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May 11, 2015

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Stereotypes and safety

David Towlson, director of training and quality at RRC International describes the importance of understanding cultural stereotypes in relation to safety.

At the weekend I happened to be in a bookshop (yes, a real one and, yes, they still exist).

I was browsing through a book that was parodying British cultural stereotypes dressed up as educating foreigners about Britishness.

One safety-related cartoon was about a man who had fallen into the river (obviously the Thames, because London is apparently the only city in the UK that foreigners are interested in). He was in difficulties and screaming for help; he was being politely ignored by a man walking his dog on the river bank, who looked somewhat embarrassed by the whole incident.

The right way to attract attention was to ask politely and calmly with words to the effect “I am terribly sorry but I appear to have got into some difficulty. I wonder if you could perhaps throw me that lifebuoy; that is, if it is not too much trouble. I’d be awfully grateful…” This elicited the right response – the man was only too happy to help.

Stereotypes are gross oversimplifications which are nearly always wrong in many respects apart from one or two details. However, they are rather powerful in making a (comical) point by taking things to extremes. On the other hand, stereotypes are alive and well in selected ex-pat communities, who seem to have read all about such stereotypes and spend all day practicing with alacrity.

I have done my fair share of travelling and have been subjected to the usual corporate cultural orientations prior to infliction on the populace. In my experience this has almost always turned out to be misguided (and sometimes plain wrong), because it is based on generalised and stereotyped observations. Real people are far more complex, cosmopolitan and understanding than they are given credit for. Nonetheless, the point is that interventions (safety) need to be asked for and made in a language (and way) that both parties understand and (initially at least) are reasonably comfortable with. Comfort is something that changes as you get used to stuff – pushing the boundaries has to happen in stages if you are to bring people with you.

David Towlson is director of training and quality at RRC International.

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