Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Monday, 6 April 2009

This weekend I slept with Trinny & Susannah

On my flight this weekend from Melbourne to Hong Kong I enjoyed the unaccustomed comfort of a First class berth on Qantas, along with the unexpected overnight company of Britain's fashion gurus, authors and TV presenters, Trinny and Susannah

Now before Qantas has a Ralph-related meltdown, allow me to assure them and you that when I say "slept with" I mean nothing more salacious than a trio of unconscious travellers just trying to make the best of a 9-hour plane trip. 

So with apologies for the tabloid-like headline of this post, there is a serious point to be made and it has to do with celebrity.

Celebrities - people like you and me?

Today it's possible to get information - however dubious - about the doings and private concerns of any number of celebrities in the world. This week, I noted in passing, "Brad walked out" and Madonna's quest for a matching set of black babies was thwarted. 

It's an open question whether this information enriches my life, but there you have it - every newsstand screams out lurid titillation with the dramas of people I don't even know and (barring future coincidental meetings in First class Qantas cabins) will never meet.

So-called "reality TV" shows have increased in number - if not in good taste and quality. We need only look at the famous (and too brief) life of English media personality Jade Goody to understand that for some, "being famous" is a more viable career option than going to university or pursuing vocational training. 

Certainly this is the conclusion drawn by a surprising number of young people: a British survey reported in 2007 that the number one career ambition of one in seven 16- to 21-year olds was to become a celebrity or "socialite" like Paris Hilton.

What IS "celebrity" then? Are celebrities people just like you and me? Certainly in my admittedly brief experience of them, Trinny and Susannah seemed nice enough people, not at all the tyrants and bullies some famous folks are reported to be. 

Susannah even chose the same breakfast as me, though I have to say Trinny looks a hell of a lot better in the morning than I do.

Our tribal origins

In the quest to unravel the strangeness of "celebrity" it's helpful to remember our origins. Humans are not well designed to live alone and so we form social groups to ensure our survival. Having done this for so long, and for such a compelling reason, our brains have evolved accordingly.

Dunbar's number (named for British anthropologist Robin Dunbar) suggests that humans are ideally suited to exist in a group of between 20 to at most 150 people in our "tribe"

What that means is in a tribe setting of up to 150 people we are pretty well suited to getting along with each other without resorting to hierarchies, stereotypes or other means of simplifying the complexity of social relations/interactions. Beyond that it starts to get a bit dodgy.

In such a tightly-knit tribal group, if you knew someone else pretty well and they didn't view you as essentially competition or food, chances are you counted him or her as a "friend". I think this is where our fascination with, and confusion about, celebrities comes into play. 

Our basic neural wiring tells us that if we know personal stuff about people then they must be our friends. Technology, meanwhile, delivers truckloads of personal information about celebrities and, thanks to social media, loads of people who may be seeking celebrity on a more or less limited scale. What these celebrities and would-be celebrities have in common is that they are not only outside our optimum tribe of 150, we don't actually really know them at all. 

The result is a "does not compute!" disconnect between what technology enables us to do and what our brains can handle. We are essentially glorified chimps suffering from information overload. This is where Brad and Madonna (and some people's hundreds of Facebook "friends") confound us: the presence of personal information says friend while our brain's capacity to keep track of it all says not part of my tribe

This is not to say that we should limit our interactions to a select 150 people - hardly practical in a connected world. Rather my brush with celebrity has encouraged me to think more closely about fostering a quality and degree of connection to others that is a) manageable given the limits of my own brain and therefore b) helpful if I'm to engage fully and effectively with other people. 

Circles within circles

Accepting the fact that we'll all have an inner circle and varied degrees connection to others whom we get to know, here's a first pass at some relational boundary-setting (NB: membership in multiple categories is possible):
  • friends - potential tribe member (per the loose description offered above)
  • acquaintances - those with whom I share interests and memberships (as part of the constellation of people in my extended network) and between whom I may occasionally make connections on the basis of their common interests
  • colleagues/clients - relationships of a commercial nature, transacted in an adult, professional and pleasant manner
  • strangers - I'll not be so naff as to say "a friend I haven't met yet" since that in itself is a violation of the tribal friends distinction - but offering a smile and a friendly comment certainly isn't amiss in this realm
  • celebrities - those whose career involves raising their image and profile into the public domain; I think the useful distinction here is to always bear in mind that, "hey I recognize that celebrity" does not automatically imply a relationship, least of all one of "hey I know that person". 
Some food for thought - leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

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