Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Mean Little Pakistani

One of the failings of the Pakistani culture, which I have noticed over the years, is the depressing preponderance of the ‘mean little man’ syndrome in our society.

And yes (before readers start jumping on me) I do agree these people exist in every society, but in Pakistan, to our misfortune, we have somehow ended up with a much larger share compared to the international norm.

These petty egotists can be found in every spectrum of Pakistani society – military, bureaucracy, politicians, businessmen and multinational executives.

One example, whom I shall call SFA (for “short fat …umm… aalu?”), comes to mind. SFA came from a well-heeled Punjabi family and was educated at Cambridge, albeit in some obscure subject like widget demography.

He crept up the greasy corporate ladder of a well-known multinational until one day, much to his joy, he was made chairman. The first thing SFA did as the new boss was to indecorously insist that his predecessor return his company car that very same day. For the next few years he ran the company like a spoilt feudal despot; shouting, abusing and bullying his colleagues (even during board room meetings) and throwing nasty little tantrums when things didn’t quite go his way.

Eventually he miscalculated by throwing one tantrum to many by threatening to resign if his overseas superiors didn’t give him another pay rise. Much to SFA’s amazement his resignation was accepted. I am told the mood at the company was joyous and ‘ladoos’ were openly dished out to all and sundry.


My recollections of mean little men (and SFA in particular) were triggered off by the following article which appeared in today’s The News.

Little Men By Shakir Husain

We all come across them in our daily lives, and they seem to crawl up from under their rocks whenever they are least needed. They come in all shapes, colours, and sizes; and just when you think your life is insulated from them, 'they' make an appearance. There is no logic as to why they are the way they are, because education and exposure does not seem to alter their genetic DNA. These little men, or a literal translation of chotay adm, exist in all facets of life, and to be fair they exist everywhere; however, Pakistan has been blessed with more of them than we deserve.

Actually more than anything else, these little men are the root cause of most of what is wrong in our country. With their huge egos, and the insecure little fiefdoms that they have managed to carve out of the system they hold forth for decades without much substance. And while I am going to risk sounding sexist you do not find many women indulging in these sins of the ego. I have and still maintain that women make better administrators, CEOs, leaders, and politicians because somewhere in there it's programmed in their DNA. Oh well, it's enough to contend with half the population and a real blessing not to have to deal with the other half in this particular arena of the chota.

You will find them at immigration, at most government offices, and pretty much the entire private sector. While I'd love to perpetuate the myth that these little men are only found at government offices, they've managed to infiltrate the bastion of capitalism in Pakistan as well. It seems that the 'lateral move' is not just reserved from the army to the bureaucracy anymore. You know we are screwed when the little men start putting their little egos before profit or the good of the 'company'.

The little man comes in many guises. He can be educated at Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Karachi University, or LUMS -- but none of these institutions will have taken the little man DNA out of him. Like a Pavlovian experiment gone bad, he will always return to his roots despite the opportunities he's had in life. His sole job in life is to make life difficult for everyone around him, and to ensure that at each step of the way everyone knows that he is the 'boss' of his little fiefdom. Without this there is no validation of his life, and he'll go out of his way to ensure that homage is paid to his 'greatness'. So if you're one of those who can't pay homage and feed his ego, you can forget about getting whatever it is you need done.

The 'little man' syndrome can be attributed with causing the largest impediment to the development of Pakistani society, and really should be treated as a disease. The amount of time wasted on feeding little egos and sycophancy, if ever calculated, would run into billions of dollars. This figure would represent bad decisions made unopposed, professional advice unheeded because the 'little man' had a cunning plan, or the inability of the advisors to tell the man that he's wrong. And this cycle has been continuously perpetuated for six decades now.

With their fragile egos and a complete lack of confidence these little men are threatened by anyone and everyone at all times. Completely paranoid they will go out of their way to claim credit for other peoples' work, discredit other people, and generally form a wall that covers up for their inadequacies. Their favourite prey is junior staff or newbies, and this is unfortunate as this is the time when young people are most vulnerable. This also explains the high level of mediocrity that exists in the government and corporate sector today. It's simple --mediocre people cannot have really smart people working for them because that would shows how incompetent they (the mediocre ones) are; hence, they choose to surround themselves with even worse specimens than themselves.

While I'm definitely not a shrink, my wife is a certified one and she explained the whole 'little man' syndrome to me, it all came together. The root causes can range from low self-esteem, to whether the individual wasn't hugged enough, to low body image, to having an overpowering father or home environment. But in my book there's absolutely no excuse for putting these people in positions where they can perpetuate their insecurities and lower the bar. The little man syndrome develops into the 'playing God' syndrome and that's a dangerous thing.

Generally the rule of thumb is that when you encounter such people treat them like the bullies they are and don't try to feed whatever trip they're on. I'm not from the new age school of thought so I don't subscribe to the new fangled theories on touchy feely stuff. Call out the 'little men' and move on is what I say. If you're confused about whether someone has 'little man' syndrome and how to identify it, there are a few common sense rules, which you can use. If a person dyes their hair, there's some insecurity they're having a hard time dealing with.

If a middle-aged man is being a lecher there's some weird stuff going on there. If a balding man suddenly shows up at work with hair plugs, there's definitely something wrong. Look for the people who have the constant need to be noticed, recognised, and for the whole world to know how important they are. Those are the ones who one needs to beware of. In the meanwhile, good luck navigating life in the land of the pure with the cohorts of little men who are floating around.


Reader’s are welcome to list their examples of mean little men, if they wish to.


Anonymous said...

you should have told the name of the multinational, otherwise it looks like a fabricated story.


Onlooker said...

It is a free world and you are welcome to assume anything you wish to.

I don't intend revealing the MNC's identity as then many people will know exactly whom I'm talking about.

As SFA is not a politician or a public figure it would be akin to indulging in personalised character asassination. And no matter how much of a 'mean little man' he may be, according to my books that would just not be fair.

Anonymous said...

I do not think it is low self-esteem, I think it is an inflated sense of one's own importance encountering the real world which does not buy it. I think it is the result of being pampered and pandered to from childhood, having household help to bully and yell at and encountering little dissent in the growing years.

Anonymous said...

excerpt from The 'Little Emperors' Grow Up

In 1987, researchers found that in comparison with those who for reasons managed to have siblings, China's only-children, especially when they were young, showed superior cognition, intelligence and academic achievement.

But it was no surprise that in the early 1980s, various Chinese research psychologists found that only-children were also more likely to have personality and social behavioral problems, to be more egocentric and less persistent at tasks than their peers from bigger families.

Over time, however, Chinese culture adapted. In the late 1980s, more and more parents encouraged only-children to participate in collective activities such as preschool and day care to improve their behavior.

And as one-child families became a societal norm, parents changed their attitudes toward their children, doting less and using more authoritative parenting methods. Recent studies reflect this change, finding fewer differences between only-children and those with siblings. As Buddhists say, "Unceasing change turns the wheel of life."

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