Beware Making Assumptions About Others

Or, why you never want to share a table with a stranger, by Douglas Adams

I had the great pleasure of meeting Douglas back in the 1980’s in his flat in Islington, London. He tells the story like this…

“I had gone to catch a train. I was a bit early and went to get a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary looking guy in a business suit and with a briefcase. He didn’t look as if he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across the table, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, picked up a cookie and ate it!

Now this is the sort of thing that the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing or education that teaches us to be able to deal with someone who in broad daylight has stolen your biscuits.

You know what would happen if this was South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly have been gunfire, helicopters and CNN reporters. But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do some of the crossword, couldn’t do anything and thought: What am I going to do?

In the end I thought Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it. I tried very hard not to notice that the packet was already mysteriously open. I took a cookie out for myself. That’ll teach him, I thought. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time it was even harder to raise the subject now. ‘Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice…’ It just doesn’t work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we had finished them he stood up and walked away. We exchanged meaningful looks. But I breathed a sigh of relief and I sat back

A moment or two later the train came in and I tossed back the rest of my coffee and picked up my newspaper, and underneath my newspaper were my cookies.

The thing I particularly like about this story is that for the last 25 years or so there has been a perfectly normal guy wandering around with the same story – but he doesn’t know the punchline.’

If you enjoy stories such as this one, you might also like the rowing story which takes a lighthearted view about the role of HR functions and management consultants (such as myself)… at https://tonyreiss.com/2013/05/07/a-fable-on-how-the-world-sees-management-consultancy-and-hr/

 

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