Intro

Bio (PDF): here

Welcome.

It’s September 2022.

Eighteen years ago, at the end of 2004, I relocated from Amsterdam to Hampshire in England. I’d previously lived and worked in the United States. Every country has its problems and its pluses and minuses. They’re just like people, to some degree. You click more with some than with others, but the most difficult situations also usually offer the biggest learning opportunities.

In the US, most people welcomed me.

The fact that I looked 10, 15 years younger than I actually was, helped along by the optimal skin moisturization produced by Florida’s high humidity caused a certain degree of misunderstanding, but no more than 1 or 2 or 3 people associated me with drugs and prostitution just because I was from the Netherlands.

Most Americans were also very helpful, corrected me when I made language mistakes (mispronunciations, sometimes because I used the British pronunciation of words like “herbs”) and taught me that the language we got to hear in American TV series and movies is not always fit for daily use (such as the word “bastard”).

In Britain, by contrast, people tend to make fun of you behind your back for similar reasons. If you ask questions, you usually get nowhere. You may get told off. You’re a non-native and you’ll never understand the English way of doing things. (This is called “exceptionalism”, I believe.) And if you don’t like that, then why don’t you go back to where you came from?

Sometimes, English people you’ve never met before have already spoken about you with other English people at such length that they must feel as if they already know you, therefore forget to introduce themselves and don’t inform you that they already know that you’re Dutch either.

In groups with strangers, English people often diligently avoid your eyes and pull up their chairs so that you can’t pull up another one and sit next to them, but that, indeed, is genuine English social awkwardness. There are English people too who are amused by this, however, such as the HMRC guy running a tax workshop that I attended, noticing that I was the only one talking to the others and handing out cards. That sort of thing – talking to strangers; this is not exclusively about foreigners – still tends to freak out a lot of English folks. (Brexit is not likely to make that better.)

I had not expected to like it much in the US, on the basis of stories I had read and warnings I had received. I had also anticipated not liking the Florida heat and humidity at all. In fact, I had dreaded it, but I probably mostly based that on a long weekend spent in Alicante in weird very humid weather, which was not its usual weather (at least not back then) and on my experiences in a city with a lot of air pollution that quickly becomes overcast and sticky in hot weather (Amsterdam).

Florida’s air is relatively clean.

Moreover, all Florida homes have some form of air conditioning, abbreviated to “airco” in the Netherlands and to “air con” in the UK, but it’s simply “a/c” in the US. It makes a big difference.

I got dehydrated there pretty badly once but that was also the last time. When it happened, the Americans around me were helpful and understanding.

From that point on, I cherished the heat and humidity of Florida.

Fast forward to England where it’s often like everyone considers themselves your personal enemy. That feels like a gross exaggeration, so dramatic, until you consider the following.

This fragment comes from (an earlier version of) the book “When cultures collide“, written by Englishman Richard D. Lewis and recommended to me by an American, Pinkney C. Froneberger III (a Democrat whose granddad was a US senator). I encountered him at a workshop at Berenschot, about cultural differences. PC and I discovered that we were both members of the Amsterdam American Business Club.

Later, when someone at NATO called me one day and inquired about the presentation skills workshops for scientists that I was offering through my business, I contacted PC, because PC did this kind of thing for a living, mostly working with the big banks, through his own business. My usual presentations skills trainer with whom I’d designed three different workshops, a self-employed Australian ex-Shell guy with a geology background, was in Turkey at the time, on business.

Through the Amsterdam American Business Club, I got to meet Lencola Sullivan, another Democrat as well as a world-class singer and speaker. I was attending the celebration of Dutch-American Friendship Day at a reception in a lounge at Schiphol Airport and noticed a woman in a peach- or salmon-colored suit standing by herself at the time and I sauntered over. We got to talk about how natural public speaking skills come to most Americans. It’s what American youngsters grew up with, but Dutch folks certainly did not. Communication is a vital part of science but many science presentations were still really dull in those days. There were no TED Talks yet. Lencola then invited me to join Toastmasters of The Hague, which I did. That’s where I met the ex-Shell guy.

By the way, did you know that the United States and the Netherlands have the longest uninterrupted friendship between two countries?

Shell had gotten my attention because one day, I had watched a woman who graduated from the same department as I display superb presentation and leadership/management skills at a GAIA event. She was Shell staff and I figured it might have something to do with that.

I’ve also done a great deal of networking online. That’s for example, how I ended up working with Arcadis (until I moved to England).

These are just a few examples of how people in other countries network.

There are exceptions, but in my experience, England usually does not work that way at all. In fact, almost everything seems to work in opposite ways here. “Oh, that’s a good way to make connections over there!” commented a geologist in Amsterdam when I told him about a forum that I had joined here. Nope, it wasn’t. It’s often the pub where the English do a lot of their networking.

There is a great deal of distrust in England and the country is awash in otherization, that is often seen as innocent banter, but United Nations Special Rapporteurs have also been highly critical of for example the way women are treated in the UK.

That said, I happen to have been based on a small island called Portsea Island for the past 13+ years. It is known for being highly insular within the UK and it’s also known as one of the UK’s hardest cities (rough, tough). Some say that it is the UK’s hardest. I didn’t know that when I moved here. I didn’t even know that I was moving to an island because the stretch of sea that separates it from the mainland to the north is very narrow. Yeah, I know, not too smart, with me being a geologist and marine biogeochemist. What can I say? I am only human. And I was only supposed to have been here for a few years. I was initially supposed to have gone to Plymouth, too, not to Southampton and then to Portsmouth. But that’s life.

So what do I do these days?

It’s in a state of flux.

In the course of 2008, I became the target of a strange behavioral phenomenon known as “sadistic stalking” aka “resentful stalking”. It’s included a heck of a lot of hacking and it’s put my life in a stranglehold. These activities exploded after I moved to Portsmouth and have often made my life near-impossible for me, practically speaking, because basically, it concerns interference and often sabotage of many aspects of my life, though it is not a black&white picture (hence can be seen as manipulative, but is it really?). This is still going on, by the way, and it’s also included for example lock-picking when I am not in with mischief such as vandalism carried out in my flat. A police officer once advised me to keep all my important stuff on my person at all times and at the same time admitted that that was not doable…

Unable to get any practical support with whatever it is that I am dealing with – after all, I’m a female, a foreigner, and over 45, hence psychotic, a liar and senile, or perhaps simply the target of relentless community bullying to which, in that case, nobody would be likely to admit – I decided to start reading up on neurodiversity, personality disorders and so on. I felt I had to.

Otherization plays a big role in that context.

So now I talk about otherization and what it can result in. Otherization is the opposite of inclusivity.

No, I am not trying to sell you anything. Heck, I suck at sales. I am good at many different things and experienced in various areas, but sales is one of my major weaknesses. I have always loved learning, though.

I am learning about otherization, how that can work out in real life and what neuroscience has to do with it and I am sharing that with you. But don’t pin me down, please. I cannot possibly focus on all forms of diversity. I rarely mention transgender people, for example, but that does not mean that I am blind to their plight. There are many more reasons why people become otherized and marginalized and most are easy to overlook.

Excessive income inequality is one of them. Otherization and marginalization can even result in extremism and in stranger-stalking.

I think we need to start seeing that all forms of diversity are non-linear, non-binary, not an either/or thing. In terms of diversity, we all take up a unique spot in a multidimensional space. Some people are a little bit more autistic than others, some are less narcissistic than others, others a heck of a lot more altruistic or sensitive to other people’s emotions than most (empaths). Some are good actors or good writers or good mathematicians or politicians or leaders or musicians or teachers. Some have less good hearing than others, some have less muscle control than others, some love a wider variety of people than others, some have a skin that is a little paler than that of others and some folks have red hair. Some win more football matches than others, or at least, that is what it sometimes looks like.

Without that diversity, life would be pretty boring. While we share a lot more than sets us apart, what makes us different – specifically being unfamiliar with those differences – can make us feel very uncomfortable and experience others as a threat. This also applies for when people voice opinions that clash with our own beliefs. That’s just neuroscience. That’s because of how our brains work.

That’s also where insularity comes from and explains why Brexit is not opening Britain up but isolating it and making it more insular, not less. Brexit is forcing business after business after business to relocate to the EU or shut up shop and has caused many EU citizens – folks like me – to leave. Brexit is causing Brits to interact with fewer foreigners, thus making them more insular.

Many of us foreigners haven’t felt welcome here for a long time and it was getting worse until Brexit and the pandemic kicked the shins of the British and made them realize that perhaps things really weren’t as rosy in their own country than they had thought and perhaps a lot of things really were better in other countries. So many British firms are collapsing or moving their operations to the EU. The widespread deep poverty, the deprivation, it’s all getting worse, not better, now that so many foreigners have left the country, crops started rotting in the fields and hospitals had to make do with even less medical professionals. Employees’ rights and other vital elements of what constitutes a healthy democracy such as the right to express a mildly dissenting opinion or be an investigative journalist are being eroded.

For many of us EU citizens, life in our home countries is much better. Greater equality. Often more sociable, certainly more confident and also frequently more capable people around us and not so much of the pathological obsession with strangers that seems so common in England (except in small villages in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, so I understand). Much less insularity hence better access to all sorts of things once we’ve settled in again. Higher levels of income. Less pandering to big money and wealthy industrialists. Much better quality homes. Often, better education. Better access to better health care. Shall I go on?

On 16 September 2022, the Financial Times wrote: “On present trends, the average Slovenian household will be better off than its British counterpart by 2024, and the average Polish family will move ahead before the end of the decade.” and “last year the lowest-earning bracket of British households had a standard of living that was 20 per cent weaker than their counterparts in Slovenia.”

On 24 September 2022, the Sun headlined: “Thousands more immigrants to be let into Britain as Liz Truss plans to ease rules on foreign workers.” In 2020, Priti Patel promised that she would reduce our numbers, the number of us “cheap low-skilled, low-wage labour”. The UK no longer wanted us. Just before the election in November 2019, Boris de Pfeffel Johnson lamented what a bad thing it was that EU citizens living in the UK saw this country as their home.

No, not everything in the EU is better. Of course not. (At the bottom of this page, you will find me mentioning a scandal involving gross discrimination at the Dutch tax authorities.) Personally, I enjoyed living in the US better than living in the Netherlands, but that was decades ago and the Netherlands has changed. It’s no longer not done to want to excel, which used to be such a profoundly American idea, along with the pursuit of happiness.

England turned out to be a lot more like what I expected of Russia than of a western democracy. You must do as told. You must think as told. You must be a wage slave for rich industrialists and you must live in poverty, no matter what you do. Oh really?

Sure, I too was raised on ideas like that, to bow to superiors and never have ideas of my own, never take any initiative. That was not how I ticked, but it was probably what later stopped me from handing the IT manual I wrote in my spare time to the people I was temping for at the time. (I should have, because my successor was in tears already on the first day, they told me. Serving as the first-line IT helpdesk for several store chains including HEMA could be stressful, but I loved it.) I still remember that it baffled one of my relatives when I wrote to a company to let them know that I was interested in working with them without there having been a job advert in the papers. But we’re in the 21st century now, Britain, and I was a child a long time ago.

Recently, we have been reading in the British newspapers that people are going to die here this winter because of the energy price crisis, as if this were the first time this was going to happen. But people have been dying here in the winter for so long! Tens of thousands die here each winter because of the inability to heat their homes, far more than in countries with cold climates.

I had been aware of this for years. Owen Jones wrote about it right before the pandemic hit. Others had written about it before.

Why does this continue to be overlooked? Because it happens to other people. Otherization. It’s about them, not us… It also happens more often to older adults than to young people and older adults continue to be demonized in Britain.

https://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/blog/the-demonization-of-older-people

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/19/older-people-widely-demonised-uk-ageism-report

https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2020/03/19/621207/UK-old-people-elderly

This is merely one way, however, of how people in this country otherize and marginalize others. There are many more.

By the way, the fact that Twitter lists PressTV as state-owned media, but not the BBC, that too is otherization. PressTV may do its best to show that not all is peaches and rosy in the west, but its news sources as you can see here are usually reputable. The BBC does its best to show that the UK government is wonderful, no matter what. Emily Maitlis who used to work at the BBC recently has said quite a bit about that.

Another horrific example of otherization, however, concerns institutional racism at the Dutch tax authorities (15 Sept 2022). A fine of 2.7 million euros (7 Dec 2021) has already been imposed for that reason alone. Individual court cases are likely to follow, with the burden of proof now on the tax authorities instead of on the otherized parents. The callousness and hurt and damage involved in the Dutch tax credits/child benefit scandal (“toeslagenaffaire”) is certainly at least as bad as we’ve seen here in England with cases often involving the DWP (blatant discrimination of people with mental health conditions, for example).

Many Dutch citizens were plunged into severe financial difficulties, most of them having no recourse at the time (because the tax authorities assigned blame – accused the parents of fraud – which made them ineligible for debt help) and in some cases children were even removed from the parental home. The Dutch tax authorities specifically targeted parents of foreign extraction and created an illegal blacklist.

On 16 September 2022, however, I read about a fraudulent Slovakian scheme in which people were sent to the Netherlands, worked there for a while, then pretended to be ill and with the aid of forged physicians’ statements claimed a type of benefit that continues when these people went back to their home countries. This resulted in EUR 200,000 being paid out. Ten years ago, a similar Bulgarian scheme has resulted in 6 million euro being paid out.

Then you start to understand how, perhaps, these biases develop and horrific discrimination results. The challenge is to rise above this. Not all Dutch people are blond and blue-eyed, yet non-Dutch foreigners often believe so. Not all Dutch people have a typically Dutch accent either, yet many non-Dutch folks expect it. Similarly, not all non-Dutch foreigners commit fraud.

This, seeing people people as individuals and not drawing conclusions about them on the basis of usually merely one characteristic that they have and on either prejudice or previous experiences, it is one of the hardest things to do.

It is something that I often struggle badly with, too, here in Portsmouth. It’s neuroscience. It’s the way our brains work. It wants to protect us from harm and the neural pathways in our brains that are used most become reinforced, also if that is as a result of repeated negative experiences (with sometimes risk of actual damage to the body). It takes conscious repeated efforts to overcome that and there is a great deal of resistance to that from our brains. Because it costs the brain more energy. The brain is a really big energy consumer and it tries to use its available energy as efficiently as possible.

A distraction now. Here are a few illustrative bullet points about me:

  • Graduated cum laude (distinction) from VU University Amsterdam with a Master’s degree in earth sciences, an extra diploma for chemical oceanography research carried out in conjunction with the Royal NIOZ and a few other bits of pretty paperwork.
  • As a self-employed person, cooperating with a network of associates and focusing on the realm of marine, environmental and earth sciences, I had been working with universities and research institutions and various large companies as well as many individual scientists. I didn’t have a Lamborghini, but I had never wanted a Lamborghini. In fact, I’ve lived without owning a car and without owning a TV most of my life. (However, I started using and owning computers and modems and bicycles a long time ago.) I wanted to do work that I enjoyed, that I was good at and I wanted to over-deliver. I wanted to be free from any kind of mindless slavery. Working till 4 in the morning because I choose to is a very different matter. So is working through the night to get a grant proposal to a client early in the morning because their university’s e-mail server had broken down and I was due to fly to Spain that morning. So is working in my PJs, which I often did in order to do a last check on something before emailing it to a client in the morning, after which I would go shower. I still do this kind of thing a lot. I typed up with page while still in my PJs too.
  • I had been a member of Toastmasters of the Hague for a while and for the first few years in England, I was still a member of that business network called the Amsterdam American Business Club (started by Charles Ruffolo).
  • At the time, I was also still an associate editor for the US-based but internationally operating Geochemical Society.
  • Until my move to England, I had served as board member for the Environmental Chemistry (and Toxicology) Section of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society (KNCV).
  • Etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc.

That was me talking about finances etc, I think, at a meeting of the Environmental Chemistry (and Toxicology) Section of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society (KNCV). It took place at the Delft University of Technology, one of those famous Dutch diploma mills, where anyone can stop by and collect any kind of degree they want from the reception desk, no questions asked.

Sure, I did get to join the Portsmouth Environmental Forum, supported by Portsmouth City Council, and I did get to graduate from a NCFE-accredited course in community leadership, supported by Portsmouth City Council. It made no difference… In fact, there were some really odd ongoings within the context of the latter too.

In Southampton, too, of course, I wanted to be part of the community. But most of the English weren’t having it.

I did become part of a business network organization that had been set up by a government outfit to stimulate business, though, the SHEA business club, where some people thought that “environmental chemistry” was about cleaning offices.

One day, I started receiving panicky emails from a member who was being sabotaged and ruined by someone else. The other members of the network received those e-mails too. This guy, this business owner, was English. The person who was ruining his business, another business owner, was English too. He wasn’t a competitor, but he had started to spread lies about the former.

At the time, I was greatly puzzled and also taken aback.

But all of this, I know now, is fairly typically English. Otherization and making other people miserable, it has become a favorite pastime for many. Pub gossip created under the influence of alcohol is circulated through the wider community as “the truth” about complete strangers who the people who cook up the gossip have never even talked with.

Why, for 18 years, have so many English people put so much effort into trying to impress on me that to think for myself, draw my own conclusions, have my own wishes and make my own choices and decisions, in short, live my own life is wrong? Because it’s still not done to think for yourself in England?

Why do you often get hunted down relentlessly here, threatened with retaliation and then punished, if you don’t want to be a sweet little obedient cogwheel in someone else’s money-making machinery and complain about that non-stop but prefer to go your own way and build a life of your own making? What’s wrong with wanting to enjoy life?

Why are you seen as a threat, also by many of the tenants, when you don’t want tenants to live in the middle of giant trash heaps that present a risk for their health and safety? Why do people here, including some tenants, have a problem with it when you fight for the right of tenants to have properly functioning locks and security for their postal mail?

Because it clashes with their beliefs and their repeated experiences of their rights having been violated and so it upsets their beliefs about what life is like. Empowerment is so alien to them. For the same reasons, it also upsets some of those with the power to change things. The idea that things could be different is too unfamiliar and that makes it a little scary. That’s neuroscience.

Why, on the other hand, do people often flip like leaves on a tree and start giving me royal nods and assume that I am from a “posh” family (as I learned within the past year), when they discover my professional background?

That’s class thinking. I straddle the English class divide and it confuses a lot of English people. Am I a nice person or a nasty person? Am I constantly lying, like all those posh folks or can I be trusted? If she is educated, then why doesn’t she own a car Lamborghini? Why doesn’t she own a home? Is she making it all up, that she went to university and all that?

Life happens. You can’t control every aspect of it and you learn the toughest lessons the hard way. I find England a very difficult country to navigate and I am not the only one who feels this way.

My parents had little more than primary school, my mother died young and my dad was a poor sod in many respects, though he had his own business for many years. So do my two younger siblings and they did not attend university. My parents’ siblings and cousins – with the exception of an agricultural scientist and a lawyer, sibling cousins of my mother’s, one of who lived in France – did not go to university but started working young. So what?

By contrast, there’s a lot of fatalistic thinking in England. Where does it come from? Does it go hand in hand with strongly hierarchical societies with large power distances?

I can’t change any of this, all this otherization, none of the intercultural hiccups, the negativity. But I do try to distance myself from it, in the sense that I for example deliberately avoid specific English people who often display negative behaviors that impact me (and that can even stop me from feeling safe), along with anyone who treats me as if I am a toddler merely because I am a female and/or over 45. That is, if they can easily be avoided and they play no actual role in my life. There are many of those. One is an obese and often very loud woman with an alcohol problem. I feel sorry for her because she is actually intelligent and talented (and I’ve wondered if there is CSA in her background), but she is not very pleasant. Others include various shop owners, invariably male, and some pub audiences standing outside (to smoke). Why should I make my life harder or more unpleasant than it needs to be?

Something I also find hard to deal with is the widespread fatalism, the poverty mindset. Among people in Portsmouth, there are many who consider it typical for Portsmouth that you move to it and then end up stuck in deep poverty for the rest of your life. That’s soul-destroying and being around too much of that does not do anyone any good (unless you’re very well off because it buffers you, shields you). So many people here are essentially passively – although also sometimes rebelliously – waiting for their deaths. It’s depressing, as well as toxic, and for a long time, I had hoped to be able to help change that.

Others are just dying to get out of here.

Focusing on an essentially negative topic – otherization – does not make me happier person either. England is so awash in otherization that it can be hard to find positive things to counter it and maintain a healthy balance. I often focus on wildlife and nature to forge that balance.

It’s dawned on me, though, that if only one person lands on this website and benefits from my views and discoveries, that’s enough. Because positive change begins in the margins. It does not need the limelight.

Here’s one thing I want you to consider… Many Brits are pretty misogynistic or at least horribly sexist. They don’t see it that way. I think I know why that is so. If you see women as if they are 3-year-olds that you need to look after, including telling them what to do and what to look like and how often they should smile, then how can looking after – patronizing – these poor creatures be “women-unfriendly” if that attitude is all you’ve ever known? Besides, globally, 9 out of 10 people still are biased against women. One thing that you could do is insist on talking with a woman every time you do any kind of business, whether you’re taking your car to a garage or need a locksmith. It reminds people that women are just as valuable and capable as men. It’s not just men who need to become more aware of this; it’s not exclusively male thinking that is the problem here.

Anyone who’s currently struggling financially should watch the film “Dallas Buyers Club”. I found it for 50 p at a charity shop but you can also rent it from YouTube. Thrift shops in the US may have it too. See if that gives you any ideas for how you can cooperate with people around you to ease the burden of the cost of living. Here in the UK, lots of these buyers clubs have sprung up recently, usually for groceries. In the US, Costco may be seen as a large version of a buyers club. Farmers’ communities often have them too.