I’ve often been sceptical of tall tales about conversations with London cabbies – they’re such an easy stereotype that I often get the feeling people use them as a cover for their fictions and occasional bigotry – but the other evening I had an encounter which I feel compelled to share with you for its sheer randomness and its surprise value.
The tale began as I settled back into my seat in the back of a cab, on my way to the station after a late finish to a very productive meeting – the kind that ends in handshakes and a couple of drinks. I’m not the least garrulous at the best of times but, somewhat gently refreshed, I was in especially communicative humour and didn’t respond as I normally do (with monosyllabic reluctance) to the cabbie’s patter. Before too long I found myself not only engaging in conversation but explaining to the driver some of what I do for a living.
(NB: those of you unfamiliar with London’s taxi drivers should just bear in mind that they have a reputation – justifiably or not – for political views lying somewhere to the right of the Nazi high command, in particular in relation to immigration. This stereotype is as old as the hills – well, as old as the taxi service – and regardless of its accuracy is deeply embedded in British culture. Although in my view they’re nowhere near as bad as New York cabbies who have often leapt off the political spectrum altogether. And then set fire to it.)
Normally my usual reticence when it comes to chatting with cabbies is redoubled when it comes to discussing my work and the “o” word, but my good humour clearly knew no bounds and before I could stop myself I had given up the fact that I work in and around the outsourcing space. Immediately the “o” word was out of my mouth I regretted it, instantly preparing myself for a barrage of hearty invective – or at least a frown and some good old shunning.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my driver merely nodded sagely, looked at me in his mirror (for what in hindsight was a little too long considering he was driving at the time) and proceeded to explain to me in very articulate terms why he thought that outsourcing generally was a good idea; why although he was less of a fan of offshoring he felt that perhaps it was nothing more that a kind of retributive justice following centuries of colonialism; and why he thought that much of the rhetoric around outsourcing was empty and insincere. He even used the phrase “core competencies”. By the time we arrived at the station I was feeling both delighted by such a random encounter and somewhat ashamed that my own prejudices had been so utterly exposed and so consummately overturned.
I was more ashamed, however, that in a sudden rush to make my train I didn’t find out how he came to know so much about outsourcing – but then why should there be a reason other than that he was just a well-informed gent who just happens to drive a cab. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that one’s profession is an arcane discipline beyond the understanding of mere mortals – but isn’t that just supremely arrogant? At the time I was conjuring up all sorts of explanatory back stories for him – an ex-professional fallen from grace? A chauffeur to the chairman of a major provider? – but of course my cabbie may well just have taken an interest in business trends and read up on the matter. It might be outsourcing, but it isn’t rocket science.
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