Here’s a terrific story that surfaced in The Guardian this week in the context of the Pakistan match-fixing convictions, and the fact that corruption and gambling in Asian cricket is seen as a cultural problem.
In 1995 a new mayor took office in Bogota. Among the many seemingly intractable problems he faced was the Colombian dislike of traffic regulations, and the propensity of drivers and pedestrians to flaunt them as a matter almost of civic duty. The resulting chaos on Bogota’s roads was chronic and indescribable.
The mayor, an eccentric mathematician and former rector of the National University, who had been sacked for dropping his trousers in front of a lecture theatre full of noisy students, recognised that a conventional approach would cut no ice with Bogota’s testosterone-fuelled motorists and lawless pedestrians. This called for cultural change. Eccentric though he was, the mayor was smart enough to know that no culture has ever, in the history of the world, been changed by laying on extra policemen.
He duly hired 420 clowns and mime artists to wait at strategic road junctions and traffic lights. When they spotted jay-walkers, they walked after them, imitating their movements. Reckless drivers were also subjected to mocking treatment. It worked beautifully. No one, no matter how macho, was going to be seen thumping a Marcel Marceau lookalike. Within a short time, three-quarters of Bogota’s pedestrians were meekly obeying the traffic signals.
Reading this reminded me that so often when I go into an organisation to run a writing or storytelling workshop, the underlying requirement, even though it’s seldom acknowledged as such, is one of cultural change. The alien language, the inability to talk in an interesting way about practically anything, is symptomatic of something far deeper than a failure of vocabulary or a paucity of imagination. It’s about the way that people who are perfectly bold and assertive as individuals, when thrown together in large groups, develop a collective aversion to risk – so they seek refuge in the banalities and convolutions of business speak.
I can’t help thinking that this is an area in which the mayor’s tactics would work a treat. Imagine a board meeting or sales conference with roving clowns who tooted on a hooter or turned a somersault or pulled a sad face at every cliché, absurd neologism or meaningless abstraction. People would soon start to speak like ordinary human beings again. Laughing at wrong behaviour seems so much better than trying to punish or correct it. After all, by any normal standards, business speak is wrong behaviour.