All posts filed under “Social

Our Broath, Your Broath, A’body’s Broath!

My in-laws live a few miles up the east coast of Scotland, in a town called Arbroath. It tickled us no end that our daughter – surrounded by nothing but Scottish accents – parsed this as ‘our broath’.

It’s not the ‘broath’ bit that’s notable (it’s just a nonsense word in this context) but it’s interesting because the ‘our’ is a confusion that could only occur with an RP accent. In RP – and it’s always tricky to render accent phonetically without recourse to IPA, but let’s have a go – ‘our’ would be spoken a bit like ‘ah’. A Scots accent would say that like ‘ow-ur’ – adding a whole other syllable, never mind the more explicit ‘r’ sound.

So an English person may indeed hear ‘Arbroath’ as ‘our broath’ – ‘ah-broeath’ – whereas it probably would never occur to a Scot to parse it that way, because we’d say something like ‘ow-ur-broth’, with that second ‘o’ being long and flat. It’s curious, then, that Ada did hear it as ‘our broath’, and I can only assume that it comes from her watching Cbeebies, which has a lot of RP accents (though blessedly, it’s a much more eclectic mix these days).

It’s all perfectly consistent inside her head, though: the town is simply called Broath. And we know this to be true because she informed us recently that if someone was visiting where grandma and grandad live, it would just be called Broath, but to us, it’s ‘our Broath’.

A tiny, completely inconsequential thing, but something that I found fascinating, highlighting as it does the mechanisms by which we acquire language. She herself speaks with a Scottish accent, but she can hear in other accents.

Tell your story

It took me until my early thirties properly to be exposed to a really simple idea: everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.

It’s so easy to think “Oh, Derek is an asshole,” or “Jill is going to kick up such a shitstorm about this” or even just to think that the part of someone you see every day in the office or down the pub or on the pitch is the whole and total of who they are. But inside their head, there is a whole multi-faceted narrative that lead them to now, and everything they do makes sense to them – just like how everything you do makes sense to you, or at least, can be rationalised or explained or at worst excused away. See also Hannah Gadsby’s wonderful recent polemic on how good men continue to redraw the line to put the bad men on the other side, or the much more academic, though still highly readable Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

This is an important lesson to internalise (and god knows I forget it so often) because it engenders empathy. Derek is not an asshole, he’s living and dealing with, oh, any number of things that are making him do assholish things. Things he might not even realise are things. Emotional literacy and self-reflection are hard.

But it took me to my late thirties to realise something else. As well as it being incumbent on me to afford others some leeway and empathy as I interact with them, recognising that their stories are more lavish and nuanced inside their heads than is apparent outside, I think we should also allow that richness to spill out of ourselves! Despite Brexit, despite Trump, despite the repugnant attacks that accompany historically marginalised groups reasserting their control over their identities and their destinies, I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.

Much is made of social media’s tendency to let us – to tacitly encourage us – to present the best version of ourselves, and this is increasingly being called out for being unhealthy. And for sure, it basically is, although even there there is nuance; selfies, derided as vain and vacuous, can be a way of empowering people whose image was traditionally mediated through prescriptive gatekeepers, for example, and I’ve certainly shared posts on Instagram which look like the worst kind of Instagramminess, but which record and mark little personal triumphs of happiness for me.

But in my world, I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.

We are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimp, and telling the story of ourselves to those around us will help them understand and love us more completely. And if we listen carefully to that story as we tell it, we might just love ourselves more completely too.

An open letter about the open letter about homophobia

A currently running government and police campaign aims to address hate crime, and it’s getting lots of praise in my cosy liberal-progressive echo chamber. (I must add more soft furnishings!) And for good reason; it’s optimistic, inclusive, and has a message of love and tolerance.

There’s one line that rankles in one of the posters, though, and it’s a trope that is often used by GSRM people.

It’s “…because of who they love”. I know, and have been subjected to abuse by, homophobic people, and ‘love’ never enters into it. Their intolerance and fear and revulsion is not because of who we love but because of who we fuck. Picture it: a man stands up in a pub with his partner and declares “I love this man!” In a progressive city, he’s met either with polite indifference, or support. In a conservative city, awkwardness or hostility.

“I fuck this man!”? Very different. Even if it’s just because they know they risk vilification from progressives, conservatives and bigots tend not to fight about ‘love’, but they’ll fight about sex.

And I fear that GSRM people are being disingenuous, being all wide-eyed innocent, when we claim we’re discriminated against because of who we love. That may indeed be why we are, or it may at least be what it feels like for us, but I don’t think that’s why people feel licence to abuse us.

Love is noble and pure and good. Or at least, it’s complicated and disorientating and hard to define, which might actually just be what ‘noble and pure and good’ looks like from behind.

Sex is simpler. It’s not literally more visceral unless you’re into a kink I’m pleased to say up until this point it hadn’t occurred to me to imagine, but it’s certainly more animal. (That one we know about, by the way.) Our buttons are more easily pushed when it comes to sex, although most people counsel a little foreplay first.

GSRM people shouldn’t just be demanding respect from the cishet majority because we think they can just about stand non-heterosexual love being shoved down their throats.

Look, I’m getting silly, but there’s something here that seems important to me. Too often, society of all genders and sexual preferences use ‘love’ as a euphemism for ‘love and fucking’ because we think we can swing ‘love’ while hoping everyone else forget genitals will likely be involved. And that’s generally neither here nor there, but it bugs me a bit when GSRM people do it then feign outrage when cishet people crack their cunning code. How dare they? How dare they judge me for who I love?

I’m not saying they should be able to judge you for who you fuck either, to be clear, but this coyness, even deliberate dissembling about sex does nobody any favours.

If I’m going to be judged, let it be for the whole me, not some sanitised, saintly, de-sexed subset of me.

Driving each other crazy

If two cars reach an impasse in Britain, and one flashes its headlights to the other, it means “come on; I cede”. In France, it means “stay there; I’m going to push through”. Imagine the scene where a Brit in France or someone French in the UK gives or sees a flash and interprets it the wrong way, judged against the dominant convention in that place. There’s a crash, and both aggrieved parties leap out of their car, each thinking they’re in the right as they talk at each other, not only in a foreign language but from a completely different context.

Neither is right, neither is wrong; but both think both that they are right and the other is wrong, by sheer force of cultural conditioning. It’s not merely a question of perspectives, but of failing to realise that the lessons and values of your culture have been so subtly but fundamentally and perniciously codified into your worldview that you don’t think to ask if there could even be another perspective. What is this wanker doing? He flashed his lights for me to come on so I drove forward but then so did he and now there’s car on the ground and we’re both shouting at each other.

I think about this often.


I went to bed last night as Twitter was just starting to twitch with news of something happening around London Bridge, assuming that when I woke it would either have been jumbled mis-reporting or the latest in the capital’s history of terror attacks.

This morning, as we read and listened and reflected, my daughter was playing on some foam climbing blocks when she slightly overreached her balance and toppled slowly off, crying – mostly from surprise – when she hit the floor.

It is a trite point, but, curiously, a legitimate and profound one too, that ‘being safe’ doesn’t – rather, shouldn’t – mean that one must never come to physical or emotional harm; it means an environment wherein you are confident in exploring and playing and expressing yourself, knowing that if you overreach and come to harm, there is kindness, support and comfort.

‘Never coming to harm’ is a dangerous fiction, one that legitimises and excuses authoritarian behaviour and policies that actively damage those for whose lives you are responsible.

➚ Let’s see if the comments vindicate this column’s topic…

My TechRadar column this week is on the inherent uselessness of a public-voted star ratings.

The fault isn’t really with the system, though, but with people. How else can you explain the 4.9/5 rating the first picture the Philae lander sent back from the surface of comet 67P currently has? What kind of towering arsehole looks at that picture – a picture taken 316 million miles away by a probe we launched 10 years ago and which landed on an object travelling at more than 30,000mph – and rates it anything other than five stars?

Us vs. Them

There are a couple of words that I keep seeing crop up in the discussions of the Scottish referendum happening on social media that have really started to worry me: ‘them’ (and they) and ‘us’ (and we).

I know these terms have relevancy in a discussion about national identity, but so often when I see them used they seem to presage a kind of ugly, subtle but wildly pervasive xenophobia, a combative sense of circling the wagons and rigidly defining groups of people; us versus them. It’s there from Yes voters and there in No voters. It’s there from Scottish people and from English people. It’s not everywhere, no, but it’s there, and it’s horrible to see.

(I don’t, incidentally, get a vote in the referendum; I’m Scottish but I live and therefore vote in England.)

This post originally appeared on Medium.

There were three of us in this marriage

It takes a certain hubris to give relationship advice, and that’s no less true for me; for sure, my wife and I have to work, sometimes very hard, at our relationship, and despite us both being articulate, empathetic human beings, we can fall into having the same old arguments.

But we’ve been together now for nearly fifteen years (married for nine), and we have come to notice that at our best we have a process, a trick, even, that makes our relationship strong. So fuck it; for what it’s worth, here’s the one bit of advice we’d feel confident enough to offer up.

(It’s not, despite this article’s title, an open relationship, infidelity or threesomes. Sorry.) We talk about ‘The Team’.

We’re not flatmates. We’re not two independent human beings who happen to occupy the same physical space for 10 hours a day. We are The Team. (Of course, another way of saying that is ‘a family’.)

Sometimes, sure, I’ll do things based on what’s best for me. And sometimes my wife will do things based on what’s best for her. But usually those are only for small things — for anything big, anything even moderately important, we do things based on what’s best for The Team.

This isn’t about compromise, about doing ‘what she wants’ or ‘what he wants’. It’s not about subjugating your own wants and ambitions and so building resentment over years. It’s not about only doing dull, grown-up things and never having any fun. It’s just about switching your priorities.

Your marriage, your relationship, is important. For me at least, my family — just my wife and I at the moment — is the most important thing in the world. It deserves respect. It deserves attention. It deserves to be seen as a third person in your marriage. There’s you; there’s your spouse, who you think is every kind of wonderful; and then there’s The Team.

The Team, this third person in your marriage, is its own thing. You need to take care of yourself, your partner and it. It has its own wants and needs. The decisions you jointly make on its behalf might not be things either of you realised you wanted, and yes, sometimes you’ll both decide to do things for The Team that are not easy, or not things you’d choose to do if you were on your own or even dating. But it works.

This isn’t generic ‘make time for your marriage’ advice, nor a platitude about putting others before you. For us, it has become an important and practical tool in keeping us grounded and keeping us pulling in the same direction. Keeping us happy and happily in love.

Do things for The Team. Try it. Put The Team first. Every time you do something selfish, check yourself; I wasn’t working for The Team there. You’re not flatmates. You’re a family. You’re The Team.

(Actually, we have one more piece of advice: buy loads of paper plates. Especially for food prep, they bring a measure of calm and ease rare outside prescribed pharmaceuticals. Recycle them, sure, and buy paper plates from a sustainable source, but buy them.)

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Boys will be boys

“But my son doesn’t like anything pink!”, they say. “But my daughter wants a Barbie for her birthday!”, they say.

They say this if I talk about gender roles. They say this when I suggest that science kits in shops being aimed at boys, and bejewelled vacuum cleaners designed traditionally to appeal to girls, are quietly evil. They say this as a defence, a kind of “I’m not racist, but…”, an attestation that they’re fully-evolved, sensitive and societally valuable members of the species.

They know that men and women should be equal, even if they can’t disentangle ‘equal’ and ‘the same’. If challenged on it, they’d even acknowledge that ‘men’ and ‘woman’ aren’t especially useful phrases here, that gender identity is both much more fluid than society has hitherto acknowledged, and that it’s not something that society should, in fact, bother much about. And still. Still they persist. And they don’t appreciate the power of the tiny.

The reason your son doesn’t want anything pink is because through a hundred phrases, a thousand reactions to his choices, a million barely perceptible cues, he has gotten the impression from you that to want pink things is inappropriate. I’m not blaming you; that’s what society taught you too. You know by now, intellectually, that this lesson was fallacious, yet still you can’t help reacting in the way you were schooled to. (In its own way, that’s worse; being aware of your prejudices is wasted if you don’t fight against them.)

There is nothing wrong with your daughter wanting a Barbie. There is nothing wrong with your son not wanting anything pink. But please recognise that these choices are almost certainly not solely theirs; would you seriously assert that your child’s personality and preferences are fully formed at three, five, ten? I’m 33, and mine aren’t; I don’t expect them to be as I draw my last breath.

We are all children of a society, and we pass its mores on in turn to our children in a billion barely perceptible actions and reactions. The act of imposing gender roles on our children is both infinitely more subtle and wildly more pernicious than you think; this is true for something so fundamental as gender, and it’s true throughout the range of human differences. People, ladies, gentlemen and everything in between; people is what we should be celebrating, despising, criticising and idolising. The only time biological sex – not gender – is important is when you want to have a child.

And by all the gods, in every one of the trillion interactions we all have with him or with her, we should let that child know that it should do anything it can do and be anything it wants to be.

This post originally appeared on Medium.