“THEM” Vs “US”
I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.
Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).
Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.
By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises that the difference between groups.
In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.
Yet are the various groups motivated by such unique and self-contained drivers? Surely there are more points of overlap in our interests than there are differences?
That’s why I’m going to:
- a) stop using any negative reference to “they” or “them” in any conversation
- b) challenge people to clarify what they mean whenever they use the second person plural in a negative sense.
I tried b) for the first time today and just by challenging a stereotypical view of another group seemed to help produce a more positive discussion rather than just simply nodding when an entire group of people were swept up in the accusatory “them”.
I know this sounds a bit optimistic but I’d like to replace “they” and “them”, wherever possible, with “us” and “we”.
Last point – we in Scotland have another form of colloquial second person plural, namely “yous” – but that’s for another day!
If it’s any consolation, as you’d expect, the same thing happens in other organisations!
This is a good step forward, but might be seen as addressing symptoms and not the root cause.
Perhaps it would help to distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation here? There’s certainly huge overlap in the intrinsic motivation of people who have chosen to work in Scottish education.
But when these people become actors in the systems we’ve built, a whole range of extrinsic factors come into play. It’s those which lead to the members of each groups behaving in a similar way.
Unless we draw attention to this process, the tendency will be for their behaviour to be attributed to personal characteristics, not their situation (the fundamental attribution error).
By noticing that most people in that situation behave the same way, we can start to develop understanding that behaviour in such cases is more to do with the system than the individual.
Once we do that, we’re much more likely to start looking at how the systems might be improved to prevent counter-productive behaviours.
Don – I started to write a comment on this post, but I’m afraid it just growed and growed and growed – so I finally shifted it across to my blog as a post.
Btw – fancy a pint, Friday?
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