Suspending operations

As the more observant of you may have noticed, I haven’t been here much. For a variety of reasons–some good, some neutral, none dreadful or reason you should worry about me!–I’m not keeping up with the blogging lately. Rather than have the blog be a constant source of guilt, I’m officially suspending it for a while. (Human psychology being the perverse beast that it is, this probably means I’ll get a sudden burst of inspiration and blog like mad next week.)

My column, and anything else I write for the Globe, can be found here. If you’ve got a question for the column, or if you’d like Miss Conduct to come speak to your organization, contact me through this blog or at

Thank you for reading, and have a lovely day!

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Columns & catch-up

Playing catch-up as I haven’t posted in a while–

This week’s column features a duo of demanding divas–a friend who won’t shut up, and a grandmother who insists Mothers’ Day is all about her (nevermind her hardworking daughter’s needs). Last week’s column, by contrast, dealt with people who are overly generous with money or information–a bit of parallelism I hadn’t even noticed until now.

I’ve also been writing weekly analyses of the business themes in “Mad Men.” In “The Forecast,” Don seeks and gets feedback from multiple sources, and Peggy gets a performance review:

Performance feedback comes in two varieties, evaluative (focused on past performance) and developmental (focused on future goals). The phrase “performance review” is somewhat misleading, because in a business context, the point of analyzing the past is to prepare for the future. Don doesn’t bother to review Mathis’s unacceptable performance with the Peter Pan clients, he simply fires him for it. You only need to review employees’ performance if they’re going to continue to perform for you.

Peggy intends to perform for Don until she gets his job: “I’d like to be the first woman creative director at this agency.” Peggy is both motivated and competent, which is all the more reason why Don was right to focus her feedback session on the future rather than the past. Employees who are highly motivated–especially those who are motivated by the intellectual challenge or personal meaning of their jobs, and not just the paycheck–strongly prefer feedback that focuses on future goals and what they need to do to achieve them. If Don were a good manager, he would structure Peggy’s performance review in accordance with her goals. What stands between today’s copy chief Peggy Olson and tomorrow’s creative director Peggy Olson (besides Don finally falling off that balcony once and for all, which might be the kindest fate for all concerned at this point)?

For last week’s episode, “Time & Life,” I wrote about rumor control in the workplace:

Gossip fundamentally has to do with trust. Figuring out if a person is trustworthy requires multiple observations over time, and a certain degree of interpersonal risk. How much easier when we can rely not only on our own personal experiences, but on stories and evaluations passed on by others–i.e., gossip. And how much more motivated we are to behave well when we know that others hear stories about our behavior! Hence, gossip is frequently studied as a positive force, one that weeds out bad apples and rewards good behavior. As the title of a recent paper in “Psychological Science” puts it, with admirable punch and clarity: “Gossip and Ostracism Promote Cooperation in Groups.”

Situational uncertainty exacerbates gossip, and can magnify intragroup alliances and conflicts. Shirley and Dawn, the only African-Americans, have managed to create good working relationships in SC&P–but will their double-outsider status as black women and as former SC&P employees doom them at McCann-Erikson? Pete, reminded by a conveniently placed child of his bond with Peggy, breaks protocol to give her a heads-up about the takeover, news that Peggy shares with her creative colleague and friend Stan.

Finally, I did another piece for DAME, this one on the paired characters of Stan Rizzo and Megan Calvet Draper, who like Joan and Ken

… had no particular relationship to each other, but their personalities and story arcs called to each other frequently, in more ways than their peacock attire. They were the most creative of the creatives at Sterling Cooper, the only ones who did independent art projects outside of the agency. Their personalities were similar as well: Playful and sharp-tongued, Stan and Megan are less politic and more emotionally expressive than the rest of the SC&P crew. In season 6, their stories converged in a way the characters themselves never discovered. The original plan to open an SC&P satellite in L.A. was Stan’s idea, not Don’s or Ted’s: Still in mourning for his cousin, Stan sees the potential of a fresh start and pitches Don to let him head up the California office. Don, who never saw an escape hatch he didn’t like, promptly steals the idea, uses Stan’s own language to persuade Megan to make the move (“build one desk into an agency … we’d be homesteaders”), and then changes his mind and gives the office to Ted after Megan has already quit her job. Megan was sold Stan’s dream and she doesn’t even know it.

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Sunday column: Three-fer edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s an etiquette trifecta of classics: noisy coworkers, save-the-dates, and splitting a restaurant tab.

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“Mad Men” and creativity

I’ve got a new piece up on the Globe business section about last night’s “Mad Men,” and the challenges of managing creative people. No, it’s not a challenge to manage creative people because artists are crazy, but because judging creative work is hard, and the relationship of quality to commercial success is anything but straightforward.

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Sunday column: What’s your story edition

Today’s column is online here, and I really liked both questions: one from someone wondering about thanking veterans, another from a person who does professional talks and is wondering what to say to the organizers who put her up at a really terrible hotel.

The woman who wrote the question about veterans was an older person who had recently read an articles about veterans not wanting to be thanked–this one, I suspect, although there have been many more. Rather than get into veteran-specific issues, I took a broader look at the question:

As a general rule, it’s bad manners to single people out for attention based on what they look like or are wearing. This principle applies not only to uniformed soldiers but also to pregnant women, people with assistive devices, hijabis, mixed-race families, and the like. Just because a person looks conspicuous doesn’t mean he or she wants to be the center of attention. Just because you think you can tell what another person’s story is doesn’t mean you can.

I have a sense that this is a somewhat recent etiquette belief, and one where you may see a gender difference. Among people who care about manners and ethics to begin with, my sense is that younger folks are more likely to agree with the sentiment above, and to believe that it’s a major point of etiquette not to make assumptions about people. Older people are more likely to believe that it’s an act of friendliness and human concern to respond to another person’s Navy uniform, leg cast, or pregnant belly with some words of thanks, condolences, congratulations, or so on.

Does this seem like a generational shift to you? Again, I’m talking about people who care about being socially correct in the first place (not just people who are looking for an excuse for their excessive nosiness or disinterest in their fellow humans).

(Incidentally, if any of today’s column looks familiar to you, that’s because it came out online earlier this week–the magazine puts out some features early when they have a big issue, which they have today. Nothing’s changed.)

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Joan & Ken & those binders full of women

It’s been a heck of a week for writing opportunities around here! In addition to the series I’ll be writing about “Mad Men” and organizational psychology for the Globe, I’m doing some pieces on the women of “Mad Men” for Dame. My first piece is on Joan Harris and Ken Cosgrove, and what the odd unacknowledged parallels between them say about the show’s vision of sexism:

Both Joan and Ken have had their bodies used as playthings by clients. Joan prostituted herself to land the Jaguar account (and her partnership); Ken was shot in the face by hard-partying Chevy executives. All their colleagues know. Their very bodies serve as constant reminders of their sacrifices.

Why don’t either of them ever acknowledge it? Why don’t they see each other as natural allies?

Ken and Joan both chafe against gender norms. Ken has no interest in examining his privilege–he accepts the existence of homosexuals and the Irish but would prefer not to work with them–but little interest in playing the alpha-male game, either. He wants a work-life balance and time with his family. He values his fiction writing and the bond it creates with his bookish wife. As a man, Ken doesn’t put his professional credibility at risk by talking about his son in the workplace. Joan doesn’t have that luxury–but let’s face it, she doesn’t seem to want it, either. Has Joan ever seemed more gloriously, triumphantly herself than in her Topaz strategy scene with Don, stealing his cigarettes and commiserating with him over the cluelessness of others? Profit-minded, workaholic Joan is, frankly, a far better fit for macho business culture than the nature-loving, tap-dancing Ken.

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Attention and immersion

Shortly before I went to the Stage the Future II conference, my boss at Harvard Business School sent me a link to this 2013 NPR Science Friday piece on “the myth of multitasking,” an interview with Stanford professor Clifford Nass (transcript here).

Nass passed away later that year, and Google Glass, which was the news hook for the NPR piece, never exactly got a chance to shatter our attention spans. Two years since the story, and do we not all know this by now? That multitasking isn’t as possible as our brains make us think it is? My sense is that we do. I hear people apologize for their multitasking with the same chagrined shame with which they speak of smoking or forgoing exercise or letting the television babysit their kid occasionally: Yes, I know it’s bad. I shouldn’t do this. I am a weak-willed organism.

What I found intriguing about the interview wasn’t the debunking of multitasking, but the design difficulties of getting people not to multitask. Nass explained:

The problem is, as people have become – love screens. So the more screens you put in the car, the more people want to look at the screen, and the basic problem is the windshield is just another screen, and as screens go, not all that an exciting one. So we have this true design challenge that we’ve never encountered before, which is the entire field of automotive design has to switch from how can I, the designer, stop distracting you because you really want to pay attention to the road, to a radically different world in which the driver says I don’t want to pay attention to the road, and the auto designer has to say how can I force you back onto paying attention to the road? It’s a really exciting challenge.

Now hold that thought. At Stage the Future II, everyone wanted to talk about “immersive theater.” Part of this is because of the phenomenal critical and commercial success of “Sleep No More,” but there seemed to be more to it than a mere desire to follow in the footsteps of a smash hit. “Immersive” theater, for those not in the know, is when you don’t just sit there and watch–you move around the space, you can interact with the performers and the set. Theater? You’re soaking in it!

And I wonder if part of the popularity of this artistic trend is because reality itself has ceased to be an immersive experience. We have so many devices to pull us out of whatever moment we’re in. If you want to be wholly caught up in one moment, body and mind and all, you almost have to design that moment, anymore. Or have a great artist design it for you.

Another quote from Nass that stuck with me:

Our brains are built to receive many stimuli at one time, but they’re related stimuli. The problem with multitasking is not that we’re writing a report of Abraham Lincoln and hear, see pictures of Abraham Lincoln and read words of Abraham Lincoln and see photos of Abraham… The problem is we’re doing a report on Abraham Lincoln and tweeting about last night and watching a YouTube video about cats playing the piano, et cetera. That’s where the detriment comes in. It’s extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative things. It’s extremely destructive for your brain to do non-integrative things.

Theater, it seems to me, is uniquely positioned among the arts to serve the emotional needs of multitasking people. Integrated multi-sensory stimuli? We invented that shit.

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“Better Call Saul” and the face of friendship

Check out my new piece on xoJane, about how “Better Call Saul” addresses the problem of unequal friendships–a topic that’s come up frequently in my column. Seven spoiler-free tips from Kim Wexler!

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“Mad Men” and the face of success

I’ll be doing a piece each Monday in the online Business section of the Globe, on the career-planning lessons in Sunday’s episode of “Mad Men.” This week I focused on the role of appearance in career success:

The word “stereotype” calls to mind the kind of crude sexist and ethnic categorization that the “Mad Men” crew indulge in with thrilling shamelessness. (Really, Ken Cosgrove? You didn’t fit in at McCann because “I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. And I can read”? Don’t be showing your face in Boston with an attitude like that!) One of the most innate and intransigent stereotypes, however–and one that has tremendous workplace impact–has to do with whether a person is baby-faced or mature-looking.

One of the major researchers in the field of faces and stereotyping is Brandeis’s Leslie Zebrowitz, who writes on her website that “[P]eople of all ages whose facial qualities resemble those of infants (e.g., large eyes, round faces, small chins) are perceived to have childlike traits and are treated differently from the mature-faced in real-world venues, such as employment and the justice system.” The baby-faced are believed to be more submissive, warm, and trustworthy, and also less competent, than their mature-faced peers. Within the advertising industry itself, this can create a paradox: Should a company’s message be delivered by the most expert and authoritative face available, or the most likeable and trustworthy one? (Answer: Maturity rules when times are good and the company is building on a base of strong customer relations. In the throes of a PR crisis, though? Cattle call for babyfaces!)

The whole piece is here.

Some other, non-career-planning-related thoughts:

* Meredith seems to have gained a dozen or so IQ points since last we saw her, no? Or is Don so painfully predictable even Meredith can stay one step ahead of him by now?

* That earring is the most we’re going to see of Megan from here on out.

* Ted literally brought Don a binder full of women.

* Has anyone noticed the thematic similarities of Joan and Ken in the past season and a half? They’ve become “company men” in exactly the way their season 1 selves predicted they never would. Both have had their bodies literally used as playthings by clients, and are constantly aware that this is what their colleagues see and think about in every interaction. And both chose to stay in the game, this week, even though–as Cindy and Peggy both point out, bitterly–they have the resources to leave whenever they want.

* Outstanding casting job on that waitress, who managed to look like a composite image of Midge, Rachel, and Linda Rosen.

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Sunday column: Maybe she should date Oliver Sacks edition

Today’s column is online here, from a young college woman whose mother thinks her boyfriend is abusive. Spoiler: He’s not, but the LW is so “clumsy” (her own distinctly non-pathologizing language) that she’s got three out of four limbs in a brace anyway.

I got this letter around the time “50 Shades” came out, and I’m sure that movie played into the mother’s worries. Here is my all-time favorite take on the franchise, by Amanda Taub at Vox:

The movie’s primary fantasy isn’t male control, it’s female laziness. It’s not a window into a world filled with kinky sex, of which there is shockingly little in the film. Rather, it’s an imagined universe in which women are free to resist all pressure to self-improve, need never worry that their professional mistakes might have negative consequences for their careers, and can reject every piece of sex and relationship advice a women’s magazine ever gave them, and have it work out great for them.

Now if this movie makes it look all glamorous and sexy to disregard advice columnists, I’m even more offended! But maybe today’s LW should watch it anyway, if Ms. Taub is right and “50 Shades” is a paean to women not doing anything. Because every time my LW does do something, she apparently sprains herself.

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Science Trivia Night at Ames Street Deli hosted by Miss Conduct!

Next Monday, April 6, I’ll be MC’ing a science trivia contest at Ames Street Deli in Kendall Square. The quiz starts at 7:30. I hope you’ll join! (Despite the “Deli” name they serve booze, so it is a proper pub quiz.) Here’s a fun story about the owners.

We’re planning to do Science Night on the first Monday of every month. We may also branch out into other kinds of contests and science/theater games. But for now, a pub quiz! I hope to see you there.

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Sunday column: The evil “should” edition

Sunday’s column is online here. It’s a short one because of advertising, this week–one question, from a man who doesn’t like his in-laws’ seders and would prefer not to go. Seeing as how he’s not even Jewish, Miss Conduct thinks that’s kosher.

Some folks have disagreed with me about that, and I think the root of the problem depends on how you interpret this line: “My wife says I should go.” I take that literally. He didn’t say his wife wants him to go, or asked him to go. He says she thinks he should go. “Should,” to me, implies obligation without personal desire or practical reason to give it muscle. “Should” has no place in a marriage. It’s hard enough to get your spouse to do the things you genuinely want them to do or have good reasons for them to do! Vague “shoulds” with no emotion or logic to back them up don’t–and shouldn’t–get much traction.

So, if an LW says that his or her spouse thinks they “should” do X that they don’t particularly want to do … I’m going to say it’s okay not to do it.

But this could be unfair of me. Maybe the LW’s seder-going spouse does in fact want him to go, and said so. Maybe “should” is his word, not hers. Maybe she does have a personal desire or a practical reason he should be at the seder. In that case, he should go.

This is the kind of thing I think it is easiest for an advice columnist to get wrong:

Of course, I don’t even know the worst advice I’ve given. I know the mistakes above are mistakes, because I’ve learned new and deeper things about prejudice and human nature and dog poo. But what do I still not know? What do I miss? What–and this is the one that keeps me up at night–do I misinterpret? When the only information you have about a person is a few lines they write to you. Have I been harsher than I should with L.W.s?

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Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part II

One of my favorite presentations at Stage the Future was Carol Stewart‘s paper entitled “What’s My Motivation? Science Fiction Theater and the Constraints of Method Acting.”

This was right up my alley! Last fall I wound up assistant-directing the mini-opera for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. I was primarily in charge of the chorus, who were playing microbes who lived in the guts of the two leads. (The entire ceremony is here and the final act of the opera–the Revolt of the Microbes–begins at one hour and 27 minutes.) Trying to figure out the motivations of gut microbes–Stanislavski doesn’t really have much to help with that. That’s not what he meant when he said “Find the part inside yourself.”

Much of Carol’s paper centered around the Method-trained Leonard Nimoy as an example of the unsuitability of the Stanislavski approach to SF acting. Carol argued that the Method could not have provided an adequate framework for the creation of Spock as a character; that Method teachers never understood or respected Nimoy’s accomplishment; and that maybe if the Method hadn’t messed with his head, the poor man wouldn’t have had to write back-to-back books titled I Am Spock and I Am Not Spock.

Carol had an anecdote I’d never heard before: that Stanislavski used to bring a dog to rehearsals, and that the dog knew when people were done “acting” and would go wait by the door as soon as the actors dropped character. “Stanislavski set out to fool the dog.”

To fool the dog. If I ever write a book about acting, there’s my title.

In grad school, I wrote a couple of papers on the intertwined histories of method acting and psychoanalysis. The Method, at its beginning, was heavily influenced by Pavlov and the emerging science of psychology. When the technique came to the United States, for a variety of reasons, it became entwined, both intellectually and socially, with Freudian psychoanalysis.

But that was 100 years ago! In 2015, the science of human understanding has gone so much further, in so many directions that neither the couch nor the maze could have predicted. Psychology is no longer defined by the twin doctrines of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. We’ve seen so many extraordinary advances and insights from cvolutionary psychology, the cognitive revolution, neurobiology, narrative and cross-cultural psychology, and more subfields and interdisciplinary crossroads. Stanislavski’s great breakthrough–and for all I may snark at the excesses of the American Method, Stanislavski was one of the artistic giants of his not-too-shabby age–was fueled by the breakthroughs in psychology that were happening in his time. Psychology is still having breakthroughs. But who are the Stanislavskis of our age who are bringing psychological science into the theater?

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Thoughts from “Stage the Future,” part I

Earlier this month, I attended the second annual Stage the Future Conference on Science Fiction Theater at Arizona State University.

Among the artists who showed their work, my favorite was Miwa Matreyek, who does beautiful multimedia animations about the natural world and the human body. And she’s coming to the ICA here in Boston in April:

A newcomer to Boston, LA-based multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek combines animation, video installation, and performance for one-of-a-kind experiences that have appeared at international art centers and festivals including Sundance Film Festival. These two pieces combine stunningly lovely imagery with inventive movement and shadow play for works that are, as she says, ?at once semi-scientific (like flipping through a children?s encyclopedia), emotional, and dream-like, rich in surrealism, metaphor, and fantasy.


I’m definitely going to try to see more of her work. Tickets here.

The keynote address was given by ASU’s Thomas P. Seager, an engineering professor who specializing in sustainability and resilience, aka surviving very bad things. We need theater to teach us the skills required to survive VBTs–improvisation, creativity within constraints, collaboration–and science fiction can help us imagine both VBTs and their solutions. Increasingly, Dr. Seager pointed out, “We cannot predict the future by extrapolating from the past.” Change across many dimensions–climate, social, technological–is too fast and complex for that. We need the discipline and imagination of both science and the arts to move into the future.

ASU is all about that kind of art-and-science integration, which is why the conference met there. Part of what we talked about was the split in SF between utopian and dystopian visions of the future (or, if you’re a Bostonian, of the recent past). Famously, within a rather narrow and geeky definition of “fame,” ASU is where university president Michael Crow challenged SF author Neal Stephenson and his SF kinfolk to come up with brighter visions of the future. The resulting anthology is Hieroglyph. (Here are some good articles about the project.)

More to come …

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Sunday column: Fear of a quack planet edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a great question: what to do when a friend or acquaintance espouses a belief in quack medicine? I wish I had better news than this to share:

People’s beliefs, correct or incorrect, aren’t discrete silos of opinion. Your entirely correct, rational approach to medicine is intimately entwined with your upbringing, your self-image, your other opinions about science and ethics, and your social network. Mr. Snakeoil’s wrongheaded approach to medicine is similarly embedded. Correcting that belief isn’t like replacing one dead bulb on a string of fairy lights, it’s more like pulling a block out of a Jenga tower. You say Mr. Snakeoil’s quackery is sponsored by his church, too–well, as they say in the movies, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A couple of Snopes links posted on Facebook is not going to undo a belief that is an intimate part of a person’s religion and social support system. All you’ve done is given Mr. Snakeoil a thumbnail image of what an unenlightened heathen looks like. It’s possible you’ve strengthened his resolve.

But unfortunately, there’s too much evidence suggesting that, well, evidence isn’t all that convincing to many people much of the time.

Incidentally, I have only ever played one game of Jenga in my life, and yet I use it as a metaphor all the time.

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