12 The Missing Link

tube-strike-460_790481cCommunication takes many forms, not all of them suited to the Bakerloo line at 07.15 on a Friday. Of course, you know that travelling by tube is a form of Russian Roulette – only accident determines what the long grey barrel actually has in store for you each day, and as a voluntary human activity it’s sixteen shades of crazy.

But we have to get to work, so we wrap ourselves up in ourselves. Perhaps especially in this fourth anniversary week of the 7/7 bombings, we have hidden behind our personal barriers with even more resolve. We stare into the free celebrity trash mags that masquerade as newspapers, we crank up the little white earbuds to maximum seepage, we close our eyes, we sink into deep layers of silence, we count the stops.

Except this guy. This guy who could not have been anticipated under any circumstances. This guy in his fifties with steel specs and long grey Glastonbury hair, who has chosen on this Friday morning to wear a lanky green t-shirt that reads “Jesus made me kosher”. Perhaps he is a sit-down comedian paid by Transport for London to take our mind off things. Except he isn’t silent. And it’s round about now that I realise he isn’t harmless either. Because this is the moment, in a crowded carriage of dumb and drowsy commuters, that he begins… I can hardly believe it… whistling.

Not just whistling, but whistling in public. Whistling a merry tune. As if it’s 1958 and the skylarks are wheeling o’er the cornfields and PC Potter pootles past in his Noddy car. Whistling is a deeply insidious method of communication.

There is surely some subtle subterfuge at work when a man decides to impose his inner joy on others, but only the instrumental version of it. Either he’s keeping the words to himself like some immensely powerful shaman or he is too ashamed of his happiness to give it the full lyrical belt. Seriously, what makes it socially acceptable to whistle your head off on a tube train, but not to sing?

My father was a known whistler. In the privacy of his workroom at home in the 70s, sharpening his chisels and sorting screws into tobacco tins, he’d practise his Roy Castle triple-note arpeggios with extravagant panache. But he didn’t do it on trains.

Meanwhile, on the Bakerloo line, suddenly we’re at Oxford Circus and I leap through the doors and head down the white-tiled corridors to the Central Line and round the corners and down the short cut and onto the platform for Liverpool St. And then… you’ve guessed it. Gradually in the distance behind me, creeping louder and closer, the whistling like a spiralling nemesis approaches… until he comes to a stop exactly two feet behind me.

And how this relates to business is…
Business is similarly full of freaks of all description. Behind the screensavers in the purchase ledger dept, beige operatives may dwell who are actually spare-time geniuses with a secret: an imaginative concept that could maybe, just might, be articulated into a business plan that would sideswipe your competitors.

It’s same old embarrassing question. While we happily pronounce in corporate brochures and, worse, godforbidus mission statements (does anybody still have these things? I hear they fetch a pretty penny on Antiques Roadshow) about our people being our greatest resource, what we do we actually do about proving it?

Do we give our people a real chance to contribute ideas to the cause? A proper system, as opposed to a Suggestion Box-cum-shredder? Is possibility an option? Or do we prize conformity too much? Do our people believe they really have a voice? Or are they all just whistling in the wind?

Nielsen Dinwoodie
business messages people remember


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