Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

Mother Pious Lady

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Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Honest Signals

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This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.