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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

Identity, Play and Story

All of the above are images that I have used at different times to promote the work that I do, as you can see there's quite a range. I want to explore this, as I am intrigued by how much we are expected to conform to a new cultural narrative when we have left our own behind and how this impacts on our behaviour and self-belief.

I recently sought the assistance of somebody who has experience in marketing here in Sweden as I am struggling to get the amount of work that I need. I wanted to update my website to see if I could better attract more work from Swedish organisations. I was advised by the marketing specialist not to use the photo of me wearing the hat, as it was too 'playful' and did not look professional enough. )Good job I didn't consider showing her any of the others then! ) However this raised a lot of issues for me, as one of my main and most powerful assets in the work that I do is my ability to be playful and enable others to be so too. In Britain and in other countries where I have worked my 'quirkiness' and playfulness was what people enjoyed and valued. Yet here in Sweden I am often advised to 'tone down' as though a person can only be professional and taken seriously by being serious. What does 'serious' mean? There is a great quote by Heraclitus (later used by Nietzsche) that states we should all aim to have 'the seriousness of a child at play.' This is the type of seriousness I strive for in the work that I do and when I see the focus of attention given by individuals in creating lego representations of themselves working at their best, I know I have been able to facilitate this.

So where does this leave me as a playful professional in need of work? When I deliver at conferences in Sweden the feedback is always incredibly positive and people will often queue afterwards to give me a hug and tell me how much it meant to them. In training sessions participants tell me they really value how the 'play' element made them think differently and become emotionally engaged in what they were doing, they feel this means they are more likely to implement the changes that are identified. So if this works, why change it? I have come to realise the issue is in the promotion of what I do; if I do not promote it in the right way (read serious and professional) I will not get the opportunities to carry out the work (playful, engaging and effective). The irony of this is not lost on me. I am a wordsmith. I coach people and organisations in the art of writing their story and here I am struggling to find readers for my own!

What this also makes me realise, in quite a palpable way, is how insidiously a counter-narrative to your own can slowly start to erode your belief in who you are and what you do. I wonder about how all the immigrants like myself, (many of them in way less privileged situations) keep their sense of self. So much of the erosion is linked to language and the inability to express oneself or share one's knowledge and wisdom in a way that ignites other people, as it would have done in your mother-tongue. Next comes the sense of being nervous or scared about doing something wrong, like filling out your tax-form incorrectly or not understanding how your child's school functions or the 'buffet lunch' menu at the local restaurant. On a daily basis you are constantly reminded of your own ignorance of a country, a language, and all the systems that exist, many of which are unspoken and taken for granted. My husband recently questioned me about why I didn't set up a digital postbox for my tax - I had no idea you could. There are so many things I have no idea about or have no idea how to do; here I am an ignorant person. In Britain I rarely felt that, I knew the systems, knew that it was fine to chat to people at the bus stop, as well as the people who served you in the shops, knew it was fine to compliment strangers, knew it was fine to show every aspect of myself in the work that I did as it enabled others to bring forward every aspect of themselves too. Here I have begun to question myself. I am usually a confident, out-going, smart, funny, talented human and I now feel a certain doubt and anxiety about myself and my ability. I know humility is a good thing and we should be humble but not to the point where it stops you being the person you are capable of being. I wonder about those people who come to a new country already anxious, traumatised, lacking in self belief. I wonder what can be done to enable them to blossom and grow and be all that they can be. I wonder what tools we can give them to write the story they want to live in the face of a social narrative that may be overwhelming to them. I wonder what tools I need to continue being me within a narrative that makes me feel uncomfortable about it.

When I give certain talks about the impact of cultural narratives I often use my first 'smear test' experience here in Sweden as an example. I inform the men in the audience that they are now in the sacred circle of womanhood and they need to know this stuff. I then explain how it is in the UK. You go into your doctors office and there is an examination bed with a curtain around it. You go behind the curtain, take off your lower clothing, lie on the bed and usually there is a paper 'modesty blanket' that you put over yourself so you do not feel too exposed and at this point many Swedish women in the audience are already laughing. (At my doctors you actually lay on your side with your knees pulled up a little and the doctor asked you to lift the one knee while keeping your feet together as it was more comfortable for you and you were more likely to relax.) The doctor then comes behind the curtain, takes the sample and leaves you to get dressed in privacy. You then come out, have a little chat and go. At this point in the story I pause and say, "so in Sweden it's a bit different." (By now all the women are laughing). I continue by telling them how I turned up at the medical unit and was shown into a room where the only furniture apart from a desk, was a bright red (I kid you not) examination chair with stirrups. It was right in the centre of the room. I was desperately looking around for some type of curtains but there were none. The nurse motioned to a plastic chair in the corner of the room, (some distance from the red chair) and told me to take off the necessary clothing. I thought to myself that if I had known this was going to happen I would have worn a longer t-shirt. I did as she asked, took a quick look for a 'modesty blanket' and of course there was none. I then walked to the chair with all my nether regions on show and the funeral march playing in my head. I am only 152cm so when I got to the chair it was a little difficult to hitch myself up and when I finally lay in position feeling ridiculously exposed she asked me (at this point all the women in the audience laugh again and motion forwards with their hands), to shuffle myself forward so that I was right on the edge of the chair with my legs in the stirrups. She then took the sample, rather brusquely I felt and I was left to clamber off the chair in a rather ungainly fashion. To finish it all off the nurse then thought it would be a good time to chat with me while I stood there without my knickers on. By this point in the story all of the audience is laughing with me. It is at this very point in the playful retelling that I go on to say how I, as a confident woman, felt totally uncomfortable and exposed in that situation.I tell them that I wonder about how someone would feel if they came from a culture where you were made to feel ashamed about your vulva, or how someone would feel who had undergone FGM or someone who suffered trauma from sexual abuse ...... how would they feel in that situation? The audience always becomes quiet and reflective. The reason I can share something that is so intimate in a 'professional setting' is because of my playfulness, because of my humour, because of my professionalism. Being playful enables people to come closer to that which affects them, that which scares them and that which often controls them without them knowing.

I now wonder about how people will perceive this blog. I wonder if it will be professional enough. I hope it is human enough; for that is what we are - human. That is what we need to show and offer space to in all of our work, our humanness.

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