One of the best pieces of advice ever given to me in all of my life came when I was 5 years old, in the first class of the Infants’ School. A big girl – probably about 7 or 8 – told me that if I was playing in the school yard and someone came up to me and said, “SHIFT!” I should reply stoutly “SHOR!” and stand my ground.
I was fairly ignorant of the Black Country dialect spoken by most of my schoolmates, so I understood neither of these words, but I found that whenever an older child told me to shift, and I retorted “Shor!” it worked. I would smile cheerily, knowing I had used the magic password, the intimidator would look me up and down then either retreat disconsolately or invite me to play. Win-win!
Positive reinforcement worked so well that after a couple of weeks, I was no longer being told to shift or subjected to any other kind of aggression, and was friends with most of the other kids. It took me a long time to discover that “shift!” meant “move!” and “shor!” was Black Country language for “shan’t!” so that in my innocence, my unruffled defiance had been interpreted as assertiveness: “Don’t mess with me!” Whereas I thought I was just giving the correct response to a secret school code.
I don’t know who that big girl was, but her advice has served me well and I’m eternally grateful. First of all, it kept me intact in my earliest school life, where I retained my claim on the square metre or so of playground where I was bouncing my ball, skipping, standing on my head or digging in the mud, and also later in adult life where I was able to avoid being pushed and shoved around by colleagues and superiors. My response then was a more diplomatic form of “shor!” but it still worked.
I think the cheery smile probably also played its part in averting a violent reaction. Had I snorted my “SHOR!” with a frown or a glare it would probably have elicited a thump on the nose. Most of those ordering me to “Shift!” were bigger, older and stronger than me. But my honest body language seems to have defused the situation, and disconcerted my potential aggressors. Maybe now and then I did have to hit back – I don’t remember. The main lesson I learnt was that friendly resistance (and persistence) gets you further than belligerence.