Personality type for dummies: Part 1 – the basics

Something that’s been part of my life for a while now (some 5-6 years I’d estimate) is the personality type system variously called Myers-Briggs, MBTI, Jungian typology, or just “typology”. You know, INTJ’s, ENFP’s, ESTJ’s, etc. When I say “part of my life”, I mean “stuck in my head”. I used to be extremely interested in typology, reading deep into the theory and spending a lot of time trying to figure out the personality types of every person I met and fictional character I watched. Read my previous post about why and how I use typology.

My interest in typology has waned, but it’s something that sticks in my head. I still type people (and fictional characters). At this point it’s like a reflex rather than a conscious thought process. Once a user of typology, always a user of typology, etc.

If typology interests or has ever interested you, I’m writing this post to give you a crash course in the theory and practice of typing others and yourself. Why? That it’s an amusing trainspotting exercise aside, understanding typology is worthwhile for the sake of understanding how people’s brains work differently, exactly how other people’s brains are different from yours, and why people act the way they do. Ultimately, by better understanding others and yourself, you can use it to improve your relationships—which is an eminently worthwhile end. Also, it’s really fun to guess the Twelfth Doctor’s MBTI type.

This post ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, so here’s a table of contents of sorts to signpost what’s ahead:

  1. What’s this about
  2. The cognitive functions
  3. Function pairs
  4. Function preferences & the dominant function
  5. The function stack
  6. The four-letter code
  7. What the cognitive functions do
  8. Typing yourself and others
  9. Part 2

What’s this about?

The typology system I’m talking about here is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) system which derives from Carl Jung, was developed by Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, and was perfected by teenagers on Tumblr. It’s dangerous using the term “personality type” (although I use it anyway for convenience) because what we colloquially undersand by “personality” are things that MBTI has nothing to do with: characteristics, attributes, traits and behaviour.

MBTI is not about behaviour, but cognition, which can be boiled down to two things: how you gather information, and how you make decisions, referred to in MBTI terminology as perceiving and judging. As you’ll appreciate, perceiving and judging have little to do with a person’s sense of humour, gregariousness, confidence, snobbishness, excitability and other attributes and behaviours we colloquially associate with “personality”.

Remember: this is about how a person gathers information and makes decisions.

The cognitive functions

If you have a passing familiarity with typology, you would know about the four-letter code that represents each of the 16 personality types: INTJ, ENFP, etc. For each of the letters in the four-letter code, there are two alternatives:

  • Introversion (“I”) or Extraversion (“E”)
  • Intuition (“N”) or Sensing (“S”)
  • Feeling (“F”) or Thinking (“T”)
  • Judging (“J”) or Perceiving (“P”)

You may have learned, or been told, that you pick which of the two alternatives for each of the four letters matches you, and that’s your personality type. While that’s technically correct, and for practical purposes will be accurate 70% – 80% of the time, that’s not actually how it works. In type theory, the letters in the four-letter code are not actually what make up a personality type; they are actually shorthand for something else: the function stack.

Every type has a function stack. A “function stack” is a set of four “cognitive functions”. It is the cognitive functions, not the actual letters in the four-letter code (and the concepts they represent, e.g. Introversion, Sensing, etc.), that are what make up a personality type. The cognitive functions are the central concepts of typology.

There are eight cognitive functions in total, and of those eight, each type has four cognitive functions, but not the other four. The eight cognitive functions are:

  • Extraverted Intuition (or “Ne” for short)
  • Introverted Intuition (“Ni”)
  • Extraverted Sensing (“Se”)
  • Introverted Sensing (“Si”)
  • Extraverted Thinking (“Te”)
  • Introverted Thinking (“Ti”)
  • Extraverted Feeling (“Fe”)
  • Introverted Feeling (“Fi”)

These functions can be grouped into two categories: “perceiving” and “judging” functions:

  • The perceiving functions are the intuition and sensing functions (Ne, Ni, Se, Si). Perceiving functions are about information-gathering. They determine how you take in information, and what kind of information you take in.
  • The judging functions are the thinking and feeling functions (Te, Ti, Fe, Fi). Judging functions are about decision-making. Once you’ve gathered information via the perceiving functions, the judging functions interpret the information and come to conclusions about it & make decisions. What kind of judging functions you have determines the basis on which you make decisions.

Function pairs

You need both perceiving functions and judging functions, otherwise you can’t function properly. As mentioned above, each type has a “function” stack comprising four of the eight functions: two perceiving functions and two judging functions. The two perceiving functions you have will be opposites of each other: for example, you will either have Introverted Intuition and Extraverted Sensing, or you will have Extraverted Intuition and Introverted Sensing. Ditto for the judging functions: you will either have Introverted Thinking and Extraverted Feeling, or you will have Extraverted Thinking and Introverted Feeling. I’ll explain what the “introverted” and “extraverted” part of the functions is later on.

The two perceiving and judging functions you have are opposites because, in addition to needing to be able to both perceive and judge, you need to both intuit and sense, and both think and feel. That’s because, as a human with an evolved human brain, you have the capacity to do both; it’s not one or the other.

To use an example, take my type, INTP. My cognitive functions are Introverted Thinking, Extraverted Feeling, Introverted Sensing and Extraverted Intuition. I have both thinking and feeling functions, and both sensing and intuition functions.

Function preferences & the dominant function

However, while each person has the capacity to use thinking, feeling, intuition and sensing, in reality you will prefer one of either thinking or feeling, and one of either intuition or sensing. One will feel more comfortable than the other, and you will use it more than the other and become better at it than the other. It’s similar to the way you are either right- or left-handed: you still have two hands, but through preference and greater use of one hand over the other, one becomes stronger and more dextrous than the other.

In addition to preferring one of each of your perceiving functions and judging functions to the other, you will have a function you lean on significantly more than the other three, called your “dominant function”. It’s probably the function you took to first, or most, when you were a child, and interacted with the world predominantly through the use of that function, drawing on your other functions only when you needed to. Even as you grow up and develop your other functions with increased use of them, you still lean heavily on your dominant function over the others, both through habit and because it becomes the function that’s most comfortable and effortless for you.

Not only is your dominant function effortless, you scarcely notice yourself using it—it becomes like a sixth sense, and you don’t understand why others can’t use it as effortlessly as you do; it’s the lens through which you experience the world, and the water you swim in. It’s absolutely central to your identity.

The function stack

This brings me to the “function stack”. It’s called a “stack” because the functions in the function stack are grouped in order from strongest to weakest, as if they were stacked on top of each other. Going back to my type, INTP, my function stack is (in order):

  1. Introverted Thinking (Ti)
  2. Extraverted Intuition (Ne)
  3. Introverted Sensing (Si)
  4. Extraverted Feeling (Fe)

Introverted Thinking (Ti) is my dominant function. You’ll see that its pair or opposite, Extraverted Feeling (Fe), is at the bottom of my function stack. The pair/opposite of your dominant function will always be your weakest function and at the bottom of your function stack; therefore it’s called the “inferior” function.

The pair of your dominant function is weakest and “inferior” because, with such heavy use of your dominant function, you scarcely exercise its pair. That’s because you can’t use two types of judging simultaneously, or two types of perceiving, because they are diametrically opposed ways of judging or perceiving. Using one function at a given moment necessarily means you are not using its pair, and so the more you use one of a pair, the less you use the other. If you use a function so much that it’s your dominant function, its pair, your “inferior” function, will be severely underused, weak, underdeveloped, immature, and you will be extremely clumsy and uncomfortable in using it.

The second and third functions are known as your “auxiliary” and “tertiary” functions, respectively. If your dominant and inferior functions are judging functions, your auxiliary and tertiary functions will be your pair of perceiving functions, and vice versa. Your auxiliary will be the preferred function of that pair, and the tertiary the non-preferred. So, for INTP again, as my dominant and inferior functions are judging functions, my auxiliary and tertiary are perceiving functions: Extraverted Intutition (Ne) and Introverted Sensing (Si), respectively.

The role of the auxiliary function is to support the dominant function. Because, in interacting with the world, you need to both judge and perceive, if your dominant function is a judging function, your auxiliary function will be a perceiving function (and vice versa). And because you interact with an external (objective) world and an internal (subjective) world, if your dominant function is an extraverted function, your auxiliary function will be an introverted function (and vice versa).

The latter is the reason your auxiliary function will always be the opposite orientation to your dominant function—your dominant and auxiliary can’t be both introverted functions, or both extroverted functions, because you need to relate to both the external and internal worlds, both the world of things and people outside you, and the world of ideas, impressions, thoughts and feelings inside you. As your dominant function already does one (either extraversion or introversion), your auxiliary will do the other.

So, your dominant and auxiliary functions together will be your primary ways of both perceiving and judging, and both extraverting and introverting. The role of the tertiary and inferior functions is to supply the needs that the dominant and auxiliary can’t supply. I’m an INTP, I mainly judge with Introverted Thinking (Ti) and perceive with Extraverted Intuition (Ne); but I also sense and feel, albeit less and not very well. For my sensing and and feeling needs, I use Introverted Sensing (Si) and Extraverted Feeling (Fe).

The four-letter code

So, the function stack converts into the four-letter code you’re familiar with, as so:

  1. The 1st letter (“E” or “I”) represents the orientation (extraverted or introverted) of the dominant function.
  2. The 2nd letter (“N” or “S”) represents which type of perceiving function you use primarily: intuition or sensing.
  3. The 3rd letter (“T” or “F”) represents which type of judging function you use primarily: thinking or feeling.
  4. The 4th letter (“P” or “J”) represents which category of function you primarily extravert with: perceiving or judging.

So, for an INTP, my first letter is “I” because my dominant function, Ti, is introverted. My second letter is “N” because I primarily use intuition over sensing. My third letter is “T” because I primarily use thinking over feeling. My fourth letter is “P” because I primarily extravert with a perceiving function: Extraverted Intuition (Ne).

Taking any type, you can reverse-engineer its function stack. Let’s take ESFP, for example:

  1. The “S” and “F” indicate that ESFP uses sensing and feeling as its modes of perceiving and judging, respectively.
  2. The “P” indicates that ESFP extraverts with a perceiving function, which will be its sensing function, so, ESFP’s sensing is extraverted: Extraverted Sensing (Se).
  3. The “E” indicates that ESFP’s dominant function is extraverted. Since Se is ESFP’s extraverted function, ESFP’s dominant function will be Se.
  4. As ESFP’s dominant function is an extraverted perceiving function (Se), its auxiliary function will be an introverted judging function. ESFP’s primary mode of judging is feeling, which makes its auxiliary function Introverted Feeling (Fi).
  5. ESFP’s tertiary function will be the opposite of its auxiliary function: Extraverted Thinking (Te).
  6. ESFP’s inferior function will be the opposite of its dominant function: Introverted Intuition (Ni).
  7. ESFP’s function stack, therefore, is: Se-Fi-Te-Ni.

What the cognitive functions do

So, after all that, the fun part: this is where I explain what the cognitive functions actually do.

First, I need to explain what sensing and intuition, and thinking and feeling, are. As you now know, sensing and intuition are two ways of perceiving (information-gathering), and thinking and feeling are two ways of judging (decision-making).

Taking the perceiving functions first, sensing gathers information that can be gathered with the five senses, and information that is “concrete”, material and verifiable. Intuition gathers information that is abstract and conceptual, and relies on seeing patterns and making connections between data points. Sensing takes things as they are in reality and focusses on the material, “real” facts and data in front of it, whereas intuition attempts to peer around the corner, see how things relate to other things and envision the possibilities of what things could be.

As for the judging functions, while thinking and feeling can be (not unfairly) stereotyped as “logic” versus “emotion”, it’s not as simple as that. It’s really the difference between evaluating things, and making decisions, based on standards that are impersonal and empirical/system-based (thinking), or standards that are values- and people-based, i.e. values about how people should relate to each other (feeling).

As foreshadowed above, the “extraverted” and “introverted” aspects of the functions is about whether, in using the function, you are directing your attention and energy toward the objective world of people and objects outside of you (extraverted), or toward the subjective world of thoughts, ideas, feelings, impressions, memories, consciousness and personal experience inside of you (introverted).

So, here we go:

Extraverted Sensing (Se) is highly attuned to the physical and material world around it. It takes in sensory information from its physical surroundings in real time—objects and people, and changes in its surroundings—and reacts fluently and confidently in the moment. Se seeks out stimulation from the physical and sensory world, which is why you will find many Se-users among sportsmen, artistic people, cooks and foodies, outdoorsy types, party animals and accomplished flirts.

Types that use Se as a dominant function are ESFP and ESTP. Types that use Se as an auxiliary function are ISFP and ISTP.

Introverted Sensing (Si) is highly attuned to its own, personal, subjective experience, i.e. how an experience is affecting the Si-user personally & how it is making the Si-user feel. Si then takes these subjective impressions and stores them, and creates a vast store of such subjective experiences, impressions and memories. It uses that store as a framework for interpreting new experiences, by way of comparison and reference. Because of this, Si-users tend to develop a very unique and personal way of looking at the world, because they view present experiences through the lens of their past experiences. This can make them hidebound and tied to what they know, and uncomfortable with new things and things that challenge what they know from their past experiences.

Types that use Si as a dominant function are ISFJ and ISTJ. Types that use Si as an auxiliary function are ESFJ and ESTJ.

Extraverted Intuition (Ne) sees new possibilities and opportunities about what can be. It does this mainly by seeing connections and patterns between ideas. It is always seeing new patterns and throwing up new possibilities for how reality can be changed. Ne-users tend to generate a lot of novel, unconventional and original ideas, and quickly see unexpected and apparently random connections between ideas and things.

Types that use Ne as a dominant function are ENFP and ENTP. Types that use Ne as an auxiliary function are INFP and INTP.

Introverted Intuition (Ni) stores subjective patterns and interpretations in much the same way Si stores subjective experiences. This store of patterns and interpretations creates a framework for interpreting new events and phenomena that the Ni-user encounters. Ni-users are therefore highly attuned to (how they interpret) things will play out, and (what they interpret to be) the “essence” and “deeper meaning” of things. They use their tendency to visualise the future in order to guide their actions.

Types that use Ni as a dominant function are INFJ and INTJ. Types that use Ni as an auxiliary function are ENFJ and ENTJ.

Extraverted Thinking (Te), a judging (decision-making) function, evaluates and makes decisions based on objective rational standards, being rules, procedures, external systems, empirical data, and results. Ultimately Te asks “what works? what gets the best results?” Te wants to organise and rationalise the external world by imposing procedures and systems, and Te-users will often be meticulously organised in their own personal and work/study lives.

Types that use Te as a dominant function are ENTJ and ESTJ. Types that use Te as an auxiliary function are INTJ and ISTJ.

Introverted Thinking (Ti) evaluates and makes decisions based on its own, subjective understanding of how things work. Whereas Te asks “what works (in practice)/gets the best results?”, Ti asks “what makes sense (to me)?”. Ti wants to boil things down to first principles and understand on a conceptual level how things work. Ti constructs a logical framework for understanding things/the world that is ultimately based on its own subjective reasoning (“what makes sense to me?”) rather than objective standards and evidence.

Types that use Ti as a dominant function are INTP and ISTP. Types that use Ti as an auxiliary function are ENTP and ESTP.

Extraverted Feeling (Fe) evaluates and makes decisions based on interpersonal standards, i.e. what promotes interpersonal harmony, what makes everyone feel good, what’s best for others. Similar to the way Te puts stock in external impersonal systems and procedures, Fe attributes importance to external personal systems and procedures, such as social norms and rules, forms of social organisation and status, social traditions and social authorities, because such things, Fe sees, promote interpersonal harmony and reduce conflict. Fe-users tend to be highly attuned to the way other people feel, and tend to be naturals at empathising, dialogue, bringing people together, and leadership.

Types that use Fe as a dominant function are ENFJ and ESFJ. Types that use Fe as an auxiliary function are INFJ and ISFJ.

Introverted Feeling (Fi) evaluates and makes decisions based on the Fi-user’s own personal values and understanding of good and bad & right and wrong. Fi-users are highly in touch with their own feelings and will always know how they feel about things. Authentically expressing one’s own feelings, values and identity, and remaining true to one’s own values, is extremely important to Fi-users. Fi-users will not care for interpersonal harmony and social norms and organisation the way Fe-users do if those things conflict with the Fi-user’s personal values.

Types that use Fi as a dominant function are INFP and ISFP. Types that use Fi as an auxiliary function are ENFP and ESFP.

Typing yourself and others

Now that you know what goes into a personality type (cognitive functions in a particular order), and what cognitive functions go with what types, you should be equipped to go out and do some type-spotting (starting with yourself!). To be fair, there’s more to type theory than what I’ve written in this post—this is “MBTI for dummies” after all—but, with a knowledge of the basics, you should be able to type people with decent accuracy.

What you’re looking for, above all, is a person’s dominant function. What’s the function that dominates their personality? What do they do so effortlessly it’s like a sixth sense? With extraverts, whose dominant function is extraverted, it shouldn’t be difficult to determine this, as their extraverted dominant function is out there in the open for all to see. With introverts, whose dominant function is introverted, it can be a bit trickier. The side of themselves introverts show to the world will often be their auxiliary function, which is extraverted, whereas their introverted dominant function can be quieter in their interactions with most people. It’ll take getting to know some introverts to see their dominant function more clearly.

One way to determine an elusive dominant function is to look for a person’s inferior function, which you do by asking “what do they really suck at? what do they suck at so much it causes them anxiety and stress? what’s the thing they run away from because of how uncomfortable it makes them?” Once you’ve pinned down an inferior function, you can deduce their dominant function (which is the inferior function’s opposite).

Determining between intuition and sensing can sometimes be a source of confusion. To be clear, not every person who has ever had an abstract thought, or enjoys talking about abstract things, is an intuitive. Sensors can intuit and intuitives can sense. Look for what they’re better at and more comfortable with. Look for how they express themselves: in concrete, straightforward language (sensors), or in generalisations and analogies (intuitives). Look for what they’re interested in: abstract things like personality theory, particle physics, philosophy and Doctor Who fanfiction, or sensory things like sport, arts, food, fashion and all-night raves.

Also don’t make the mistake of assuming that being intellectual means a person is a thinker, or that being emotive means a person is a feeler. Thinking and feeling (judging) is about a person’s underlying motivations for making decisions and evaluating things, rather than their abilities or behaviour. Do they make their decisions based on impersonal, “rational” standards, or with reference to people, their feelings, and people-focussed values.

Ultimately you can get away with using the “dichotomous” method of picking which letters in the four-letter code most applies to a person, which will be accurate 70-80% of the time, but it’s best to verify by identifying a person’s cognitive functions. Moreover, “extravert sensor feeler perceiver” just doesn’t tell you much. Knowing how the cognitive functions work allows you to understand so much more about why a person is the way they are, than the dichotomous four-letters method.

If you’re interested in reading my thought process in identifying a person’s type, you can look at any of my Typing Doctor Who blog posts, where I type Doctor Who characters and show my reasoning. So far I’ve done Clara Oswald, the Eleventh Doctor, Sarah-Jane Smith, Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and Victorian Clara.

Part 2 – Going deeper

When I began writing this post, I didn’t intend it to be more than a single part. However, in the process of organising all this information in what has hopefully been a clear and simple way, I was reminded of how much more there is to type theory. To properly accurately type people, and genuinely understand how they work using type theory, requires knowledge of the deeper aspects of type theory.

I’m going to go deeper into type theory in a Part 2 post. This will cover subjects such as inferior grips, dominant-tertiary loops, function dynamics, type maturity and growth, the significance of types of functions in different positions, and anything else relevant I think of in the meantime.

Happy typing!

Why I use Myers-Briggs

Some of my most popular posts on this blog have been my “Typing Doctor Who” posts, where I assign a Myers-Briggs (MBTI) type to a Doctor Who character and show my working. A couple of years ago I was completely absorbed in everything MBTI, and those posts were the product of my obsessive habit of typing everything that moved.

My MBTI mania has abated since then, probably for the better (it’s not wise to place too much stock in any personality theory). However, when you’ve been as immersed as I was in MBTI and its progressive levels of theoretical convolution, you can never really let go of it. MBTI is still very much a tool I use in my day-to-day life, to understand myself and the people around me, and how I relate to those around me.

It’s the kind of theoretical tool that helps you understand, for example, what’s going through your partner’s head when you’re locked in an argument and you’re both frustrated that the other can’t just see things the way you do. You would use MBTI to understand why the people in your office (or class, team, etc.), who annoy you and perplex you and who couldn’t be more different from you, are the way they are.

Personally I use MBTI partly as an amusing train-spotting exercise (“Jack’s an ENFJ, interesting.”, “Ooh, Amy’s an ISFP, haven’t met many of those.”), and partly as a genuine tool to understand what Jack’s being an ENFJ or Amy’s being an ISFP means for how I relate to them, how we can best get along, work together, and avoid misunderstanding and conflict. That is, I use MBTI to improve my relationships with other people. And, partly, I use MBTI to understand myself, my strengths and weaknesses, what it means for me in various facets of my life, and where I need to grow as a person.


Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers

No one who uses MBTI, though, can ignore the charge that it is nonsense. A quick scan of the Wikipedia page for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will reveal that it has been criticised by some Very Serious People as “unscientific” and a “pseudoscience”, if not outright refuted. It also can’t be ignored that Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, who developed the theory in its modern form, were not qualified psychologists, but more like amateur hobbyists and Carl Jung devotees (who developed the theory in its rudimentary form). Real psychologists don’t take it seriously (I’m hesitant to mention my devotion to MBTI to my friends with psychology qualifications), and its adherents consist mostly of hobbyists on the internet – like me – and corporate HR departments.

The critiques are fair, and should be taken seriously by anyone who wants to place any reliance in the theory. They can be answered to some extent by pointing out that practically all scientific critiques of MBTI refer to the “official” Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® test administered by the Myers & Briggs Foundation, which is considered by most adherents of MBTI theory (which would better be described as Jungian typology) who aren’t corporate HR departments as unreliable and based on a butchered and considerably watered-down version of the fuller, far more sophisticated theory. Moreover, scientific opinion even on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® is hardly uniform.

But it’s true enough that MBTI lacks the empirical scientific validation one would need to make use of it with confidence. I’m perfectly conscious of that. Why use it, then? To put it simply, I use it because it works. I find the categories and functions of MBTI to be accurate and useful for describing what I see in other people and making sense of others’ decisions and thought processes. I find that it is a system that helps me understand how people (and fictional characters, no less) work.

The idea of different personality types, variously called in different places “archetypes” or “temperaments”, is nothing new. Katherine Myers and Isabel Briggs-Myers (or Carl Jung, for that matter) didn’t invent the idea of personality types, which has a venerable intellectual pedigree going back to the ancient world. It’s this that makes me think, despite the lack of enthusiasm from the academic community, that there might just be something in the most sophisticated and enduringly popular attempt to explain and systematise personality types yet developed.


I’m hardly a scientist – I dropped all science subjects after 10th grade (a mistake) – but it wouldn’t surprise me if MBTI is not something that can be tested emprically, and should be better placed in the realm of social science or philosophy than the natural sciences. It seems sensible: in typing people we’re simply putting a name on traits and patterns we observe in ourselves and others. We don’t require the aid of scientific testing to observe that some people are more outgoing than others, or that some people are highly in touch with how they feel about things but have poor powers of dispassionate logical judgment (and vice versa). Or that some people enjoy nothing more than spending hours discussing type theory while others find this unutterably boring and would prefer to go bike riding or photo shooting.

Those differences and those patterns are there. Postnominalled scientists don’t need to tell us that Jess is outgoing and free with her feelings, or that Josh is reserved and cerebral, or Noora an unfocussed free spirit, because our experience tells us that they are. We construct mental archetypes and character traits (“outgoing”, “scattered”, “analytical”, “principled”, etc.) to describe and make sense of personality differences in other people, which in turn inform how we think about and treat different people. Personality types exist because we make them exist, not because they’re biologically inherent in us. MBTI is no more than an attempt to systematise this very human process of assigning constructed archetypes and traits to other people.

There is therefore a fundamental difference between how MBTI and how scientific psychology would treat the subject matter of human personality differences. MBTI is about observing the personality traits and patterns that are there and putting names on them: the “what”. Psychology would explain “why” those traits and patterns are there, and “why” different people have different sets of traits and patterns, the “why” being what is actually going on at a biological level in the brain.

Ultimately, though, MBTI is just a tool. The utility of a tool should be judged by how effectively it helps you do what you’re using it to do. In other words, how well it works. For me, MBTI works for what I’m using it for. It gives me a frame of reference for understanding how the people in my life think and act differently. It helps me empathise with others and improve my relationships. And it helps me understand myself and my own brain. It helps me practise self-awareness and identify areas for growth. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether MBTI is, or is even capable of being, endorsed by peer-reviewed psychologists. I’m using it positively in my life, and that’s enough for me.

How I learned to stop worrying and love Brutalism

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like Brutalist buildings. I think they’re eyesores and blights upon the urban landscape. I would hate to work or learn in a Brutalist building, let alone live in one. I’m actually a frothing architectural reactionary who thinks nothing built after 1930 is worth the (cheap) material it was built from, and that the colonisation of our cities by Brutalist concrete monstrosities, and the accompanying destruction of priceless architectural heritage, was a heinous crime.

I don’t need to give a lecture on the ills of Brutalism, which are plain enough. Not only are Brutalist buildings ugly, they’re designed to be ugly. Or, rather, they’re designed to eschew any and all notions of beauty and aesthetic appeal in favour of pure functionality. Which, really, is the same thing as being designed to be ugly. Beauty is elitist and oppressive, you see, and by rejecting conventional norms of beauty we reject elitist, oppressive bourgeois society. By tearing down the spires and arches and ornate façades from the past and replacing them with featureless concrete blocks, we create a just new society atop the ashes of the oppressive old, where none are beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, gentle or common, great or small; where all are equal, and all the same.

Brutalism, then, is not just ugly, but deliberately anti-beauty. It is designed to reduce the built environment to the lowest common denominator, levelling down the physical world we live in just as we level down the human world itself. Brutalist buildings are also depersonifying in the way egalitarian ideology is: their monumental proportions make the individual feel minute and insignificant, except as one tiny, indistinct cog among millions in an enormous, inhuman social machine. Brutalist buildings, therefore, are erected as physical symbols of the brave new world; visual egalitarianism.

Which is all very well, but such high-minded ideals don’t spare much sympathy for the people who actually have to live and work in these drab concrete eyesores. No one should be surprised by the revelation that the physical world around us affects our mood, our productivity, and even our mental health. Sunlight, warmth, greenery, pretty buildings and other people make us happy. Grey skies and cold, grey surroundings devoid of humanity make us anxious and downcast. Few people like living and working in cold, grey, concrete environments. The proliferation of Brutalist buildings in the 1960s and 1970s was an instance of building for ideology rather than for people.

So much for what’s wrong with Brutalism. And yet—and yet—there’s a small part of me which can’t help but admire Brutalist architecture, in all its cold, nihilistic ugliness. No, I will never think Brutalist buildings are pretty, but no one could deny they’re impressive. Brutalism isn’t supposed to be pretty, but it’s designed to impress and to awe, with its gigantic proportions, its stark, straight lines and geometric shapes, and its overpowering cold, barren greyness. When you approach a Brutalist building, you feel increasingly diminished as the sheer, bleak façade towers over you. When you are inside one, you are awed by the dimensions, which are exaggerated by the ostentatious lack of any feature or ornament whatsoever. Brutalism is an aesthetic experience designed to dominate the senses.

And this is by no means a characteristic unique to Brutalism. Many of the great buildings of the past were also constructed to create an awesome impression. What were the great European cathedrals but edifices and spaces designed to make the believer feel small and supine before the divine majesty of God? What was the feudal lord’s towering castle on the hill but the Brutalist eyesore of its day, designed, in part, to intimidate and awe the oppressed local peasantry? And we don’t think of the Tower of London or St Peter’s Basilica as anything other than priceless artefacts of our historical heritage.

And while Brutalist buildings may not be pretty (in the sense of Instagrammable), if you squint really hard and tilt your head a bit and look at them in just the right light, they do, I’ll admit, have a certain avant garde glamour to them, in a sci-fi, Ayn Randian sort of way. You could compare Brutalism, for example, to Vaporwave (or its forerunner, Surrealism), which is to art what Brutalism is to architecture. No one thinks Vaporwave art is pretty, but, with its faux-nostalgic imagery, hyper-saturated pastels and incongruous Roman busts, it has its own weird, evocative allure that has nothing to do with conventional notions of beauty.

In the same way, Brutalism’s stark shapes, hard lines and bare surfaces exercise the aesthetic sensors of the brain. Not in a pleasing, endorphin-producing way, but it exercises them nonetheless. If sufficiently open and receptive to aesthetic experiences other than the pretty, pleasing kind, people are drawn to the visual impression created by Brutalism in the same way they’re drawn to Vaporwave, or Black Metal music, or skydiving, or very spicy food, or whisky. Our senses and our bodies are not made to enjoy these things, but once we overcome our instinctive repulsion to them, we can enjoy the experience of exciting our senses with things they instinctively reject.

And for my part, at least, it’s also hard not to admire an architectural style propagated so boldly in the service of its guiding philosophy, whatever one might think of that philosophy, over other relevant concerns such as aesthetic appeal and fitness for human habitation. It’s hard not to admire buildings which were, in part, designed as physical symbols of such a bold and ambitious social philosophy. One can appreciate and admire the impressive intellectual edifices crafted by Nietzsche, Marx, Plato, Stirner and Rand despite being justifiably repulsed by those thinkers’ worldviews.

So, on balance, if I could, would I knock down all the Brutalist eyesores that blot our cities? If it meant replacing them with the kinds of beautiful buildings that were themselves invariably demolished to make space for the new concrete horrors in the 1960s and 1970s, then I would. Little satisfies more than putting right an old wrong.

But, let’s face it, they’re not going to be replaced by beautiful Victorian train stations and Georgian pubs, but, if possible, by even blander, less interesting buildings that blend seamlessly into the rest of the featureless, unexciting modern urban landscape. Brutalist buildings, at least, have the decency to be offensive and ugly, if they’re not going to be pretty. I think I would rather a building that is proudly, shamelessly ugly than one that, although it tries to avoid being ugly, still can’t bring itself to be pretty. The former is something to be looked at, to be reviled or admired, depending on your taste. The latter won’t even be looked at, or thought about at all. It’s just there. Brutalism, at least, is not that.

K-drama: my latest guilty pleasure

Hello, it’s been a while. There’s a very good reason for that: in February I started a full-time job. For the last five months I have been putting in forty-two and a half hours a week at a solicitors’ firm and earning an honest living (of sorts). That’s not to say I’ve had no time at all to blog. I just preferred to spend my drastically reduced leisure time variously relaxing with my good friend Netflix or numbing the trauma of becoming a “real adult” with copious volumes of alcohol. ’90s kids get it.

In any case, the other reason for my absence is that a new addiction has taken hold of me: Korean language TV dramas, a.k.a. “K-drama”. And addicting they are. Since I decided, in a fit of mixed boredom and curiosity, a little less than a year ago, to start watching something called Moorim School on Netflix about a K-pop idol who goes to a secret martial arts school, I’ve finished nine K-drama series and am set to soon finish my tenth. My after-work evenings, then, for the last five months, have mostly been spent curled up on my bed with Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo or What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? on my laptop.

I don’t know if watching K-drama is supposed to be a guilty pleasure or not. That’s coming from someone who has more guilty pleasures than is entirely decent. It seems like it should be–it’s lots of maudlin, tropey romance and not much else. I just don’t know if K-drama is sufficiently prominent on the radar of even the average pop culture savvy Western Millennial to warrant any embarrassment over watching it. Although, with the increased, not entirely favourable awareness of K-pop and in particular a certain K-pop idol group with a three-letter acronym for a name, K-drama’s reputation may be about to depreciate by association.

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I’m Not A Robot

No matter. Guilty pleasures are guilty pleasures for a reason. It’s not inaccurate to compare the guilty pleasure of K-drama to the guilty pleasure taken in watching trashy Hollywood chick flicks. The two genres are cut from the same stylistic cloth. There’s a fairytale, fantastical element in both that takes you out of the mundanity of ordinary life and transports you into a live-action fairytale. Not magic and witches (although K-drama is more comfortable with putting fantasy elements in love stories than Hollywood is), but not entirely realistic and over-dramatised love stories worthy of the screen. It’s trashy, sure, and most of it deserves the derision the Hollywood chick flick genre gets, but the best K-drama is well worth the 16-25 hours you’ll spend glued to your laptop screen.

Of the series I’ve watched, I’m Not A Robot and What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? fall into the trashier category—although I’ve been trying to watch better-rated series, and both of these are nonetheless worth the binge. I’m Not A Robot is about a reclusive, socially awkward young corporate director with a severe allergy to human contact, who falls in love with his “female” robot assistant (who is actually a real woman pretending to be a robot to save the blushes of the robot’s creator over the actual robot’s faultiness).

This one is a good example of K-drama’s willingness to entertain weirder, unrealistic story concepts that require you to suspend a lot of disbelief for the story to take you with it. It’s all part of the charm and appeal of K-drama. It’s all part of what makes K-drama the addicting, heartstring-tugging escapism it is. And as I said, a lot of K-drama, unlike its Hollywood stylistic cousin, traverses into actual fantasy. W is about the daughter of a comic book artist who travels into the world of her father’s comics and falls in love with the main character (who is being hunted down by a mysterious, faceless serial killer).

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Reply 1997

That said, my favourite K-drama, Hello! My Twenties (or Age of Youth) is perhaps the realest, least fairytale of the series I’ve watched. It sports all the usual stylistic and aesthetic trappings of K-drama (romance, comedy, coming-of-age themes featuring unreasonably attractive Korean youths), but unlike a lot of K-drama, it doesn’t shy away from grittier, more “real-life” themes. It’s less a fairytale than a K-dramatisation of the lives of real people, with their real problems and concerns. Unlike most K-drama, or even Hollywood, it isn’t afraid to confront the reality that a lot of people don’t get happy endings. Hello! My Twenties is a K-drama that wants to be something more than entertaining but ephemeral fluff—a K-drama that has something to say and lessons to teach, which makes it the best that K-drama can be.

K-drama recommendations:

Hello! My Twenties — the loves and lives of five very different young women in a share house in Seoul.

Reply 1997 — follows the lives of Korean high school students in 1997, set against the backdrop of the advent of the K-pop craze

Reply 1994 — follows the lives of the young residents of a boarding house in Seoul as they fall in love, adjust to a new environment and grow into adults.

Uncontrollably Fond — love story between two separated childhood lovers, now reunited as adults, one a wildly famous K-pop idol, the other a struggling documentary journalist.

My First First Love — the quintessential K-drama. College students, new friends, new love.

Pinocchio — a young boy is adopted by a rural family after unscrupulous journalists destroy his own family. Years later, he becomes an intern at a television studio to vindicate his family.

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo — coming-of-age story about young athletes at a sports university, featuring weightlifting “fairy” Kim Bok-joo, who looks far too slight and delicate to lift anything heavier than a shopping bag, but, hey, it’s K-drama.

I’m Not A Robot — top corporate director with severe allergy to human touch obtains a state-of-the-art robot assistant which looks suspiciously like a sexbot. Little does he know his actual robot malfunctioned and the creator’s ex-girlfriend has been posing as his robot assistant the whole time.

W: Two Worlds — love story between a comic book character and the daughter of the comic book’s creator, with serial killers.

What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? — an egotistic, socially awkward young corporate CEO tries to stop his indispensable (and attractive) secretary (who resents him) from quitting, ends up falling in love with her.

What I loved about Canterbury and Dover + travel photos

Some months ago I started a series of posts on my travels around Great Britain and Europe while I was studying as an exchange student in London. I started with Oxford, my first foray out of London—but have since neglected to continue the series. That changes today.

On my second jaunt out of London, I visited the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury on a one-day round trip. Again, I made the trip with the two of my new acquaintances who would become my fastest friends for the rest of my time in London. As someone who has done a great deal of both solo travel and travelling with others, I much prefer having company when I travel. I think the experience of travel is invariably made even better and more memorable by sharing it.

Our first stop was the White Cliffs of Dover. It was still early February, the depths of winter, and it was freezing. All the more so because the cliffs, being on the coast, bear the full brunt of the icy sea winds. Pity me, a poor Australian traveller who almost never has to endure temperatures lower than 10°C where I come from. I think my friends got sick of my incessant complaining about the cold after a while, and were sorely tempted to throw me off those cliffs.

The first challenge that faces visitors to the White Cliffs is actually getting down to them. This endeavour requires an arduous trek over mud-strewn country that will leave your shoes caked in wet earth, and the rest of you, too, if you’re unlucky enough to slip over in the very slippery mud. I didn’t slip, unlike some unfortunate members of our party (we came on a student coach trip), but I don’t think my poor Converses ever forgave me for what I put them through that day. It wouldn’t surprise me if many mud-soaked visitors to the cliffs don’t give up and turn back without ever catching a glimpse of them.

The second challenge is actually catching a glimpse of them. It’s not easy finding a good view of something you’re clambering around on top of, no matter how close to the edge you stand. Eventually we managed to find a good vantage point by performing some particularly daring feats of cross-country that, I think, deterred many of the others. Have a look:


What cliffs, eh? What marvellous cliffs. To use any adjective less superlative than “majestic” in connection with the White Cliffs of Dover, I think, would be to do them an injustice. They really are a sight, once you actually get to see them.

And yes, in that photo above, I am sitting about one metre away from falling to my death. I did it for the ‘gram. Sorry, mum.

Was it worth it? Was it worth drenching every part of me from my knees down in muck and fighting my way through furlongs of hostile countryside? To see some cliffs? Oh yes. But I wonder if I hadn’t had friends to share the experience with, my answer would have been “no”. Wading through mud in the biting cold is certainly less irksome when you’re laughing with equally mud-soaked friends all the way. What might not have been a very enjoyable trip, apart from a glimpse at some—admittedly breathtaking—cliffs, was turned into one of my most memorable experiences from my 6 months’ abroad by the presence of great company.

Next we went to Canterbury, site of the eponymous Tales and charming medieval town par excellence. The rain had really set in by the time we arrived, and our experience of Canterbury was a wet and gloomy Canterbury. “Don’t worry,” a local told us cheerily, “it’s always like this!”

Gloomy and rain-sodden though it was, it was hard not to appreciate the charm of the studiously-preserved medieval town. Cobbled streets, beamed houses and Gothic spires abound in Canterbury. Maybe cobbled streets are a bit passé for Britons and Europeans whose countries have cobbles coming out of their ears—but, for this Australian, walking down Canterbury’s cute old lanes was like walking through Diagon Alley.

Soon we settled down for lunch. Skipping the tourist-infested pub on the high street, we found ourselves in a smaller, more out-of-the-way pub packed with cackling locals. As I watched them drinking and laughing I thought of Anglo-Saxons in their mead hall, and it struck me that, in some ways, not much had changed since Hengist and Horsa had arrived on the shores of Kent, not far from that pub, sixteen hundred years ago. Even my pub lunch of a steak and kidney pie and warm Kentish ale was probably not so different from what those pub-goers’ Saxon ancestors ate and drank all those centuries ago.

After lunch we swung ’round Canterbury Cathedral, seat of England’s top archbishop. Again, the Gothic cathedral and its grounds reminded me, an Australian Millennial whose only reference point is Harry Potter, strongly of Hogwarts. But, to be fair, all centuries-old Gothic cathedrals do. What made this one special was its historical significance as the site of one of the most famous murders in history, that of Thomas Becket. Here you can see me roleplaying the “turbulent priest”, about to be struck down by four of Henry II’s dagger-happy knights, at the very spot it happened:


Yes, my friends gave me very strange looks when I told them I wanted a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered. But what matters is that I got a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered.

Don’t worry, I did my penance by buying two postcards sporting Justin Welby’s face—Thomas Becket’s current successor in the See of Canterbury—in the cathedral gift shop on my way out. I got strange looks for that, too.

I’ve been taking photos with a disposable camera

About three months ago I walked into a stationery store and bought a disposable camera for AUD $17. I’ve been slowly filling up its roll of film over the past three months and, finally, last week, brought it into one of the only film camera stores left in my city for developing. I got the developed photos back yesterday.

It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, led me to want to do this. Apart from the cost ($17 for the camera and another $12 — at the cheapest tariff — for developing), the long delay between pressing the shutter button and seeing the photo I took when I have a much better camera on my smartphone that processes my images instantly, makes it difficult to justify using a disposable film camera in 2018, like it’s still 1996 or something.

I’m not a photographer — I don’t even own a proper camera — but this year I’ve been growing more and more interested in photography. In July I came back from my exchange in London, during which I travelled extensively and took hundreds upon hundreds of photos (with my smartphone). Along the way, I started to become interested not just in capturing beautiful places, but in composing great, shareable images for their own sake, too.

My eye got better. And as my eye got better, my photos got better. And as my eye and my photos got better, I came to appreciate other people’s photography even more. I increasingly filled up my Instagram feed with the photos of talented Insta-photographers — especially talented 35mm film photographers.

Why film, then? It was a particular aesthetic and style of photography that I was drawn to. I like candidness and authenticity in photography. I like looking at images that look like they’ve simply captured a singular moment in time — images that put seemingly mundane, everyday moments in the spotlight and make them extraordinary. I’m less interested in images that look confected and artificial and visibly processed.

I’m speaking as a complete photography noob, but 35mm film just seems to be exquisitely suited to the aesthetic I’m drawn to. To my eyes, at least, it makes images look that much more raw and candid. It might have more to do with the old-timey, nostalgic connotations of the appearance of 35mm film photos than anything inherent in that appearance itself, but there’s no doubt it’s a different aesthetic and creates a different impression. It’s a bit difficult to explain if you’ve never visually compared images taken on film to images taken with a digital camera, but it’s comparable to the difference between an oil painting and a watercolour painting — you can make beautiful art with both, but each will give you a visibly different result.

So, having caught the photography bug from my travel photo-snapping, and having increasingly filled up my Instagram feed with the totally like-worthy shots of amateur film photographers, I decided I wanted to try it out for myself. I wasn’t about to go out and buy an expensive film camera straight away, so I decided I’d dip my toes in with a cheap disposable camera.

Overall, I quite like the results. For the most part the film did its magic and captured the photo I was visualising when I was looking through the tiny plastic viewfinder, although I underestimated how terrible a disposable camera was at taking photos at night — about half my photos were unusable because they’re so dark.

So here, then, are the best of them:


I’ve been watching: Sierra Burgess is a Loser

I have a secret. Chick flicks are my guilty pleasure. That’s not something a heterosexual male would be advised to admit, for fear of his heterosexual maleness being called into question, but there you go. The Parent Trap is one of my all-time favourite films. I absolutely love The Princess Diaries. One of my favourite TV shows at the moment is Skam, which, while neither a flick nor necessarily for chicks, because of its themes it tends to appeal much more to a young female audience.

So when Netflix periodically releases new teenage rom-coms about boys and girls in love, you can be sure that I’m right there lapping it up. The Christmas PrinceThe Kissing Booth and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have been some of the recent offerings in that vein. But my favourite so far has been Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which stars everyone’s favourite teenage martyr, Barb from Stranger Things (i.e. Shannon Purser).

Sierra Burgess is a Loser is about a cool, hot football player who falls in love with a not-hot and unpopular dork because he thinks she’s a hot, popular cheerleader, the hot, popular cheerleader having given the football player the dork’s number instead of hers.

Put like that, it’s not a film that strays very far from teenage rom-com tropes. You’re not going to see anything original or novel or challenging. No one’s going to remember Sierra Burgess is a Loser as a timeless classic of its genre. But, to my mind, it doesn’t have to be. It’s just a nice, heartwarming, well-written film, and that should be enough. It has an engaging and ingenious plot. It has wonderful, sympathetic characters — even if Veronica, pre-character development, comes across as the lazy caricature of a teen rom-com “mean girl”. Sierra Burgess is one of the most affection-grabbing female leads of the genre, played superbly by Shannon Purse. And it speaks to its young audience, exploring honestly the anxieties surrounding dating and social inclusion and appearance that so many teenagers face.


I think my favourite thing about this film was not the unlikely love affair between Sierra and Jamey, but the equally unlikely super-cute friendship between Sierra and Veronica that flowers over the course of the film. Two totally different women, from despising one another initially, through their arrangement of mutual convenience come to develop a close and positively adorable friendship. The scenes of the two hanging out in Sierra’ bedroom, or sharing their glee after successfully tricking Jamey over a video call, are some of the best in the movie. It’s heartwarming stuff that won’t fail to bring a smile to your face. And through her friendship with Sierra, Veronica gets character development in leaps and bounds, transitioning from the resented, pantomime mean girl she was at the beginning of the film to a three-dimensional figure of sympathy and affection by the end of it.

But we have to talk about some of the flak this film’s been getting, because it hasn’t been received without controversy. The usual suspects have slammed Sierra Burgess as a “problematic” character who engages in catfishing, cyber bullying and insensitivity towards deaf people (in the sense of pretending to be one). Yes, she is all that, and none of that is okay. Catfishing ain’t okay. Cyber bullying is bad. But so what? It was a nice film. Sierra Burgess is a great character — not a perfect character, but, frankly, no character should be perfect. Why the insistence that protagonists must be the moral equivalent of Jesus Christ when, truly, no one is perfect? No one is unproblematic. Let he who is unproblematic among you cast the first stone. And aside from anything else, a wholly unproblematic, angelic protagonist would be utterly boring. No thank you.

The problematic behaviours we do see from the characters in the story are rightly called out (through other characters) as not-okay. Isn’t that enough? For me, at least, it is. Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a charming, riveting story and moral tut-tutting over the main character’s behaviour shouldn’t get in the way of telling it.

What if Harry Potter were written for adults?

I’m reading the Harry Potter books again for the 27th time. No, I lie — it’s only been 26 times. But that’s okay because it’s been about five years since I as much as picked up anything with J.K. Rowling’s name on it. See, ever since I decided I ought to start reading books that weren’t Harry Potter I’ve had the attitude that the time I would be spending rereading stories I’ve already read umpteen times could probably be better spent reading something that I’ve never read before. Expanding the catalogue of books in my library rather than reading the same seven books over and over again.

So what prompted me, a little over a month ago, to finally pick up Harry Potter again was my friend conscripting me into his team for a Harry Potter trivia night. See, I may avoid reading the books too often nowadays, but I take my status as a diehard Harry Potter fan and my unimpeachable knowledge of the stories as a point of utmost pride. No way was I going to suffer the humiliation of being beaten by some Muggle on a test of Harry Potter knowledge. I needed to swot up if I was going to win, so I set myself the task of reading the entire corpus in less than a month.

As it turned out, I only got through a little more than three of the books in time for the trivia night and we didn’t even place in the top three. Shame beyond shame, my friends. I could scarcely look at myself in the mirror that night. How could I call myself a Harry Potter fan after that? I was clear to me that it was more important than ever that I finish reading all seven books, even if exam day had come and gone. People who don’t win Harry Potter trivia don’t deserve the luxury of starting and not finishing a Harry Potter reading marathon.

And so I continued reading. As of now, I’ve just finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and intend to continue reading without interruption until I’ve finished Deathly Hallows.

I’ve always thought it was a boring cliché when people say of a great work that they notice something new every time they read it (or watch it). I can’t say I’ve noticed something new every time I’ve read the Harry Potter books — because if I did I certainly can’t remember. But this time round I have. Or, at least, I’ve seen the stories in a different light. It struck me that these are, very much, stories for children. Yes, I have actually noticed before now that the Harry Potter books are children’s books, seeing as I first read them when I was a child. And nor do I deny that adults can’t benefit from them as well, as evidenced by the throngs of grown-ups, as well as children, who populate the Harry Potter fandom. But the point is, if J.K. Rowling had wanted to write the Harry Potter books for adults, I think she would have written them very differently.

Let me explain. The themes of the Harry Potter books come through very clearly: love, friendship, loyalty, tolerance, sacrifice. And good and evil. The stories uncomplicatedly oppose good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate, life and death. Lord Voldemort and his followers unambiguously represent hate and evil. Fine for a children’s book. Things really are that simple when you’re a child. But there aren’t many grown-ups’ stories that are about good and evil in such a stark, black-and-white way. Where the villain of the piece is plainly and uncomplicatedly a monster. Certain groups excepted, mature adults don’t tend to think simplistically in terms of “good” and “evil”. We know, or ought to know, that things are rarely that simple.


It’s not a mature way to look at the world to think the world is divided up neatly into goodies and baddies. There are goodies and baddies, but the greater mass of humanity falls somewhere in between. Sure, sometimes mature adults do need reminding that genuine good and evil exist in the world — that’s why stories like Harry Potter exist. But far more often, in the real world, evil is done not by evil people but by ordinary people (that is, people who are neither straightforwardly good or evil) who do evil in the belief they’re doing good. Or ordinary people who are too weak, scared, selfish or uncaring to resist doing evil. Man is Fallen, but not evil. Much evil in our age, in my view, is not done by the would-be Hitlers and Voldemorts of the world but, maybe ironically, by people who are utterly convinced of their own moral righteousness and the evil of their opponents.

I think if Harry Potter were written for adults, it’s more likely that the central theme of the stories wouldn’t be “good versus evil” as much as how human weakness, fear, ignorance and prejudice can result in the propagation of evil. Voldemort and the Death Eaters were explicitly based on the Nazis. But the story of the Nazis’ rise to power wasn’t of an elite, secretive faction of nihilistic terrorists taking power through violence and infiltration — it was of hate-peddling fanatics winning mass popular political support for their cause by playing on people’s genuine anxiety and misery. It was ordinary people who permitted evil, in the form of the Nazis, to win.

Indulge me further for a moment, but I think what might make for an even more interesting story would be a humanised “Dark” side that represents the way naïve, idealistic people who believe themselves to be acting for the greater good can bring about enormous suffering. Modern history is replete with crusading ideologues utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, adept at winning the allegiance of the ignorant masses through their charisma and demagoguery, and whose dogmatism and swivel-eyed zeal leaves them oblivious to the suffering and misery caused by their agenda — or, worse, who actively go about killing and imprisoning and committing vile abuses in the belief that it’s all necessary in pursuit of The Greater Good.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d find a story about a magical world divided between a powerful, mass cult-like political movement which sees violence as a legitimate means of bringing about its lofty objectives, and its persecuted dissidents, really interesting. What would make such a story genuinely creepy and compelling is that, just like in real life, it’s the ignorance and moral weakness of otherwise good, ordinary people that allows the violent demagogues to win. It wouldn’t be as much a story about bad men doing horrible things as one about ordinary people letting them, if not openly cheering them on. Equally, the malefactors of the story aren’t simply hateful death-worshipers like Voldemort, but naïve idealists willing, like so many political Utopians, to propagate misery for The Greater Good.

“If you’re so keen on this dumb idea then why don’t you just write it yourself instead of dragging J.K. Rowling’s books?” you ask. First of all, I’m absolutely not dragging Harry Potter by any means. I’ve been an über-fan since I was eight and I love the Harry Potter stories to pieces. I wouldn’t change a single line of them. But that shouldn’t stop me speculating about the kinds of themes that might feature if the Harry Potter books were written for a more grown-up audience. Secondly, I would love to have a crack at writing this idea as AU fan fiction if I actually had an ounce of creative writing talent, let alone the patience. Unfortunately, the best I’ve ever been able to manage in the creative writing department was a well-complimented short story I wrote for English class in my last year of high school. It’s all been downhill from there. I’m just going to have to content myself with short, lazily-edited blog posts, I’m afraid.

Barrister for a day: I learned court advocacy

It’s not often I start the day with the words “May it please the court, my name is…” but, last Friday, I did. And then I spent the rest of the day trying to get an over-zealous Managing Director off charges of workplace bullying. The plaintiff was accusing this Managing Director of being aggressive and even violent towards him, making unreasonable work demands of him, and generally making his life a misery at work. And I was given the unenviable job of defending her in court. Or, at least, I was pretending to.

It was all an elaborate roleplay I was participating in as part of my Practical Legal Training course at the Queensland University of Technology, which law students in Australia complete after their university studies in order to be eligible to be admitted as legal practitioners. Last week was my first week of the course, an intensive week of learning practical lawyers’ skills like interviewing, negotiation and, yes, the court advocacy skills of barristers.

We were assessed throughout the week on small interviewing and negotiation exercises, but the week was leading up to our big, intense advocacy assessment on Friday, which was done through the medium of a mock trial to provide us the fullest possible experience of actual court advocacy. Actual practising barristers were bussed in from their busy city chambers to play the part of judges, to make sure we were doing the thing properly.

I don’t think any of us participating in this course were very coy about being utterly petrified of the prospect of having to get up in front of an actual barrister – who was assessing us – and argue a case like we were in court for real. Give me my Equity exams and criminal law essays, but please, O, please don’t make me embarrass myself in front of a barrister!

As it turned out, it wasn’t… actually… that bad… Now you mention it, it was actually rather fun. Cross-examining a witness is actually really fun. And the barrister who was presiding over my “hearing” was probably one of the chillest dudes I’ve ever met. Obviously very intelligent, but chill as anything, and put me and my fellow nerve-wracked students supremely at ease. I didn’t expect to have a good time on Friday, but I really did.

Sure, it would have been very easy to embarrass myself up there. We were given a lot of material for this mock case — witness statements and expert reports and documentary evidence — that we needed to be on top of. To stand up at the (mock) bar table and acquit ourselves satisfactorily, there was a lot of preparation we had to do. But, really, what we had to work with was minuscule compared to the volume of material actual barristers have to be on top of for their cases. If you were prepared enough, knew the material, and knew how you were going to argue your case, the only thing standing between you and advocatorial success on Friday was nerves.

Because it isn’t really as daunting as it looks — as long as you’re prepared. There’s a trick to doing it that takes a bit of time to get the hang of, but it’s not actually that difficult.

Ironically, I found most difficult the aspect of advocacy that requires the least amount of work on the part of the advocate: examination-in-chief. That’s where an advocate examines their party’s own witness. It’s about allowing the witness to recount what they saw, heard or experienced. But the thing about it is that you’re not allowed, as an advocate, to lead the witness in any way. You need to ask open questions which the witness can choose to answer in any way they like. If they don’t volunteer, in response to an open question, the information you’re trying to get out of them, then that’s it. You’re not allowed to “lead” the witness to the answer you want. You’ll just have to carry on without that information in evidence. I got called up a couple of times by my “judge” for trying to lead my witness (i.e. another student with the witness’s mock statement in front of them) when they didn’t give me the information I wanted from them.

I was much more comfortable with the other aspect of advocacy, cross-examination. That’s where you’re examining the opponent’s witness and trying to extract concessions from them that weaken their evidence. You’re allowed to ask leading questions in cross-examination, and in fact good cross-examination consists of nothing but leading questions. It’s about telling the witness something that contradicts their evidence and putting to them a series of closed questions, Socrates-style, that forces them to agree with you. I’m not exactly sure if it’s something I should take pride in, but I’m someone who’s always been very good at arguing, so I found that cross-examination came very easily to me. I was flattered to hear my judge praise my cross-examination technique, even if I was the only one he had to admonish for being too argumentative with the witness. I mean, I guess at least that’s better than not being argumentative enough?

Something I wasn’t surprised to discover about doing court advocacy is that it requires an ability to be flexible, to be adaptable, limber, lithe, supple, springy, malleable. In the words of the barrister who taught us our advocacy techniques, it requires having “soft knees”. That is to say, it requires being comfortable with the unexpected happening and being able to roll with it. Your witness doesn’t say what you want them to say — you need to work with it and carry on with your case without that evidence. Your opponent’s witness isn’t giving you the concessions you need — you need to plough on and find another line of argument to get them to concede something.

We were repeatedly told that, while writing out all the questions we wanted to ask a witness so that we could churn them out verbatim on Friday might be a reassuring safety cushion for avoiding choking on the day, it was inadvisable because a witness often won’t say what you want them to say and we needed to be prepared to change track when that happened without getting flustered. It happened to me a number of times — I’m sure it happened to everyone.

As it happened, I was quite comfortable with this. I’ve always been the kind of person who’s more comfortable with improvising and allowing myself the space for flexibility over planning to the last detail and risking being discombobulated when something scuppers my careful plans. It’s how I used to approach exams and essays in university. It’s how I like to write: I never start writing a blog post with anything more than the vaguest plan of what I’m going to say, and it never stops me from piecing together upwards of 1,000 words that I — as they say — make up as I go along. Hell, it’s how I approach life itself. I’m just that sort of person — an improviser rather than a planner.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Friday. I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t end up enjoying playing at being a barrister on Friday on some level. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, not only did I enjoy it, but that I was actually quite good at it — even if my examination-in-chief technique still needs some work. I wanted to study law originally because I wanted to become a barrister. My ambitions now aren’t as simple as they were when I was 17, and I’m questioning whether I even want to pursue a career in law at all. But that said, from this experience, this nibble-sized taste of being a barrister, if my whimsical teenage dream of being a wig-toting QC in the High Court were ever to come to pass, I’d like to think I’d have a good time doing it, and that I have what it takes to be quite good at it, too.

Stress brings out the worst in people: my experience with a cancelled flight

Personally, I’ve never found airports as stressful places as other people. I’m just not someone who stresses very much in general. I had an aunt once describe me as “horizontal” and that I had “no pulse” because of how “chilled out” I am.

Certainly, I can see why many people become stressed and anxious in airports: the number of obstacles one has to traverse between arriving at the terminal and boarding one’s flight, the long, slow-moving queues at every one of those points, the ubiquity of officialdom, the feeling of being herded, the unbearable time pressure, the imposing scale and confusing layout of such complexes, the brusque announcements blaring out — often in a foreign language — at frequent intervals, the fact that everyone else also looks stressed, and the possibility that something could go wrong at any point along the way. It’s enough to induce anxiety in anyone.

But, while I don’t particularly like spending time in airports (apart from the duty-free shopping zones), I’ve never found them especially stressful. I’ve always taken the attitude that, while this is all very inconvenient and unpleasant, we’ve got to go through it and things are going to work out, as they always do. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing ever does. It’ll be fine. A very laid-back Australian way of approaching things, maybe. Or it might just be me.

Since a trip I took to Barcelona earlier this year, though, I’m not sure that’s an attitude I’ll be able to take again when flying. In short, my flight got cancelled. Everyone dreads their flight being cancelled, especially when returning from abroad, but it rarely happens to anyone travelling on a half-decent airline. Reputable airlines don’t tend to make a habit of cancelling their flights and leaving hundreds of people stranded. I certainly didn’t imagine it would happen to me.

It was an experience that made me understand a little bit more about the stress others go through when flying. I’ve also come to learn something rather unsavoury about human nature and what people can be like under stress.

Let me recount what happened.

It was the first of June this year. I’d just spent the day exploring Barcelona with my best friend and his new wife. It was their honeymoon. Yes, I crashed my best friend’s honeymoon. But it was because they invited me, as I wasn’t able to make it to their wedding as I was studying on exchange in England at the time. At the end of a very enjoyable day we parted ways, they back to their cruise ship to depart for another exotic destination in the Mediterranean, and I to the airport to fly back to London.

Apart from a lot of traffic on the way, getting to and through Barcelona-El Prat Airport was one of the most painless experiences I’ve ever had at an airport. Very short queues and efficient security and passport checks meant I sailed through the place and ended up at my gate with almost too much time to spare. I settled down at a nearby café with a cup of tea and a jamon iberico baguette and waited for boarding time. Eventually I moved back to the gate as people started to queue up. There was a gigantic gaggle of English teenagers in blue t-shirts who were evidently returning from a school football tour (a successful one, apparently, as I gathered from the upbeat speeches of their teachers which, with nothing better to do, everyone at our gate was listening to).

Both our designated boarding and departure times came and went and we were still queuing up, as we were informed that our flight would be delayed for unspecified reasons. I wasn’t concerned at that point — no one was. Delays are normal, practically to be expected, in high-traffic European airports. We were told that our new boarding time would be in forty minutes, which seemed to put people’s minds at ease. That boarding time came and went, too, and we were still standing around (sitting on the floor, actually, at this point). They didn’t bother to state a further revised boarding time. Something was wrong. People had started to stand around the desk asking the hapless gate officer for answers he didn’t have, and waiting to hear news. The school kids seemed to be the only ones who didn’t look worried.

It must have been two hours after we were supposed to have flown out that we got the news that the flight had been cancelled. A lot of people started to panic. Most of the passengers on that flight were English and flying home, for whom a cancelled flight wasn’t just an inconvenience but meant we were stranded in a foreign country with nowhere to go. We all huddled around the boarding desk waiting to be told what was going to happen. Some people took their stress out on the poor young gate officer, seemingly demanding that he, personally, put everything right.

Eventually we were marched back through passport control to the Vueling check-in desk, where we joined a long queue of people who were also waiting to be reallocated to new flights. Apparently there were a lot of flights cancelled that evening. There were no more flights to London that evening, we were told — they had all been cancelled. No one was telling us why flights were being cancelled, but the word going around was that striking air traffic controllers in France were behind it all.

So I stood there in that queue for what must have been an hour and a half as I waited for all the cranky passengers ahead of me to haggle over their new flights with the tired and harassed-looking check-in staff. No one seemed to be able to get a direct flight to wherever they were going. Everyone walked away from their negotiation with a check-in officer looking highly displeased. There were rumours making their way back through the winding queue that some people were put on a flight back to London via St Petersburg. I winced just thinking about it.

I really just felt for the school kids, who, all forty-odd of them, had to be put on a flight back together, and their teachers, who suddenly had to deal with much more than they bargained for. If anyone had reason to complain, they did.

Being English, a lot of people seemed to be dealing with the unpleasantness of it all by trying to laugh about the whole situation. It’s one of the things I admire about the English. Their attempts at light-hearted joking, tinged with a note of desperation, didn’t sound all that convincing in that moment, but joking they were nonetheless. It was at that point that I thought that only the English would be standing around politely in a queue and trying to laugh about it all in this situation. Imagine if it were Italians. Or Greeks.

When it was finally my turn to talk to a check-in person, I was offered a flight to London Gatwick via Rome the next day, with a 7 hour layover in between. I took it. I was too tired to argue.

We were bussed to a hotel the other side of Barcelona, in fact outside the city itself, and told there was a coach — just one — that would take us back to the airport leaving at 5:00 am the next morning. It was 2:00 am by the time I collapsed into bed dreading the next day.

Two hours of sleep and a very early coach ride back to the airport later, I once again found myself milling around a boarding gate waiting to board a flight to Rome. It was with a very anxiety-inducing sense of déjà vu that I took the news that the flight was delayed. Fifteen, thirty minutes after the designated departure time and we were still standing in a queue. “Here we go again,” I couldn’t help thinking. If, indeed, striking French air traffic controllers were to blame for my and God-knows how many other cancelled flights around Europe, who was to say the same thing wouldn’t happen to me again? Some of the passengers on my cancelled flight the previous night said that was the second time in a row their flight had been cancelled. I was tormented by the thought that successive tickets back to London would be repeatedly cancelled, and that I might spend an indefinite number of days airport-hopping around Europe trying to find a clear route back to England through a turbulent French air space.

Forty-five minutes after we were supposed to have flown out we were finally let onto the plane. I breathed a great sigh of relief. But I wasn’t back in England yet. I wouldn’t breathe easy until my flight from Rome had left the ground. At least the airport in which I spent the next seven hours — Rome Fiumicino — was rather nice. One of the nicest airports I’ve been in, actually. I ate delicious pizza for lunch, tried my first authentic Italian gelato and listened to other airport-loiterers taking turns on a grand piano placed strategically in the middle of the airport lounge.

I felt the return of a familiar sense of panic when it was announced that, once again, the flight was delayed. “Please don’t tell me it’s happening again,” I thought to myself desperately. Fortunately it wasn’t. Half an hour later we were happily, mercifully boarding. Two hours after that I was back on God-blessed English soil. I could have kissed the ground I stood on as I walked off that plane, except that it was an airport and the floor was probably dirtier than a toilet bowl. It had all been a thoroughly stressful and unpleasant experience. And I was exhausted.

If there’s one thing I’ll take away from the whole saga, it’s the unpleasant realisation that a lot of people, at heart, aren’t quite as reasonable and nice and level-headed as they appear. It takes putting them under stress, like cancelling their flight home, that brings out the worst in some people. On the night the flight was cancelled, I saw quite a few of my fellow passengers who otherwise might have been perfectly pleasant people to be around, who, under the stress and panic of a late-night cancelled flight, had become disagreeable, unreasonable, selfish and, in some cases, outright obnoxious and abusive.

When the flight was cancelled people shouted abuse at the young gate officer who clearly wasn’t responsible for anything. People were just looking for someone to shout at.

When we were led back to the check-in desk to be reallocated to new flights, people jostled past each other to get to the desk first. While we were queuing, one woman somehow ended up about a dozen places ahead of where she started. This is literally kindergartner stuff.

People spoke to Vueling staff, no matter how low-ranking, with utter rudeness and entitlement.

Many people seemed to be under the impression that their inconvenience mattered more than everybody else’s. “We have to be at a wedding,” “I’ve got a meeting tomorrow,” “I have to get home!” and so on.

One extraordinarily obnoxious person spent the entire time being rude to Vueling staff and angrily telling anyone who’d listen (and few would) how this was all bullshit. When he got his turn to speak to a check-in officer, he subjected the poor, tired man to a furious twenty minute tirade which ended with his declaring “this is the worst fucking company I’ve ever seen” and stalking off without having arranged a new flight.

I wasn’t particularly cheery about having to waste a full day of my life getting home, but, by God, at no point did I feel the need to be unacceptably rude to people who were not personally at fault in any way, or lose control and make an embarrassing spectacle of myself as others did, or treat my fellow passengers with discourtesy just because we were in a stressful situation. I was one of a number of the passengers, perhaps half, maybe more if I’m being generous, who — while peeved about the situation like everyone else — remained outwardly perfectly calm, pleasant and courteous throughout the whole experience. We were the normal ones — or, at least, we were normal according to what I thought was supposed to be normal. I thought normal people didn’t drop civility and courtesy and turn selfish and rude when they found themselves in an inconvenient situation. Maybe I’m wrong.

Ironically, the most conspicuously mature people in the whole situation were the teenage school kids, not one of whom I saw uttered a word of complaint, nor were they panicking or making a fuss like the “grown-ups” were. Remarkably for a group of forty minors who were going have a very difficult time getting back home, they were taking the whole thing coolly in their stride.

Is it just that some people are worse at dealing with stress than others? As someone who doesn’t stress very much, who wasn’t even particularly stressed in that situation (at least until I realised it might happen again, if the French continued to be difficult), is it unfair of me to call out others who do get stressed more easily and don’t deal with it well? Should I check my #ChillPrivilege?

I don’t think so. I think there’s no excuse for abusing people who don’t deserve it, or treating people badly just because they’re wearing a uniform. No excuse for forgetting basic civility and consideration, even if you’re stuck in Barcelona — especially when everyone else is in precisely the same situation you are.

Maybe I’m still being too generous. Maybe it’s not just that some people don’t deal well with stress, but that some people just aren’t nice people at heart. I can say without hesitation that the dude who embarrassed himself in his twenty-minute tirade in an unfortunate check-in officer’s face was truly a twat of the highest order. Some people are just twats. Maybe more people are twats than I realised.

I really hope, for the sake of my faith in humanity, that it’s the former. I can understand, if not forgive, that a lot of people lash out and turn into disagreeable twats under stress. But if the proportion of the population who really aren’t nice people at heart is equal to the number of people on that cancelled flight who were acting like twats, I’m tempted to think that humanity actually doesn’t deserve to be saved.

One thing I’m sure of, though, is that cancelling a flight really does bring out the worst in people. If only for that reason, I don’t want to go through that experience again. I don’t think what positive opinion of people I have left could survive it.