I draw a cartoon of a City gent in bowler hat and pin-stripes on the board, and after eliciting or teaching what he is wearing and what newspaper he carries rolled up under his arm, I ask for adjectives to describe the English.
‘Hypocritical’ says Hassan, straight away.
‘OK.’ I write the word on the board and mark the stress pattern: ooOoo. ‘Any more?’ I ask, brightly.
‘Arrogant.’ Hassan again.
‘Right!’ Stress pattern: Ooo. Notice I am not rising to the bait.
‘Snob,’ Hassan offers.
‘Snobbish,’ I correct, sharply. I asked for fucking adjectives, didn’t I, you little shit? ‘Any others?'
‘Lazy.’ It’s Hassan.
‘Right’ I say, cheerfully.
‘Anything positive?’ I smile, to mask the fight going on in my brain between exitatory and inhibitory neurones, the yobs that would have me bawl him out and the middle-class timidities that think I'd probably better not, really.
‘Positive? No.’ he says, decisively. He’s miffed because I haven’t lost my rag.
I realise I am allowing one bumptious little twerp of thirty-five going on fifteen to dominate the group and to colour my entire perception of the group dynamics, so I had better get them working in pairs so that at the very least he can annoy somebody else for five minutes. I ask them to come up with a list of stereotypical profiles for the Irish, the Scots and the Americans.
‘I like the Scots,’ says Hassan, who has been in the UK for four months and is thus uniquely placed to offer analyses of the national character of our island’s peoples. Perhaps he suspects, mistakenly, that as an Englishman I don’t like the Scots, and that his championing of them will get on my wick.
‘Good. Tell Faisal why,’ I say sweetly.
When we come to reporting back, there’s an argument about whether ‘nationalistic’ is a positive or negative trait. Hassan would have it a virtue, and I say it’s a vice. I offer the old definition: a patriot loves his country whereas a nationalist hates everyone else’s. I attempt to explain that connotation is often a personal matter.
‘Well, you know more about it than I do,’ Hassan says dismissively, his tone suggesting he doesn’t believe that for a moment.
Some time ago I bought a book called ‘Dealing with People you Can’t Stand’, because for me there are quite a lot of people who come into that category. It’s an American publication intended to sell a simplistic system of personality types and their characteristic behaviour to managers, thus improving their ‘people skills’, for there’s nothing like putting people into categories to make them feel appreciated. People are seen as falling into distinct types, each represented by anecdotes along these lines:
Todd sure was getting on Nancy’s nerves with his constant carping about her work on RSS interlink cascade-feeding max-out strands! But when Nancy took time out to engage dynamically with Todd’s whole behavioural matrix, hey, it turned out he was a Second Level Ass-hat, who likely was carrying an undischarged Dickwad in his Empathetics Quadrant - so what else could she expect! From there on in, Nancy felt empowered to respond creatively to Todd’s dysfunctional socio-relational coping strategies.
Had it not been for the insights offered in this book, would I ever have succeeded in placing Hassan in the correct category, that of ‘Know It All’? I reckon I might.
The Know It All controls people and events by dominating the conversation with lengthy imperious arguments, and eliminates opposition by finding flaws and weaknesses to discredit other people’s points of view. Because the Know It All is actually knowledgeable and competent, most people are quickly worn down by their strategy, and finally just give up.’
God, how many of this sort have I met since 1978 when I went to Cambridge? Possibly hundreds, along with a related type, the Think They Know It All. They are usually, though not tautologically, male. (The biggest Know It All I have ever met is actually a woman.) It is my experience that the countries around the Mediterranean are the most fertile breeding grounds for the male of both types, but I’m open to contradiction here. My book is full of advice for dealing with Know It Alls, but I can’t be arsed to read it. Nothing riles a Know It All more than simply being ignored.
I must point out that 90% of my present students are delightful, and make Hassan seem all the more disagreeable.
P.S. Jan 2018. 'Hassan', older, wiser and almost certainly a father of small children, was killed in a helicopter accident last summer, along with two other members of that same class.