#82 Putting You in Your Place
There’s a certain type of Expat Aid Worker of the older, crotchetier variety who has the uncanny ability to remind you at all times that you have less validity, less reason to be ‘in the field’ and less right to have an opinion than he does. This is the bad-ass EAW who’s been there, done that. And he makes sure you know it, subtly of course.
For our purposes, let’s call him “Bob”. (See #12 Establishing Field Cred for an initial introduction to “Bob”).
Bob is the guy who has way more field cred than you. In fact, Bob has so much field cred that he makes you feel idiotic for amateurly trying to show off yours. Bob’s field cred hovers around him; an indescribable aura that needs no explaining or verification. Bob has more field cred than local aid workers (they are all soft, well-educated and middle class). Bob is the real deal, and Bob gets shit done. He’s not afraid to break the rules, and there’s no apologizing when he does.
Bob knows a lot about development. He’s seen it all. He speaks the local language with local colleagues and communities so that you realize he fits in better locally than you do. Unless, of course, you are a local colleague who doesn’t speak English, in which case he will speak English at all meetings and send you emails in English so that you are always slightly at a disadvantage.
Bob doesn’t think twice about calling out your lack of experience. This is not done via righteous indignation, however. Bob is too busy and superior to get his knickers in a bunch over your stupid antics. He tends more towards destroying idealism, cynicism, raising an eyebrow and walking away, or simply dismissing you altogether.
If you are a marketer, consultant, journalist, woman, fundraiser, corporate, volunteer or intern, Bob will put you in your place effortlessly. You will immediately know that he is the expert and that anything you think you know (not to mention any sort of misplaced enthusiasm) should be left at the door so that you can be re-educated based on Bob’s impression of things – the only impression worth having. He will interrupt you and talk over you as if he hasn’t heard you trying to give your opinion. (What does your opinion matter anyway?) You should be happy he’s found time in his busy schedule to talk with you at all.
If you are a local aid worker, listen well when Bob explains your culture to you. His understanding of your culture is not the textbook variety of a new arrival. No, Bob’s understanding of your culture comes from years of inhabiting your country (perhaps starting back in the glory days of the Peace Corps) and having gone native at a young age, or from having lived in several other countries that are pretty much like yours. The more Bob travels and works in developing countries, the more he realizes that in the end all developing countries are pretty much exactly the same. He’s been so many places that by now he gets them confused sometimes, but that just shows you the depth of his knowledge and experience.
Don’t ever try to debate an opinion with Bob because he will always, always win, even when you think that your arguments are better than his or that his ideas about development are stuck in the 1980’s. Bob’s sense of self and his conviction that he has more of a right to an opinion than you do will put you in your place every time, that is, if he decides you are even worth arguing with.