I Don’t Like Football: Theory of Mind affects everyone.

One evening I was in the pub with my girlfriend, we’d had some food and a few drinks and were about to make our way home. As I waited for her to go to the toilet before we left I stood at the bar and a very drunk guy came up to me and started chatting. For anyone who has moved to the UK, you will be used to this:

When meeting new people in England, the easiest way to begin a conversation is this.

“Who do you support?”

This is not about politics, or social care or art or anything except football, a game I call soccer.

Football is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the world, literally billions of people watch and play and enjoy it. I do not. As a game it is fine, but I dislike anything that has that much money involved but more fundamentally I hate the drama, I hate that many players fake injuries to get a foul and a penalty kick, I hate that people lie to win, that’s not sporting. Many of the fans admit this factor and just enjoy that dramatic aspect, others complain about it but still love the game.

But this is how you meet and find out if you are with or against someone in England. You may support different teams, which will lead to a healthy debate or piss taking depending on your favoured team’s success. I have been asked many times and often just to move on I just name my local team so that people don’t get confused.

The drunk guy asked me the question.

“Who do you support?”

“No one, I don’t like football”

Deathly silence, his mouth went slack, he took a step backwards and stared at me. He adjusted himself to try and speak again but no words emerged, he was gobsmacked.

Obviously a drunk person is going to struggle with the right response at the best of times. But it’s not the only time I’ve had that response.

Football is all pervading in the UK, who you support is about which territory you identify with, it’s tribal it’s about identity and comradery and war. Most men now don’t have a chance to be warriors[i][1] but by being on the side of a team and going to a game you are there with thousands of others in your army, it is win or lose, or draw but nothing worse than a draw when no one loses or wins, but there will be plenty of discussion about which team was better regardless.

This difference I have from most men in the country I now call home is not to do with the fact I’m a foreigner, as many foreigners do like football but it does highlight the side of things around people being different, this is good.

When people find out, or figure out I’m from New Zealand, they may say “Oh, Rugby?” I shake my head “No, don’t like Rugby either” That’s when I get the look from them thinking I’m somehow less than a man.

When I first moved to London I lived near the Arsenal stadium, I just told people I liked Arsenal. That was the extent of my knowledge so any deeper analysis of their last game or the state of the team was lost. Now I live in Tottenham so that’s what I say now. Even a taxi driver in Thailand got excited and started the same conversation when I told him we live in Tottenham.

This is not about Football, and not about the way British men think only. These conversations happen in different ways in different contexts all the time like the taxi driver in Bangkok.

I remember a guy at school named Scott, very nice guy and I had been at school with him for several years, not great friends but we got along OK. When we were around 16 or so, and music was pretty much the most (only?) important thing to us[2] at the time, Scott made the statement that he “Didn’t like music” which to a bunch of music obsessed teenagers was basically like saying I don’t like food, or breathing, or looking at pretty girls…. We just couldn’t comprehend that he didn’t like any music, even music we hated would have been preferable, but none at all?

As a teenager you haven’t fully developed a sense of other people’s feelings, empathy is still evolving and the idea that other people think differently is hard to conceptualise. This is the time when you are really developing your identity, or at least really trying to. And even if you do completely appreciate other people’s thoughts, saying so in front of your peer group can be challenging, in case they think you think differently which may cause you to be ostracised… It’s hard being a teenager, trying to figure out how the world and other people work.

The idea of Theory of Mind is based on the fact that people with Autism struggle to understand that other people have different ideas, thoughts, beliefs and feelings[3]. This is very common for people with Autism and many do learn ways to interact, to fake that they do get this. Just like me telling British blokes I like Tottenham, they may say they agree as a pretence to maintain some kind of social equilibrium. Many people with Autism will not, they just can’t pretend, which has its charms but it can make their lives difficult. One of the most important social rules for humans is pretending you are like everyone else, we shouldn’t, but we do, it keeps the peace.

I could easily get into the conversation with these guys about exactly why I don’t like football, but it’s much easier just to tell them I like a team, it keeps the peace and saves me constantly having the same conversation.

In a way, the football fans and people with Autism are very similar, they don’t have Theory of Mind. Obviously that’s a vast generalisation but many people without Autism still struggle to understand that others think differently. The idea I don’t like football, or that Scott didn’t like music is hard to come to terms with. I like to think I appreciate difference and even if I disagree with a person, I try to use my empathy and by extension my theory of mind to see things from that persons perspective.

They have grown up loving football, being told that it’s something important and maybe being a football player is something to aspire to. So why should they see things any differently? Or even consider that someone else doesn’t feel that way?

Thousands of years of human conflict has been two religions, or two races or over imaginary lines in the sand or if we boil that down it’s about difference. Differences that are unimportant mostly, but those people believe them to be.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Is it lack of empathy for others who are different? Yes, but more importantly it’s a lack of Theory of Mind. Empathy is very natural and theory of mind isn’t necessarily. If we can appreciate that others think differently and that it is OK to do so we can follow up with some empathy.

Like anyone I have struggled with people who have diametrically opposed views to myself. I’ve argued with fundamentalist Christians in some pointless attempt to change their minds, I’ve learned to not bother. My Theory of Mind tells me that there are reasons that person views things that way, and even if I’m right, they are entitled to view things that way. Someone being a Christian isn’t inherently harmful though, many are perfectly decent people who just think differently, which is good. But someone who holds racist or sexist views is different, that is harmful. I won’t politely give them the answer they want because of my beliefs, they may lack theory of mind but it can’t be an excuse. Ignorance is definitely not an excuse although people who say bigoted things often are ignorant, and often fearful.

It’s difficult for many people to challenge others who say bigoted things, as often the fear that feeds bigotry makes those same people aggressive about it and arguing with someone unreasonable can be volatile so many people avoid it and keep pretending to agree to avoid confrontation.

We’re all actors, at times we all pretend. Think about how many situations you feel fully comfortable to be yourself, with no pretence, without giving an answer someone wants to hear? In my work with people with disabilities I have to change my communication constantly, which involves a little acting, it’s a part of good support.

This ability to tweak your communication is valuable for all of us. Do you speak to the person in the corner shop the same as your partner? Do you speak to your grandparents the same as your friends? Do you speak to your children the same as your work colleagues? No is the answer, no one does. It is in fact perfectly natural to do this. This is how as humans we are able to interact with many diverse people, and it’s integral to living in a global community.

Is it a lie to do this? Are you faking it, pretending you are someone else? No, you’re just being an adaptable human but do we often lie about who we are?

I have lost count how many people I have interviewed for jobs, they probably number in the hundreds now. I am a manager who wants to see the real person, or at least as much is appropriate at work but I know many people are trying to show me what they think I want to see and hear, which is often not what I want. Of course I give allowances for nerves and for the fact that an interview is a very artificial way to get to know someone. I have to try and see past this to an extent, they are pretending to impress me, or underplay their abilities if they are modest, or pretending to be modest… Either way, I need to read them and see through this, along with having empathy and understanding they think differently.

However, when hiring someone I want someone who does think a particular way, the right way with the right values. The questions I ask are very much designed to find out how a potential candidates mind works to know whether they have the right attitude to join my team, and one thing they must have is Theory of Mind. To support a diverse range of people you need to be able to be flexible in your understanding of people, they may not be flexible, we start acting again. I am interviewing for the right attitude but I also need a good actor.

Most would agree that communication is the cornerstone of pretty much everything from our very instinctive primal reactions to learning skills to interact and to be a good communicator you do need to have theory of mind, understand that you need to be adaptable. This is why conversations often fail.

Think about a time you have met someone and exchanged pleasantries and may a few more questions but you just can’t get into the flow of chatting, you can’t get any further than banalities. This is likely because one person involved lacks that flexibility to see another’s viewpoint, it may not be bad, and it just may be that you find it hard to get along.

Theory of mind isn’t absolute, the football obsessed guy in the pub is also drunk, which makes formulating a new thought process rather difficult. Being drunk may make it easier to talk to people less like you due to the effect alcohol has on lowering inhibitions, the same effect that can cause blunt honesty. You may be able to partly understand another person, make a little leap into their thought process, maybe enough to get along on a superficial level. The follow up question after “Who do you follow?” is the assumption that if I don’t follow football I must follow rugby, particularly being a New Zealander, this is some attempt at empathy and does show some level of theory of mind, even if it’s still wrong it’s an attempt.

Much of interactions with people day to day, particularly those outside our immediate family and friends is just a series of acts, performing our way through life because we don’t necessarily know what others are thinking, having theory of mind doesn’t mean you understand others, it just means you know you don’t understand them…

Each person has a different sphere of experience which informs their understanding of the world, some are very willing to attempt to understand others even if it’s difficult for them and others are not willing to try. Maybe from fear, maybe a lack of theory of mind maybe something else.

We perform and perform through myriad interactions knowing most people don’t get us and we don’t get them, and that the most successful people are probably the best actors, not the ones who understand people the best, but the ones who pretend they do. Sometimes understanding people makes you dislike them which can make interactions challenging and you then need to pretend to get along or become a hermit with no interactions.

Truly understanding other people is a skill that is half natural instinct and half learned through experience but it does involve an open mind, this includes understanding people who don’t understand you.


[1] It’s definitely not just men who think this way, but it does seem to be more typical.

[2] Definitely me and my immediate friends and many other teenagers, we were particularly obsessive about music though, “geek” wouldn’t be an inappropriate word.

[3] A simplified explanation, by all means look it up for further research on the subject.


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