A lot of people ask me how living in Madison is going. For those of you who don’t know, I moved from New York City to Madison, WI about six months ago. I can’t believe it’s already been six months, because I still feel like I’m in culture shock.
It is shocking, for example, that five blocks from where I live, people go ice fishing. Or that the town seems to revolve around schedules for the University of Wisconsin athletic teams. But the most shocking thing is the lack of advertising.
In New York City, the bombardment of advertising is so extreme that it all adds up to a reliable source of information about what’s going on in the world. Everything has an ad on it. The streets are literally lined with advertising. And there are newsstands every block, so the world’s headlines, too, are impossible to miss.
In Madison, we pass one or two billboards a day, if we drive across town. When this blog was mentioned in Business Week last month, I spent an hour driving around Madison trying to find a copy of the magazine. That’s when I started thinking about how isolated I am from the advertising world.
But it really hit home tonight when my brother sent a link to me about the mess in Iraq.
I wrote back: “The most interesting thing in here is the reference to Britney’s head. What’s up with her head?”
He wrote back: “She shaved it. Do you live in a cave? Did you know Anna Nicole Smith died? There was commercial-free round-the-clock coverage on the major TV networks.”
In fact, I didn’t know about the incessant coverage. We don’t have a TV. I have never had a TV, although I have a lot of respect for the content on TV. That’s why I don’t have one — because I know I’d watch it all the time. I’d watch it all the time because it is actually useful for finding out what a large segment of the world is doing.
As a kid, I went to other kids’ houses to see what I was missing. As an adult, I have always lived in big cities where you end up knowing what’s on TV even if you don’t have one. Probably in a large part because of the ubiquitous advertising. And when I found myself falling behind in those big cities, I could easily pick up a magazine.
Now that I’m in Madison, I need to take drastic measures. I am not buying a TV, but I am doing the next best thing: A subscription to People magazine. I know a lot about this magazine because it is laying on every available table top in New York City even though no one wants to admit to actually paying for it.
Knowing what’s going on in popular culture is important. It’s the world we live in. To be oblivious to popular culture is to snub one’s nose at the majority of society. And how can you claim to have good social skills if you are not interested in the majority of the people in this world? Good social skills means being interested in what makes other people tick.
Think about this in terms of work. It is clear that in order to get along with your co-workers you need to know how to understand what they want and how to give it to them. And in a large study of workplace preferences, Terry Bacon, reports in his book, What People Want, that good management means good social skills. “Most people leave a job because of their boss,” says Bacon. What makes a good boss? Someone who is concerned about what other people care about.
So either you need to know why Britney’s head is interesting this week, or you need to start caring more about popular culture. Being socially competent isn’t about just the brainiacs, or just the culture snobs. Social competence is being able to relate to anyone, and that means caring about a wide range of people.
I had a teacher in college who spent a semester convincing the class that reading the Iliad is important because all other college freshman are reading the Iliad and it is part of the common experience of college life — something to talk about. People magazine reflects the common experience of adult life. You can say that People isn’t that good, but you know what? Neither is the Iliad unless you like wars.