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  • Kirsten Bell

Imitation really IS the sincerest form of flattery: A letter to Gillian Tett


Gillian Tett has now reached out. She was very apologetic and indicated that the article originally included links, but they had been left off the published article, and has promised to make amends.


Dear Gillian,

I recently came across your article in the Financial Times titled Brits keep washing machines in the kitchen. Americans don’t. Who’s right? The article, I think it’s fair to say, is a masterpiece. Why, I wonder, has no one previously thought to publish on cultural differences in the location of washing machines? I mean, except, obviously, for me, two months ago, when Sapiens published my extremely similar article titled Do washing machines belong in kitchens? Many Brits say ‘yes’.

The article is actually a condensed excerpt from my book Silent but Deadly: The Underlying Cultural Patterns of Everyday Behaviour. I’m sure you don’t recall, but I approached you last year about writing an endorsement for my book after your plenary at the Royal Anthropological Institute conference. To my surprise, you said you would consider it and we had some lovely correspondence via email (as in I emailed you the manuscript, you asked me to courier you a hard copy to New York, I sent it and followed up with you several times). But it soon became clear that your generosity of spirit had been overtaken by the demands of your job.

Having therefore imagined that my work would never find its way into your hands, except in the most literal of senses, you can imagine my excitement when I saw that you had – at last! – found time to read my work. Honestly, it was a day for the ages when my friend sent me a copy of your article with a note saying, ‘WTF, Tett’s written a shitty rehash of your book chapter and doesn’t even link to it!’ There was a lot of jumping up and down and screaming is what I’m saying!

Okay, yes, it’s true that you don’t link to the Sapiens article or my book, or even mention them, but you do extensively quote ‘the anthropologist Kirsten Bell’, so why on earth should you be expected to link to the source that your whole piece is based on? After all, anyone can easily find the original article by sifting through pages of search results on Kristen Bell’s commercial for Samsung washing machines, her ‘unreal $4.3m LA love nest’ and her surprise basement makeover for her sister.

In any case, while the sources you quote are the exact same ones I cite in my article, that’s obviously a coincidence. How many books and articles have even been written on home architecture in the UK? Twenty? Fifty, tops! Plus, even if you did just look at the same sources, there’s no law against that – in fact, academics engage in citation chasing all the time. Of course, citation chasing relies on having actual citations to chase, but you can’t be expected to put a citation in a magazine article, and linking to sources is so distracting for the reader in the 95% of articles where you do it!

You’ve clearly gone to the trouble of reading the sources you quote, so no one can fault you on that. I mean, I did have my doubts about Kate Fox, who does not discuss open-plan living or laundries at any point in Watching the English, but then I realised that she probably mentions it somewhere in The Racing Tribe. After all, those jockeys get filthy! There’s also that one bit from the Tanya Vincent quote where you add to the bit that I’ve quoted in my piece.

Plus, you’ve added a completely new quote at the end from the business philosopher Christian Madsbjerg about observation being less straightforward than it sounds. In fact, I’m now quite embarrassed about the email I sent politely asking you to link to the Sapiens excerpt or mention my book, because of the inspiration they had provided (and then compounded the embarrassment by sending you a second email eight days later!). In your place, I would have ignored me as well, because I see now that the quote from Madsbjerg was so central to your article and relevant to your arguments that you simply had to break with tradition and name-check his new book.

The point is that you’re an anthropologist who is hoping to ‘champion anthropology’ in your new role as Provost at King’s College at the University of Cambridge, and you’ve certainly championed the discipline in your piece – I mean, not anthropologists per se, but definitely anthropology! In fact, you’re sort of the underlying author of my Sapiens piece and Silent but Deadly itself, because I am merely applying anthro-vision to everyday behaviours.

So thanks, Gillian, for all the inspiration you have provided me, that I, in turn, have provided you, but that’s really, when I think about it, your inspiration in the first place.

Yours, etc.,

Kirsten Bell.

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