
Germans and the French have nowadays of other countries, in particular of Russia and the UK.
Let’s look at Germany first. Last summer the German government was trying to decide which vaccines it should be ordering in addition to those being acquired by the EU
Commission (N.B. British Brexiteers: several EU countries chose to order and approve
vaccines independent of the Commission, as has always been their right). When Russia’s Gamaleya Institute announced in August that its Sputnik V vaccine was well on the way to being approved after swift clinical trials had proved its efficacy, German officials, politicians and media dismissed the news as typical Russian propaganda and said they would not
order it. The image of Russia as an irredeemably corrupt country whose rulers care little for human life blotted out the fact that Russia has some of the world’s leading scientific institutions, the Gamaleya Institute being one of them. It has, in the past, produced effective vaccines against Ebola and MERS, and in January The Lancet published an analysis which showed that Sputnik V has 92% efficacy. Some German medical scientists did try to point out these truths last year but their pleas for a rational response to the Russian claims were ignored. Russia bad; ergo Russian vaccine bad.
Something similar happened when German newspapers reported in late January this year that the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine was not effective in people over 65 years old. This was, at best, a misunderstanding of the results of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine’s clinical trials. At worst, it was a deliberate attempt by German officials and politicians to punish Astra Zeneca for saying that it could not deliver as many doses as their contract with the EU required. Way back in March last year the scientists at Oxford had decided not to test the vaccine on many people over 65. They had good reasons for doing so but it meant that they did not have the data to prove that the vaccine was effective when given to the over 65s. Astra Zeneca immediately said that the German media were “completely incorrect”. Data they released a few days later showed why. But the damage had been done. Only recently has the German government allowed this “Anglo-Swedish” vaccine to be jabbed into the arms of Germans over the age of 65. Too late. By 23 February Germany had taken delivery of 1.45 million doses of the vaccine but only used 240,000.
A quarter of Germans polled by YouGov between 17 November and 10 January said they would refuse to get any of the vaccines on offer. Anecdotal evidence from doctors reported in German media indicates that a combination of factors is making it especially hard for them to “sell” the Astra Zeneca vaccine to their patients. Other than the false news about its efficacy for the elderly, one reason given is the perceived origin of the vaccine, its Britishness. The Oxford scientists are an international team, Astra Zeneca is as much Swedish as British, many of those who took part in the clinical trials were not British, much of the vaccine’s production is taking place outside the UK, and the boss of AZ, Pascal Soriot, is a Parisian. These facts mean little to those many Germans whose stereotypical image of the British has become more negative over the past few years. We Brits, once admired by
Germans for our perceived trustworthiness and pragmatic approach to life, have, post the Brexit referendum, lost this reputation for telling the truth and applying common sense when making decisions. If they don’t trust us, why should they trust “our” vaccine?
It’s even worse in France. The French have never trusted “perfidious Albion”. In January President Macron rubbished the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, saying: “everything points to thinking it is quasi-ineffective on people older than 65, some say those 60 years or older.” Whatever his reasons for making this evidence-free statement – his anger at Astra Zeneca’s apparent failure to honour its contract, his frustration with the bureaucracy of France’s much-vaunted medical system, his irritation at the success of the British government in getting so many more jabs into British arms than the French were achieving – his words backfired so spectacularly that they may be used in evidence against him during the presidential election next year.
That YouGov survey indicated that nearly 40% of French people would refuse any vaccine offered to them, the highest proportion of anti-vaxxers among the rich countries polled. Macron’s administration needed to work hard to persuade enough French to be jabbed.
Instead he completely undermined the case for accepting the Astra Zeneca vaccine, one of the three vaccines on offer and the one expected to be easiest for doctors’ surgeries and, later, pharmacies to store and use. In recent weeks Macron and his health minister, Olivier Véran, have tried to repair the damage. But, as in Germany, too little too late. By the end of February out of 1.7 million Astra Zeneca vaccine doses received in France, only 273,000 had been used. One surgery in Paris reported in late February that half of their patients with
co-morbidities who had been offered the Astra Zeneca jab had refused it.
However, it’s not just Macron’s ill-judged words that have made such refuseniks put their lives at risk. It’s also that image of the untrustworthy British. Why trust “le vaccin anglais”, especially now that the more infectious Covid mutant which has invaded France is
“le variant anglais”(entering, some French media reported, via Dunkirk...oh, the irony!)? A book by Sylvie Bermann, France’s ambassador to the UK from 2014 to 2017, has only
reinforced this French image of the UK. Entitled “Goodbye Britannia”, the book is already a bestseller. Mme Bermann is, in fact, that French rarity, an anglophile, loving the “land of Jane Austen and Monty Python.” But she has made Brexiteers apoplectic with her description of Boris Johnson as a “congenital liar”. The image she had of Britain when she arrived from China in 2014 was of “a flourishing economy”, “pragmatic", "very open, very indifferent about whether you belonged to one religion or another...more free than ours, more optimistic.” But that positive image has largely disappeared and she has, regretfully, joined her compatriots in thinking that the British can no longer be trusted, exemplified by Johnson himself (who she says she still likes!)
Clever readers will have spotted the logical flaw in the title of this article. If the Germans and French are stupid enough to be so influenced by their stereotypical image of the British that they refuse to take the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine, then it is their health which suffers and not that of the British. True. But what effect will our new reputation for
untrustworthiness in countries such as Germany, the USA and Japan do to our long-term economic health? And what about the health of the United Kingdom itself?
The Scotsman who wrote To a Louse shared some character traits with Boris Johnson. No one is quite sure how many children Robert Burns had (probably ten by two different women) nor how many women he was actually married to. But I am confident he would have shared with most present-day Scots a strong aversion towards Johnson. I will run the risk of
alienating that goodly portion of my family who live in Scotland and who vote
Conservative and Unionist by saying that the current British prime minister personifies the negative aspects of the Scottish stereotype of the English, especially its ruling class – superficial, supercilious and untrustworthy. If the United Kingdom is to remain united it had better not be Boris Johnson who leads any future campaign to persuade the Scots to again vote No to independence. Perhaps he will have the sense to ask Ruth Davidson, the current leader of the Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament, to take on that task once she enters the House of Lords later this year. She is a Scot who many Scots admire for her no-nonsense approach to political life. I can’t imagine a louse surviving long in her bonnet.