Book: Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You
Author: Sam Gosling, Ph.D.
Why Did I Read This Book: Because the premise seemed interesting – what do my possessions say about me, and more interestingly, what do other people’s possessions say about them? So when I saw a signed copy of this book on clearance at BookPeople, I got it.
Availability: Published in 2008 by Basic Books, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I wanted this book to be something it isn’t and that is not the book’s fault. It is mine. I am… well, weak at applying science and this book uses a lot of methodology behind discussing the wheres and wherefores of why we have stuff in our homes and offices and how it reflects the images we want to project, the sense of self we want others to deduce. I found myself getting bogged down at times in the Snooping Field Guide, wondering how it is that the final decision was made on what traits people should actually use to denote factual information. Some of the ways we use to judge agreeableness, for example, are pleasant voice and extensive smiling when really we need to use soft facial lineaments and friendly expressions. This part of the book, and when Gosling analyzed two news anchors using pictures of their offices, are the sections I read in the sort of mental black out that I use when I am not interested.
However, other elements of the book did interest me greatly. The premise that a person sends very tangible social clues and cues by simple things, like the placement of art and personal photos in their office, intrigued me. That I never once did anything to any work space when I had a day job, like put up pictures of loved ones, bring plants, hang posters, etc. sent a very tangible message to my employers: I am not invested in this place enough to stamp my personality on my surroundings. And that was, in fact, the message I was sending, however subconsciously I sent it.
In fact, I still have not hung up anything in my office or bedroom, or bathroom or kitchen despite having lived in this house for over two years. I have ideas of how I want my office arranged, ideas that involve a red sofa bed that I have yet to find, that exists only in my head evidently. I have the side tables picked out, an area rug, lamps, but nothing will be finished until I get the couch and until then, why put up art work and pictures if I may need to rearrange them. Clearly, my environment is meant to suit me and no one else, but it also implies a level of perfectionism that is unpleasantly unyielding and suspicious of making do. I have few knick knacks or items that exude what I am about, aside from books, and I have so many books that I suspect that books are the objects by which I identify myself. That and my cats, who are not objects, but certainly social signifiers of a sort.
Reading this book ensures you will never look at a desk the same way. You will find yourself looking at a family photograph, the way it is angled, and realize that the picture exists to show you, perhaps, that the person behind the desk is family-oriented, likes hiking with loved ones, or enjoys nature. Or, if it is angled towards the person behind the desk, you realize the picture is likely there to bolster the person who sits there, an attempt to place close at hand visual memories of beloved people and good times to raise their spirits and ground them emotionally at work.
It’s a neat parlor trick that allows you to know, in a sense, a lot about a person before you ever even get to know them. From purses, to cars, to offices, to simply the contents of your refrigerator, we show ourselves clearly even if we don’t know how to interpret these signals ourselves. Gosling’s own remembrances of why he has a fridge stocked with beverages was touching and illuminating about some of my own behaviors – Mom, if you are reading this, my own pantry is always stuffed! My mother is a good cook in the Southern tradition, and shows love by food. When she was in better health, she cooked rich, hearty meals and her pantry was always full, sometimes overly full. Her mindfulness was centered on food delivery, not on the economy of cooking, and often she would needlessly duplicate items, but some of my fondest memories center around her cooking. My own pantry shows some duplication and I too exhibit love via food, as my pantry shows, as do my collection of cookie cutters and other cookie ephemera. My mother cooked hearty casseroles, I make cookies, and we both have too much of something in our pantries – tomato sauce was a common problem for her, and brown sugar is the item I seem to overbuy. Both overpurchases show very clearly what we are about, I think, if you look close enough into our pantries.
While I don’t suspect this is a book I will read again, it was quite interesting, the semiotics of personal possessions, what a stack of cluttered papers really means, how people interpret the symbols you put out there about yourself. While no one can be completely pigeon-holed, I think that this book raises and answers important questions about social identity and the conscious symbols we use to show who we are and the unconscious symbols that give us away. Like a tidy desk surface but tangles of unorganized cords underneath. Like a faceless work cubicle. Or like a house with empty walls but a wealth of brown sugar in the pantry.