|Gerry's News Digest 14: Getting personal in shops and why the British can't plan (August 18, 2008)|
Hi, this is Gerry and this is my News Digest for 18th August 2008. I'm speaking to you for the first time from Wales, my new home. In my News Digests over the next few weeks, I think there will inevitably be what we might call a dual focus. On the one hand, I am back in a country that I last lived in over 20 years ago and so there are many personal impressions that I would like to share with you. At the same time, I'm following the news and trying to get abreast of  what's going on in society as a whole, and I'd like to pass some of this on to you as well. To begin with at least, I will also tend to be contrastive in my approach. I'll be comparing what I experience here with what I have been used to in Switzerland.
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In the first of the new series of podcasts, I've got two main topics. Firstly, on a personal level, I've been struck by a different tone  from what I've been used to in Switzerland in my commercial dealings, such as shopping transactions and so on, and in contacts with officials. Then I read an article about planning. Is it useful? Is it possible? And I immediately thought of Switzerland, where, in my opinion, planning plays a central role in people's lives. By that I mean, that Swiss people like to know in advance, on the whole, what's going to happen and when. Here, it's a bit different. Finally, I have a few of the topics that are dominating the headlines here and that I'd like to come back to in the next few weeks. And now, on with the first of today's themes.
After a couple of weeks back in the United Kingdom, I'm bombarded with impressions . I'm trying to make sense of what I've been seeing and hearing, but it's not always so easy. Let me start with a little story that happened when I went to get a new SIM card for my mobile phone. I went to a small phone shop in the town. The shop was staffed by young men  - it always tends to be young men in these technology shops, doesn't it? Anyway, the young man serving me introduced himself: "I'm Dan", he said, because people only use first names over here now. I explained briefly what I wanted and then we were straight into a social conversation: Where did you live before? Switzerland? Why did you come back? I'd love to go to Switzerland. It looks beautiful. I don't know why you want to come back here. You know, the people round here are very nice, but they're not too bright. Oh, and did you learn Swedish by the way when you were there?
The point that I wanted to make was how personal it gets wherever you go. In the bank, in shops, in the Post Office, people get personal. They ask you personal questions, they make jokes. They like to cultivate a warm relationship with you. And that's a nice thing. At the same time, they're often not that well trained professionally. So when we went into our local bank to ask if there would be any charges levied on money transfers  from Switzerland, or Sweden or Swaziland, or wherever it was, the very friendly ladies in the local branch couldn't give us an answer. You have to remember, that they probably don't have so many international money transfers in this part of the world as they do in Switzerland, but I would bet that Swiss bank cashiers would know this sort of thing. What I loved was when the cashier here said: "Well, why don't you just try making a transfer and then you'll see what they charge you." Now that's a pragmatic approach!
So, at a professional level, we have people more interested in establishing a good personal rapport  than in super efficiency. And in other public encounters , I've also been struck by the effort people make to be friendly and nice with people they come across . When you bump into somebody's trolley in the supermarket, both people say sorry, and there are a lot of smiles, and maybe a joke. I had to go up to London by train the other day. Going up to London - because trains in Britain go up to London, and down from London. So on the way up to London, the seat reservation system wasn't working, but people didn't seem to mind much. There was little help from the train staff, but the passengers were helping each other to explain what was happening and to find seats and so on. I don't know where this comes from, but there seems to be some sort of need in the British to be nice to each other, to avoid unpleasantness, not to enter into conflict if possible. British politeness is part of this, I think. I don't want to paint too rosy a picture  of Britain today - there are also some very unpleasant people here, but for the moment I'm struck with this niceness and cheerfulness. It's different from Switzerland, I find, where the emphasis is perhaps more on being "correct", on making sure things are done properly, and where a professional relationship is very different from a personal one. If the situation is bad, why pretend otherwise, the Swiss might think, while the British might take as their motto, the saying that became the title of a song in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, and that was "Always look on the bright side  of life.".
It's long been my view that  one of the main differences between Swiss, or at least German Swiss business culture, and British working or business culture, is the role planning plays in working life. At the risk of over-generalising it's always seemed to me that the British spend less time planning what they are going to do. They prefer to have a rough idea  of where they're going and then to make a start. They'll then review and change things as they progress. The Swiss on the other hand prefer to have everything planned out in detail before they begin. They like to avoid too many surprises.
Well, in the first few days that I was back in Wales I read an article in a national newspaper about planning, and the message of the article was basically that planning is difficult, and is often not very helpful. That's interesting, I thought. Is this somebody rationalising what they felt , or would these arguments convince even a Swiss? Let me give you a summary. See what you think.
The writer of the article, Oliver Burkeman, writing in the Guardian newspaper, firstly quoted Hofstadter's Law. This law, described by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, says: Any task you're planning to complete will take longer than expected. It's also known as the "planning fallacy ". The evidence for it is to be found in most projects, Mr Burkeman claims. Most deadlines  are not met. He mentions the Wembley Stadium or the Sydney Opera House as projects that were completed years late. But he also talks about experiments with students, where they have planned to complete a piece of work ten days before the deadline, but in fact they finished just one day or one hour before they had to hand it in to their professor. The students told the researchers that they'd never ever completed an assignment ten days before they had to, but they still planned to do so, even though this was contrary to all that experience had taught them. Mr Burkeman wrote that people end up in this way living a frustrated life because they always have targets that they never meet. He also says that you can, by definition, never foresee  the unforeseen, so you can never plan for it. So his advice, if you really want to plan, is not to plan in too much detail and to base your plan on past experience. "Better yet," he goes on to write, "avoid planning altogether". Just get ready and then start. You'll get lots of feedback and you can change your direction and methods on the basis of that.
So what do you think? Does this make sense to you? I have the strong feeling that this is written for people who either don't like planning or who are not very good at it. And that would include me, but maybe not you. I'm not convinced by the example of the students and their written assignments, by the way. I think what counts  there is the real deadline. If the students know that they have until the end of the month to complete the task, most of them will always wait until the end of the month. And the examples of the Wembley Stadium and the Sydney Opera House? I don't know. What about the Olympic Stadium in Athens? With enough pressure, with a deadline that really cannot be broken, it's amazing what can be achieved. Another feature of Mr Burkeman's planning stories is that his "planners" are all over-optimistic, and I think that's a cultural feature, too. My sense of Swiss planning is that often the Swiss plan in a pessimistic way. They plan for the "worst case" scenario, so that, in fact, their projects often come in before time and under budget. Well, at least, that's the way they'd like to operate, but sometimes they may be under pressure to get a contract and they may get a bit over-optimistic. The main problem with being super good at planning, however, is that you get so used to just putting the plan into operation that when something major goes wrong, you find it difficult to react fast and improvise a solution to the unforeseen disaster.
So all in all, I felt that this article was written for British readers to make them feel better about being bad planners. It tells them not to feel so bad about getting their planning all wrong. They can make a virtue of being lousy  planners. There was one observation at the end of the article that I liked very much, however. It said that there are some tasks that don't obey Hofstadter's Law. There are some tasks that you worry about for weeks and that you think are going to take a lot of time, but in the end when you at last get round to doing  them, they take much less time than you thought, and then you don't know why you didn't do them earlier. That rang a bell with me .
I haven't got time today to go into more stories from the news, but here are some of the topics that I'd like to take up in the weeks to come. The state of the British economy is dominating the news and it's affecting the political situation, too. The price rises over here are enormous. Electricity is going up by 20-25%, gas by over 30%. The housing market is in crisis. And there is a general unease about the economy. Health and education are always in the news, but that's the same in Switzerland. The emphasis may be a bit different here, however, and I'll have more on these and other stories next time.
For today, that's it. Don't forget that you can use the website, www.podclub.ch, to leave your comments and questions. I always enjoy getting your feedback. But for now, until the next time in two weeks, this is Gerry saying: Take care!
 get abreast of:become informed about, get up to date (literally: be at the same level as, as for example when two runners cross the finishing line together, with their breasts/chests level with each other)
 tone: here:- a style of communication
 bombarded with impressions: have so many impressions that you can hardly deal with them all
 the shop was staffed by young men: the shop's employees were young men
 charges levied on money transfers: fees that the bank demands for sending or receiving money from one bank to another
 a good rapport: a relationship in which people understand (and like) each other
 encounters: meetings, contacts
 come across: here:- meet by chance
 paint too rosy a picture: describe something in a way so that it seems better than it really is (a rosy picture = an exaggeratedly positive description)
 look on the bright side: see (only) the good aspect
 It's long been my view that ...: I have thought for a long time that ...
 a rough idea: an approximate idea
 rationalising what they felt: (trying to) make something that feel emotionally seem to be rational or well thought out
 fallacy: an idea that is wrong but that a lot of people believe is true
 deadline: the time or date when a piece of work has to be finished
 foresee: predict
 what counts: what is important
 lousy: very bad
 get round to doing: do something after intending to do it for a long time (Example: I haven't got round to tidying my desk yet.)
 rang a bell with me: sounded familiar to me