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On “The Substance of Style”

On “The Substance of Style”

    • Review of Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (2004, Harper Perennial, Paperback)

    Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  Postrel has a rare combination of talents: her writing is fluid, vivid, and memorable, her writing is informed by careful economic reasoning, and despite her expertise she doesn’t assume that her aesthetic and cultural choices are self-evidently better than anyone else’s.  In a quote from a review in The Guardian in the inside cover of the paperback edition, Steven Pinker writes: “In this delightful book, Virginia Postrel invents a new kind of social criticism, one that is economically literate, brimming with psychological insight, and deeply resepctful of ordinary people.”  Pinker’s assessment is accurate.  For people interested in design, aesthetics, and social change very broadly, The Substance of Style takes its place next to her earlier The Future and Its Enemies as a must-read.

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    The Substance of Style cover

      Postrel makes several contributions.  First, her discussion of what she calls “the aesthetic imperative” attacks aesthetic and cultural elitism on every margin.  She engages both those who think that style and fashion are superficial and unnecessary, and she engages those who think that the unwashed masses are making incorrect aesthetic decisions.  Second, she argues that even though they are increasing in importance, aesthetic values are not reflected in conventional measures of living standards.  Finally, she shows that there isn’t really a tradeoff between substance and style.  If you’re familiar with a cliche about selling “the sizzle, not the steak,” as aesthetics get progressively more important the sizzle becomes an integrally important part of the steak-eating experience.

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      Postrel hooks the reader almost immediately with a discussion of the sudden change that occurred in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell:

      Afghan men lined up at barbershops to have their beards shaved off.  Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish.  Formerly clandestine beatuy salons opened in prominent locations.  Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars, and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs, and videotapes.  Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach, and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding virtue police.  Freed to travel to city markets, village women demanded better fabric, finer embroidery, and more variety in their traditional garments. (p. ix)

      Throughout the book, Postrel revisits this theme and argues that, contrary to the claim that style is a ruse cooked up by manipulative advertisers, it actually touches a deep and fundamental human appreciation for beauty.  Simply put, people value pleasant aesthetic experiences as such.  If you need a cosmic justification, consider what it says about our ability to cooperate for the production of truly beautiful things.  The writer of Proverbs asked the sluggard to consider the ant.  I ask the elitist to consider the iPod, which combines incredible functionality with beauty that is difficult to articulate.  The iPod is the product of countless hours of effort among countless people.  They cooperated to produce something that is visually stunning and that allows you to carry the great artistic achievements of humankind in your pocket.

      There are important takeaway points for critics, entrepreneurs, and managers. For critics, Postrel’s book draws on classical liberal and libertarian respect for people with self-evident and inalienable rights rather than as members of a churning mass waiting to be managed by moral, intellectual, and aesthetic elites (see the quote from Steven Pinker, above).  She disputes the claim that fashion and style are only about status.  Through a number of examples, she argues that while people try to keep up with the Joneses on some margins, a more plausible explanation is that people actually value aesthetic pleasures.

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      The Viking Range, for example, which some critics denigrate as a wasteful status symbol, is considered by some to be an aesthetic addition to the kitchen.  Some buy them for the same reason they buy artwork (p. 76).  Is it to my taste?  Not really, but the fact that I’m an economist should tell you everything you need to know about my fashion sense.  My disagreement with and puzzlement about others’ aesthetic choices is an invitation for me to practice a little humility and maybe see if I can learn something.  My confusion isn’t a license to exercise veto power over others’ choices.

      Postrel emphasizes again and again that “People are different” (cf. pp. 150-152, emphasis in original).  In a recent episode of The Simpsons, Marge criticized the new “ultimate punching” MMA fad by saying “call me a killjoy, but I think that because this is not to my taste, no one else should be able to enjoy it.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly the sentiment a lot of critics express when the call for design restrictions that (for example) prevent people from building houses certain ways.

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      The takeaway point for entrepreneurs and managers is that they ignore the aesthetic imperative at their peril.  Style and beauty aren’t superficial.  They are yet another margin on which people create meaningful value. You can serve great food, but the quality of the food itself is only one aspect of what people want when they go to restaurants.  Businesspeople who forget that the aesthetic imperative matters can manage their businesses into bankruptcy (pp. 164-165).

      And so we return to Steven Pinker’s assessment.  The Substance of Style helps us think about individual decisions and social problems in new ways.  This is a book that is seven years old but that has aged well: if anything, it is more relevant now than it was then.

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      Last Updated on August 12, 2019

      How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

      How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

      The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

      This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

      Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

      First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

      • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
      • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
      • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

      You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

      All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

      This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

      It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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      The Rules

      I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

      1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
      2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
      3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
      4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

      Who To Talk To?

      I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

      That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

      In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

      Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

      Building Confidence

      The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

      If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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      What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

      Across the Room Rapport

      This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

      In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

      People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

      The Approach

      When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

      Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

      At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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      If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

      However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

      When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

      Briefly, Approaching Groups

      When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

      The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

      A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

      More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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      It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

      Topics Of Conversation

      Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

      • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
      • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
      • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
      • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
      • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

      Exiting Conversation

      Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

      • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
      • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

      Likewise, you could start another conversation.

      If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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