A man of few words…

I wish I talked a little less. There’s something masculine and right about a man of few words. And given my propensity to self-disclose and/or take another person’s inventory, I’m pretty sure I’d be a better man if I spoke less and listened more.

Likely we all would.

Fortunately, I happen to be a halfway decent speaker, at least in the context of talking about ideas. Pitching them and so on. After twenty plus years in advertising I’d better be.

A tangent of talking too much is “thinking out loud.” Speaking about an idea while you’re forming it, if that makes sense. I can get caught up in an idea or rather an idea gets caught up in me. I need to untangle it. Let it out, knots and all.

What she said…

Like writing, an idea seems to get better (for me) while it is being conjured… expressed. It’s like I’m pitching the idea (to myself) and editing it at the same time. Unfortunately, this means wrong turns and a fair amount of backtracking. It can also be perceived as rambling. And there are few things as annoying as a rambler.

What to do? Well, sometimes I like to remind my audience that I am indeed thinking out loud. Begging their pardon if you will. Then I shut up and listen. Try to anyway. Listening is so important and yet so hard to do, especially if you’re an insecure creative person with a big ego, like me.

When I’m excited or nervous I tend to talk more than listen. Many of us experience that. I’ve seen it in others. Especially in a big meeting. Or facing an audience. For me, I’m pretty sure the tendency for oral extremis harkens back to the concrete schoolyards in Chicago. Being a pudgy white nerd, I was seemingly always in the crosshairs of tougher, faster hombres. Therefore, I leaned on my wits to get out of ass-kickings and the like. For me talking a good game became a matter of self-preservation. Bullies like having a wiseass around.

Given my acute awareness of these defects, and my sensitivity to them, I’ve gotten better at self-censoring and paying attention to others. Still, there are times I wish I would just shut up.

Express yourself at your own peril

Writer at large, Tom Chiarella has an intriguing sidebar in the August issue of Esquire magazine, entitled “What Mad Men has taught me.” As we prepare for the show’s fourth season on AMC , I want to take a closer look at his commentary. Not so much to publicize the show or his remarks but to analyze them. And challenge them. He rightly claims the show has an ambiguous “moral center.” To be accurate he writes it has none. But he qualifies the remark by stating the show “is rife with lessons, public and private, cautionary and exemplary, and not just for white guys who secretly wish that all men wore hats.” While I think he’s being facetious and I know he’s being provocative, I’d like to challenge him on a couple of his points. They are as follows:

1) Don’t befriend the people who work below you. There is power in distance.

2) Don’t befriend the people who work above you. That way they will want you more than you need them.

3) Don’t ever tell anyone everything.

Basically, Chiarella is declaring self-disclosure a no-no in the office. He cites Don Draper’s adamant stance that “the past is the past” as epigram to the notion. Other cliché’s that fit would be “still waters run deep” or “always keep a stiff upper lip.” Stoicism is a virtue.

Most men, even those of us utterly unlike Don Draper, would believe there is wisdom in admiring, if not adhering to, the “strong silent type.” We’d like to think our fathers or their fathers were that way. We aspire to it, even if we fail doing so on a daily basis. That is why Don Draper is such a compelling character. Morally uncertain as he is, men nevertheless want to be him and, if the gossip magazines are correct, women most certainly want to be with him. He is the consummate anti-hero.

That’s Don Draper, the character. But what about us? I’m a creative director. I freely admit to failing the above three “rules” almost every day. I enjoy fraternizing with my “staff,” if staff is even the right word. And I look forward to friendly “face time” with management. In conversation with all parties, I self disclose. Christ, I’m doing it now in this fricking blog.

I understand this makes me vulnerable. But if at work I talk about relationship issues at home –it happens- will the listeners then have something on me? Does talking about my parent’s ancient divorce or my troubles with alcohol weaken me in the eyes of those above and below me? Are these subjects only weak men and silly women are allowed to talk about? Is not disclosing personal information a masculine virtue? In the world of Mad Men I know the answers. In real life I can’t abide. Can you?

I’d argue self-disclosure is preamble to creativity. We creatives are compelled to probe the human condition, be it ours or someone else’s well past the point of normal discourse. To do our jobs well we have to. This is why Don Draper does not exist in real life, thank God.

Recently, I wrote about various profound difficulties involving some people I care about. I shared with you my advice to them as they shared their dilemmas with me. Some of this took place in a professional environment and some of it didn’t. Of course I was discreet. But should we have all kept our mouths shut? Don Draper would have –except maybe when he was in the arms of his mistress or drunk at the club.

I do not want a mistress or to be drunk at the club. I do, however, want to relate to others as best I can. Those others are often fellow workers, above and below me. I am not one for small talk. I do not much care for rehashing golf scores. If we’re talking movies I want to know how the film made someone feel. A simple thumb up or down is not a conversation. In other words, the only way I can relate to others is by being emotionally honest.

Therefore, by Chiarella’s criteria, I am an abject failure as a man, at least as it pertains to my conduct at work. And so, it would seem, are the people who confided in me.

If Chiarella was not being glib (and even if he was), his “lessons” are something I worry and wonder about. A lot. In her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand rhapsodized about rare men who had zero interest in petty, emotional issues. I adored Rand (who didn’t?) until I realized I was a human being.

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