It’s not much of a life when you’re just a pretty face,
Just to be whoever you are is no disgrace,
Don’t be scared if you don’t fit in…
Look who’s in the reject bin!
It’s the Raggy Dolls (Raggy Dolls!),
Raggy Dolls (Raggy Dolls!),
Dolls like you and me!

– Raggy Dolls Theme Lyrics (1986)

This theme of Diversity & Divergency, thinking about what makes us different and how we can express difference in the workplace, makes me a little bit nostalgic. Nostalgia is a strange and, when engaged in at a collective level, often dangerous emotion. It is a longing for a time that never was. My personal nostalgia is, therefore, for an imagined past when it was OK to be a weirdo.

All of my closest friends are freaks

To explain my position I should begin by talking about what a weirdo is. Weirdness is something I much prize. All of my closest friends are freaks in one way or another. I like the nail that sticks out. I prefer people who don’t fit in even if the way in which they don’t fit in is not entirely agreeable. Another way of saying this is that I prefer authentic arseholes over blandly conformist nice people. Weirdoes are people who reveal themselves to the world because they can’t help but do so. Weirdos either find it hard to hide their weirdness or they just don’t care to. The need to be seen is too great.

I think, on some level, many of us feel this need; hence why we love shows like Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes is the authentic arsehole who gets away with saying what he pleases and doing what he wants because he’s a genius. Don’t we all wish for this kind of freedom? To be recognised as so damn important for some special reason that we can allow our inner freak to come out? We can discard our mask of professional conformity and be seen.

The world of work today is a fairly vanilla place

In my imagined past, the one for which I yearn, there was more freedom for freaks, more wiggle room for weirdos. I say imagined because the actual truth is more nuanced. But there is a hint of truth to this. The world of work today is a fairly vanilla place compared to times gone by. Ironically, this is in large part due to efforts to be inclusive.

In the past few decades, we have come a long way in making workplaces more accessible to ethnic minorities, women, gay people and other often excluded groups. This is good and necessary work. But I fear it has had an unintended consequence; it has made us all a little more wary, a little less open, and a little less ourselves in the workplace. And, concordant with that, the penalty for being a weirdo has gotten that much more severe. I am, let me be clear, in no way suggesting that this work should not have taken place. But I do think that we need to be aware of the downsides and find ways to address them.

You see, we’re all a little bit weird. We all like to let that weirdness out from time to time. The true weirdos are our canary down the mineshaft. When they drop off the perch we know that it’s dangerous and we all lose a little of our freedom. We all lose the whimsey. We play a little less. And when we play less, we create less.

The true weirdos are our canary down the mineshaftClick To Tweet

To understand this chain of events we need to think about what play is, why it matters in the workplace and why it and the weirdos who play more than anyone, have become collateral damage in the war on exclusion.

In part of my work I study and design play scenarios. Play is a special form of interaction in which what happens is not entirely real; it is part of something else, a moment apart. It follows special rules. Play can be anything from complex formal games to simple pass-times with only basic rules. Among the varied social interactions that fall within the bounds of play is banter.

Among the varied social interactions that fall within the bounds of play is banter

Banter is play because it is a voluntary, time and space bounded interaction that follows an internal set of rules and is not part of “real life”. It gives us freedom to express things that we wouldn’t usually express, explore what is usually out of bounds. We all say things in “banter” that we don’t really mean. And within that context, we may include things that outside of banter could be seen as hurtful and nasty.

Unfortunately, this is a wonderful cover for people who do really wish to be hurtful and nasty. Humour to a bully is just a cover for his real intentions. Many cruel things are delivered as a joke. Sadly it is often impossible to objectively distinguish between true banter and banter as a weapon and so humour, playfulness, and banter have become dangerous acts. Banter, play and jocularity are now associated with bullying and thus a misjudged joke could be a ticket to a disciplinary or even dismissal.

A misjudged joke could be a ticket to a disciplinary

Under such circumstances, it makes sense that a survival-minded worker would take pains to avoid any form of ambiguous expression. Banter becomes a pallid, grey version of itself. The bounds of acceptable self-expression become more narrow and this causes us all to act the same way. We hide ourselves even more than usual. This is what we often call “professional” behaviour.

But what about the people who find it hard to hide? What about the ones who find the mask of professionalism a little too uncomfortable? What about the weirdos? 

In a culture that fears ambiguity, the unique and the idiosyncratic are objects not of fascination but of terror. The group cannot allow them to survive.

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

– Sesame Street – One Of These Things (is Not Like The Others)

Last week I wrote a column about finding ways to avoid judgement when faced with people who are different from us and through this self-discipline to find freedom for our own inner freaks. This week I’m talking about much the same challenge but from a cultural perspective.

Being authentic is hard and difference is about authenticity. When you find a group of people that are all apparently the same you can be sure that either you’ve wandered into a human cloning laboratory or you’re dealing with people who are hiding. If you’re in an office right now, do you see people all dressed alike? Is this because they all like the same clothes or are they all adapting to the limits of what they are allowed to be? Are you doing it?

Transgressing, in small ways, can be a powerful signal to others that it is OK to be differentClick To Tweet

Transgressing, in small ways, can be a powerful signal to others that it is OK to be different. This is more powerful still if you happen to be someone senior, a big cog in the machine. If last week’s meditation was a little too introverted for you, then maybe this week’s exercise is more your speed.

I want you to break a rule.

Break a social rule that you think everyone is following for no good reason

I don’t mean smoke in the office or pat someone suggestively on the bum. I mean break a social rule that you think everyone is following for no good reason. Maybe it’s a rule that everyone wears a tie. Not an official rule but an apparent rule. So don’t wear one. I don’t mean be slobbish. I mean be stylish but without a tie. Or perhaps people always eat at their desks? Invite everyone at your desk to go somewhere for lunch! Find a game you can play and play it in the office. Write your emails in rhyming couplets. Be whimsical and weird. Break the rules of professional life in delightful ways.

You’ll find this hard to do. You may find it impossible. And, if you do, remember that the same pressure to conform is being applied to everyone you work with. They’re all devoting a portion of their energies to being someone they are not. This is like running an emulator on your laptop; you may still be able to use it but it’ll be slower and it’ll crash more. We’re all emulating and we’re all wasting precious cycles in the process.

And then consider the people who just couldn’t make that emulator run. Think of the people who you don’t get in your workplace, who you don’t benefit from because they just couldn’t bring themselves to wear the mask. You’ll know you’ve begun to build a more tolerant, truly diverse and divergent culture when the weirdos come back. ReesDiversity & Divergencybanter,conformity,judgement,judgment,weirdo
It's not much of a life when you're just a pretty face, Just to be whoever you are is no disgrace, Don't be scared if you don't fit in... Look who's in the reject bin! It's the Raggy Dolls (Raggy Dolls!), Raggy Dolls (Raggy Dolls!), Dolls like you and me! - Raggy Dolls Theme Lyrics (1986) This...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.