Friday, 8 May 2009

The Billy Connolly Complex

Just got back from a lovely pub lunch with a delicious Glaswegian called Doug. He sounded like a very posh and softly spoken Billy Connolly. I bet he sings a hell of a lot better than Billy too. I got fantastic career advice and a free meal so didn't think it was appropriate to ask him to sing for me.

Maybe next time...

Earlier that day. Old Street Tube, southbound Northern Line platform:

"I work for a research company. Here's my ID. Would you mind answering a short questionnaire whilst you wait for your train?" The round cheeked bespectacled African man looked at me expectantly.

I towered over him in my bee shoes (platform laced stillettos in black and yellow leather which Sally my voice teacher used to call my "Kill Bill" shoes). I was early for my lunch date so I said "Sure!" We moved down the platform to a quieter spot and he started asking me questions about my journey. I was fascinated: he was scrolling down and tapping the multiple-choice answers onto a screen with a stylus. Very cool. I wanted one.

It all started quite well and I found myself answering quite truthfully. Afterall, I've worked in research and planning and I know how difficult it can be to get respondents to complete a questionnaire. Then a train pulled into the station. We hadn't finished the survey but to his great surprise (and delight) I told him I was in no hurry and happy to finish the questionnaire and wait for the next train.

That's when it all went a bit pear shaped. In spite of my best intentions. I don't know whether it was ego, or madness, or what I call my Social Tourettes: this is when I start speaking out loud the running commentary in my head which is often completely inappropriate and usually embarrassing for all parties.

"Do you work full time, part time, or are you unemployed."

"Full time" (said the actress rather optimistically...)

"What postcode do you live in?"

A sudden whiff of paranoia made me give my old postcode rather than my current one. (Incidentally, why do Americans call it zip code?)

"Who is the primary income earner in your household and what is his/her occupation?"

This triggered total and utter fiction. "I am. I'm a manager." (What?)

For the first time the little man looked crestfallen as he scrolled down the menu of multiple choice answers - my answer did not conform. I couldn't bear to let him down.

"Do you need more detail?" I volunteered.

He lit up like a little Chinese lantern on Bastille Day. "Do many people report to you?"


"How many?"

"Twenty". (What?!!! Why twenty?)

This seemed to satisfy him as he tapped away on his little screen.

So now I was a full time manager with 20 people reporting in to me, and I'd gone from living in North London to South London (which either way, beats living in West London! This is no reverse snobbism: it's based on experience. I used to live in West London. In a rather posh part of Chiswick actually. Until one night, when the firebombing of our downstair's neighbours car by his drug dealer and the subsequent setting on fire of the horse chestnut outside our front door (and only exit) convinced me it was time to move. Forever. OK?)

Anyway, back to my little man and his questionnaire. He asked me another question but he had quite a strong accent and this time I simply couldn't make out the key words. I asked him to repeat it. Three times! And then - feeling too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it a fourth time - I just took a wild punt (I could see that the only possible answers on his screen were yes and no): "Yes."

He tapped the yes button. Then he pulled out some laminated forms.

"Would you please point at the best description of your ethnic type."

I looked down the list and pointed at "white: other". (The other choices under white were "English" and "Irish"). I heard myself comment out loud: "I guess there are several shades of white!" Luckily I caught my social Tourettes in time so I didn't add "you should add green to the list and see how many people tick that!"

"Would you please point at the best description of your religion." Under Christian it said "this includes Church of England, Protestant, Catholic." As opposed to? The bleeding obvious? But then I've heard that many English people who do not follow any form of organised religion lump themselves under CofE as some sort of administrative classification. So I pointed at "Christian" rather than saying "Other: I'm a Sufi".

Then he beamed: "That's it, we're done! Thank you very much for your time."

We parted. My train pulled in shortly after. As the doors closed and the train gathered speed, I saw that my little man was already interviewing another passenger. The thing is, he was really very good at it. He had a lovely manner. He was warm yet professional. He made you want to participate. He was fantastic. He had a real talent for what he was doing. I wish I'd had a chance to tell him that. It's not very often that you come across people who excel at what they do but remain somehow unaware of it. It put me in a lovely mood for my pub lunch - which as I mentioned earlier - was a big success.

My only regret is that instead of following my new Scottish friend's choice of ale and meat pie I plumped for the chick pea salad. Ah well, next time!

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