Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 28 July 2023

Sucker Ponchos

If ever there were a news item one fervently hoped would turn out to be a hoax, it is the description of ‘gratitude ponchos’ enthusiastically shared online by an academic involved with NHS staff training.The accompanying image shows employees wearing the ponchos - made by cutting a hole in pieces of flip-chart paper - standing in a line (wouldn’t a circle be more efficient?) while colleagues supposedly write supportive and positive messages for them on their backs.

Now I’d like to think of myself as a reasonably responsible and well-mannered individual, but I can’t be the only one thinking that, should my employers try this (and should I be unable to think of a plausible excuse to leave), I would be sorely tempted to produce something entirely out of keeping with the wholesome and affirmative intentions of the organiser. I admit it would be a low blow, especially when someone’s back is turned, but it would be hard to resist, at the very least, some sort of backhanded compliment:“You seem to have an amazing ability to identify with Year 10” perhaps, or “Your lessons always sound so lively from next door”.

Disturbingly, such a scenario is not at all out of the question; in recent years, those of us with a sense of humour have struggled valiantly not to laugh during an earnest staff training session on ‘the coat-hanger of innovation’ - complete with gift-wrapped packs of clothes-pegs for each of us “to hang our ideas on the thinking line” - and silently applauded the dignified and erudite Head of History who, when a guest speaker concluded a particularly meaningless stream of pretentious  psychobabble and asked if there were any questions, replied, “Yes; am I alone in having absolutely no idea what you are talking about?”

What worries me is that, at least in the NHS, this adviser seems to believe that the poncho* initiative, rather than eliciting universal derision (and possibly some interesting anatomical artwork), would be be taken seriously by the participants and produce the desired collection of suitable compliments to ponder and appreciate at leisure. Either she is spectacularly deluded - always a possibility in academic circles these days - or she is confident that the workplace is populated by complacent drones who would not dream of subverting such an exercise.

If it is the latter, she may have reason, al least if our recent staff training days are anything to go by; it’s noticeable that the healthy scepticism and sotto voce observations on the more egregious staff training antics are, by and large, confined to the older staffroom demographic, while the most recent recruits - the ones ready to denounce any colleague who fails to adhere to modern orthodoxy - are far more willing to play along, accustomed as they are to mass virtue-signalling and observance of progressive rituals.

A family friend, born in 1930s Germany but now a proud British citizen, says that, in her opinion, the rise of the Nazis could not have happened in Britain because of what she calls ‘the ever-present voice in the back row’: the quick-witted irreverence and mocking of pomposity inherent in our culture. It is, as my mother says, ‘in with the bricks’, a part of us which has survived wars, religious oppression and hard times but is now under threat as never before from the media-backed forces of political correctness and groupthink.

Still, let’s not give way to pessimism; when it comes to staff training days, here’s hoping that the younger generation will eventually grow up and stop doing as they are told!

*Do you think we could persuade the Mexicans to go after her for cultural appropriation?


  1. As a long-time trainer (now changed roles, or rather, it changed me!) this makes me weep...

  2. At least it’s better than those damaging Wall Street-influenced ‘hot-seating’ exercises demanding that employees publicly reveal their innermost secrets and deep-buried traumas.


    I suspect many of those devising today’s nonsensical gimmicks would have been far happier as primary school teachers; it’s a tragedy that they have been allowed into the workplace to inflict it on adults instead.

  3. I like that expression - ‘the ever-present voice in the back row’.

    Maybe silly staff training sessions encourage it because even one voice in the back row may attract a smile and a nod. That's certainly how I remember it.

    It can be deliberate if the trainer is supposed to encourage 'bonding', although for those sessions I remember, the bonding didn't survive for long.

  4. Sadly I suspect things have moved on, and not in a good way. These days, unless you choose your audience carefully, that flippant throwaway remark in a training session could spell the end of a career just as much as unwisely expressed wrongthink, as seen in this chilling example:



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