The Struggle to Be Interesting is Real
hint: it's not about your pants
“I’m a very interesting person,” he blurted out during a pause in the screening interview for my upcoming Life History research. Well, alrighty then. I guess he had had an epiphany? Look, it’s easy to classify this older white male as just plain arrogant and self-important. One out of two females who read this paragraph will roll her eyes.
Bite your tongue, reader.
Let’s call him Dave. Dave is really just the tip of a cultural phenomenon the late sociologist Robert Bellah once termed “expressive individualism.” Yes, he coined this thirty years before Instagram. Clairvoyant indeed.
And I’ve seen expressive individualism grow from being an extension of the anti-conformist bohemian revolution of the 1950s and 1960s into a mass reality among many, primarily educated, Americans. I’ve studied American consumption patterns for twenty years now, and one of the things that has consistently astonished me is how almost every consumer category now has a ‘geek segment’ where completely ordinary folks can, if they want, double their typical spending in return for the badge value of demonstrating their mastery of inscrutable, hairsplitting nuances the conventional shopper can’t fathom.
Here’s a list to get your mind grounded:
Traeger pellet smokers in the grilling category
Orange County Choppers in the motorcycle category
Mini-Cooper in the automotive category
Nespresso in the home coffee-maker category
Organic milk, berries, and bananas
Local craft beers in your home market
When David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise in 1999, this behavior started to accelerate because the upper-middle-class, in particular, had more wealth and disposable income than ever before. And they had the hyper-critical thinking organ implanted in college and graduate school. Brooks’ humorous disbelief in the longevity of this behavior (surely, we’ve all lost our minds) was misplaced. This was a major cultural shift that moved deeply into middle-class households in the next twenty years. And it’s going nowhere. I know people living on disability checks engaging in this needless trade-up behavior for their pleasure.
But interesting isn’t simply about buying and using goods and services. After all, we use most goods and services alone (or in front of consistently unimpressed family members). We want credit for these interesting purchases, for our amazing discernment among weak ties we can easily find.
And so, being interesting is all about being able to narrate some aspect of our existence as distinctive, elevated, and more thoughtful than (almost) everyone else in our weak social network (office, extended family on Thanksgiving, casual friends). Unlike bombastic Dave, it’s about showing how we are interesting, almost exclusively through what you buy or make.
This narration of interesting-ness has two genres, though:
The Sad Innocents: these are your friends, family, and co-workers. We need this audience to contrast ourselves against the un-discerning masses in the category about which we obsess. Often, these are class peers, which leads to a simmering tension from which only brand owners stand to gain. Our relationships fray at this silliness. I used to spend $500 a year printing my amateur landscape photos on massive acrylic, edgeless mounts for display in my office. I even had unveilings with my direct reports (who had to show up).
Righteous Geek Peers: these are your fellow geeks with whom you want to spar, debate, and jockey for status as uber-geek. This involves a dissertation-like command of nuance in product features and outcomes. It used to only happen in lifestyle worlds where usage was a communal act (e.g. triathlons, yoga, etc.), but now it could be a Facebook Group of folks who obsess about virtually anything. Taken to its extreme, lifestyle geekdom may cause you to spend significant chunks of your leisure time directly with your geeky peers. Harley-Davidson is a perfect example of this time sink. So is mountain biking, ultra-marathon training, etc. And, you can only really talk about tribal artifacts in these meet-ups. I once tried to ‘get-to-know’ a fellow mountain biker at a post-ride burger/beer session and literally heard the following response,"Sorry, James, I’m just focused on shop talk here.” Ritual language in ritual spaces, James. Come on!
But geeking is also an identity trap that causes people to burn out. This is because once a brand becomes popular among less sophisticated users, the geeks abandon it. They may even scoff at it. Only when it gets super old might they return by re-framing it as ‘old school.’ So, you must constantly stay up to date on the newest thing, most of which is nonsense meant to be inscrutable to the Innocents. Geeks have no idea what will mainstream. None at all. Stop interviewing them.
I’ve always been amazed at how the 50 and under set really throw themselves into these lifestyle consumption worlds. The sheer monotony of their professional lives strikes me as an undeniable motive to somehow appear interesting to their work colleagues.
“Did you know Sarah and her husband are ballroom dancers?”
“Jack is an ultra-marathoner. He runs 45 miles to the office each day. Can you believe it?”
And on and on. Being interesting at work is a great way to humanize yourself and stand out as someone who shouldn’t be used and abused.
In categories where group use among geeks is still not common, like the Traeger home smoker, telling stories to anyone who will listen is imperative. Otherwise, it doesn’t make you interesting.
Being interesting is about standing out in your own mind first, even though this requires a deferential, agreeing audience.
Individualism is a weird thing. Without an affirming social audience, it can’t exist.
The individuum is codependent on a normative audience in order to exist.
Oops. We should all probably write more thank you cards. Mine will be apologies.
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I am still trying to make reading lots of non-fiction books into a cool geeky thing but so far, I have failed. But The Traeger smoker geeks arguing with the Green Egg geeks, yes that is real.
Great article, as always. And for anyone who doubts the logic, just ask them, how many times have you read a book, and NOT told someone about it?