Uber, 'an asshole named taxi' and the meaning of fierceness

EDITOR'S BLOG: American smash 'n' grab capitalism rubs some Europeans up the wrong way.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Dec 2015

There was a brilliant piece in the FT last week about Uber. A careful, dissection of how the hardball tactics of Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder, have come a-cropper in Europe as its crusade of creative destruction in the taxi world comes up against angry regulators. In Kalanick’s war on ‘an asshole named taxi’ the enemy is now fighting back.

The bit that really got me thinking was about the use of the word ‘fierceness.’ We use the word in a subtly different way to the Americans, as the article suggests: ‘At Uber, individual staff performance is judged against a number of conventional standards such as "speed" and "scale". But it also measures "fierceness", which staffers understand as a "take-no-prisoners" attitude.

‘"A Californian would say ‘be fierce’, a Brit would say ‘be bold,’" Mark McGann [the company’s head of public policy in Europe] says. "I can guarantee you that, if we had hired 100 public school boys who spoke softly, we would have met with the same level of resistance" in Europe.’

For Brits ‘fierce’ tends to describe angry dogs. Maybe even those that have contracted rabies. It’s not normally encouraged as a way for humans to behave. By contrast McGann’s company operates an ‘it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ modus operandi. It bites you first, then says sorry afterwards.

Politeness and humility rarely got anyone anywhere in buccaneering capitalism. Speedy first-mover smash-and-grab has much to be said for it. But when you charge into mature markets things can be more complex. It’s a marked lack of emollience combined with a certain arrogance that might lead Uber over the rumble strip and into the Armco.

Tyra Banks, an American ‘super’ model understands the value of fierceness. She has a whole YouTube skit on it here. For Tyra, getting there means destroying the opposition. Taking no prisoners on the catwalk. Fierce is a also a word frequently associated with Serena Williams. What Williams does on the tennis court is usually based on power, both physical and mental, combined with overwhelming force - she bludgeons her opponents into submission. Williams is a wonderful player, but she is no Virginia Wade. Not that Wade ever won much.

It’s notable that Banks and Williams are both black women. This means they have had to surmount considerable obstacles - their sex combined with their skin colour - in life to get where they are. You answer discrimination and obstruction with fierce determination. You have to try harder. It’s no secret that Kalanick had two failures behind him in business before he hit paydirt with Uber.

America and American companies frequently ruffle feathers when they venture overseas. I’d go further than this. I think American business can often come over terribly imperial and lacking in soft skills when functioning abroad. You don’t have to be one of the Castros or the new shadow chancellor of the exchequer to suspect that this modus operandi when venturing beyond their shores often hasn’t done the Americans all that much good over the decades. This wade straight in, fists flying, and  ask questions later, which characterised US adventures from Vietnam to Iraq, is adaptable in business. Just look how Ronald McDonald was Anglicised to win the hearts of Brits when the clown was seen as a negative.

(Now woe betide us Brits, with our dubious colonial history behind us, if we start getting snooty about foreign adventurism. The more one hears, for example, about The East India Company and its shocking behaviour in Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, the worse one feels about the Land of Hope and Glory.)

This American fierceness partially derives from a belief in the market that is often absolute. You can’t buck the market. Thus Uber believes - because it thinks it's on a market mission from god - that the antiquated pre-existing taxi system must be blown away, because that is the logical outcome for something that is palpably better for the customer. This is why the iPhone blew away the pathetic, weak Scandie tree-hugging Nokia - it was better. When it came to fierceness Steve Jobs wrote the rulebook.  

Except that the French - those famous cheese-eating surrender monkeys so despised by George Bush Jnr - so disagree with this approach that they actually banged up Uber’s two most senior people in Paris. They are being put on trial, all to defend a scarcely believable French system where it costs €240,000 (£175,000) to acquire a taxi licence. Les cabbies have a lot to lose.  BTW if you think getting a cab licence in France est dur try getting a driving licence in the first place. That is another closed-shop racket.

So the French have their own kind of concomitant fierceness ready when the yanks wind them up. They have guillotined monarchs, their farmers still burn animal carcasses in the streets, their cross-channel ferry workers blockade ports for days on end. Their lawyers and bureaucrats will energetically try to bring Uber down.

Donald Trump has little time for the French. He blamed the Charlie Hebdo massacre on not enough Frenchies being able to lay their hands on guns. Trump is fierceness writ large in 2015. Moronically so. Fierce like an angry toddler who flings poo and keeps poking his peers at nursery in the eye.  And over here who learned Apprentice-style fierceness from Trump, other than our own Suralan Sugar. Pre-Apprentice he was just a grumpy old git, but the programme turbo-charged this into some serious snarling. Reality TV feeds on fierceness and the will to win

Oh dear. All this desperation is enough to make you yearn after some Dalai Lama style mildness. I wonder if His Holiness is using Ubers on his current trip to our capital, taking the bus or just walking everywhere in his sandals, being very careful not to tread on any ants.

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