It’s All About The Context

So not only are we facing austerity as a society we are apparently facing an integrity crisis too. How long before we become devious as well as poor? Morally compromised as we are, we are also more inclined to make decisions that favour us individually rather than those that take account of societal benefits. Is it that straight forward? Is it not perhaps at least in part about the context in which we are answering the questions?

 How about who is asking the questions of us? Are they trustworthy? Credible? Were we ambushed into making the decisions by cold callers or have we been door stepped? I wonder whether the timing has an impact too, not just the time of day or whether we are actually in the middle of doing something and have been interrupted making us a tiny bit hostile or irritated; but our age as well.

And as we get older (and one would hope) and a little bit wiser we’ve probably got form where the subject is concerned. By that I mean we can probably anticipate what is the right answer (to solicit the right response) as we’ve been here before. Children are pretty good at working out how to approach ‘difficult’ issues with their parents; by difficult I mean ones the child knows the parent is not going to be especially delighted to be asked! Mum can I have…

This week there have been a numbers of items in the news that got me thinking about this subject: the Essex University Integrity Test and the one about science related questions that children ask their parents (and the answers parents give their children which are not entirely accurate). On the latter I must brief myself so I am armed with an appropriate response when my soon to be 4 year old godson asks me why planes don’t fall out of the sky? Mm because clever people in uniforms are in the cockpit probably won’t do it me thinks although having said that he’s pretty convinced that aliens come from space to play with underpants on the washing line! Given the propensity to own a tumble drier he seldom sees washing on a line so I’m safe with this one for a while!

Tonight I am off to An Audience with Germaine Greer and in preparation I have been reading How to be a Woman  by Caitlin Moran. The first few chapters ponder on the names we attach to our various intimate body parts; the ones we use between adults as opposed to the ones we use with children. And mixed into all of this is the porn industry who have perverted (literally) the seemingly innocent language we’ve adopted e.g. pussy and made the terms tainted and filthy.

Language is a complex culturally specific minefield. In the last 1980s I studied in Washington State University and during a Macroeconomics seminar the lecturer got particularly exercised when her thick students (of which I was one) couldn’t answer her simple question. Striding aggressively towards us Dr Carolyn yelled ‘it’s the number of fannies on the seats (in the football stadium)!’ As a 19 year old British student I was shocked at the use of such a term by someone I respected and without drawing breathe responded (with equal force) ‘You can’t say that!’

And yes you could hear the proverbial penny drop as silence descended in the lecture theatre and all eyes turned to me. Dr Carolyn stopped and starred at me for what felt like eternity before smiling eyebrow raised. I braced myself for the caustic comment I just knew was coming. In response to the stare I muttered ‘Fanny means something else where I come from’ and the room erupted into laughter!

Some years later when I worked for Rape Crisis we used to train volunteers to answer the crisis line and language was something we addressed quite specifically. The exercise I refer to was called ‘What’s Yours Called?’ This was a brainstorm of all the possible names for female and male genitalia as you never knew what the caller (in crisis) would say. And the telephone counsellor can hardly ask ‘when you say strawberry jelly or tuck box or pick ‘n’ mix or muff diving/munching etc what are you referring to..’

As Moran discusses in her book the English language has a dictionary length tome dedicated to the names we give to the range of sexual practices engaged in and the areas of our bodies involved. All because we are just a teeny bit embarrassed by the whole discussion and besides anatomically correct terms just aren’t romantic! Just check out the way Ms Summers describes her range of lingerie for an innovative approach to bedroom conversation. On a left field related issue I am really hoping a pregnant friend of mine has a girl this time as two godsons is about as much as a spinster can deal with – there is no more room for JCB Diggers in my lounge! So I am keen to have a female child to spoil but save me from having to explain that the reason those pretty panties have no crotch is not down to shoddy workmanship! Still I’ll have at least a decade to come up with a suitable answer by which time I will be of an age where it’s rude to ask questions of this nature to (old) Auntie!

On the Essex Integrity Study it is indeed all about the context; the frame of reference and ones starting point. I confess the two words Essex and Integrity in the same sentence already don’t ring true for me – why? Well is the Essex Girl thing; add into this the recent reality TV series All About Essex.  Stereotypes leap out at you in abundance when you hear the word Essex and heaven knows living in Wales we know all about stereotypes that don’t actually represent us.

At times like this I like a definition so I turned to Wikipedia – not perhaps the best place but handy. ‘The Essex girl is a pejorative stereotype in the United Kingdom of a female who is said to be promiscuous and unintelligent, characteristics jocularly attributed to women from Essex. It is applied widely throughout the country and has gained popularity over time, dating from the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike Essex man, which became aspirational stereotype for working-class voters in the south and east of England who voted for Margaret Thatcher, Essex girl does not carry positive political connotations.’ Now isn’t that interesting, Essex girl = bad versus Essex man = aspirational. Hmm really?

It continues ‘The stereotypical image was formed as a variation of the dumb blonde/bimbo persona, with references to the Estuary English accent, white stiletto heels, silicone enhanced breasts, peroxide blonde hair, over-indulgent use of fake tan (lending an orange appearance), promiscuity, loud verbal vulgarity and to socialising at downmarket nightclubs.

 Time magazine has the last word:

In the typology of the British, there is a special place reserved for Essex Girl, a lady from London’s eastern suburbs who dresses in white strappy sandals and suntan oil, streaks her hair blond, has a command of Spanish that runs only to the word Ibiza, and perfects an air of tarty prettiness. Victoria Beckham – Posh Spice, as she was – is the acknowledged queen of that realm …[1]

The questions the integrity test cover are outlined below and are a curious list on which to judge integrity:

 How do you rate in integrity compared with Britons in general? Take the Integrity Test from the Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity – ECSI.

 A. Avoiding paying the fare on public transport.

B. Cheating on taxes if you have a chance.

C. Driving faster than the speed limit.

D. Keeping money you found in the street.

E. Lying in your own interests.

F. Not reporting accidental damage you have done to a parked car.

G. Throwing away litter in a public place.

H. Driving under the influence of alcohol.

I. Making up a job application.

J. Buying something you know is stolen.

 The possible answers are:

1. Never justified.
2. Rarely justified.
3. Sometimes justified.
4. Always justified. 

And here I return to the context; it’s not that straightforward as for me I would answer differently depending on the circumstances. Not for all of them – I have VERY strong views on driving under the influence of alcohol for example (you just don’t do it)

Keeping money found on the street is a tricky one; how much and who do you give it to – a policeman? I remember being behind someone in a market when they found an envelope of cash and the stall holder knew who it belonged to because of the name on the envelope so the likelihood is that it was returned to the owner. And when you saying lying in your own interest what does that mean? My friend always knocks a few years off her age and lots of us say we are taller and slimmer.

It’s just not that simple whoever is asking the questions. I’m always concerned to know what will happen to the answers and what the information will be used for. In the age of Freedom of Information you never know where the answer to one question might appear in quite a different context…


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