American culture post 9/11

I just got an email for Elizabeth Molinaro, one of the ablest students in a class I taught at the Harvard Business School. Elizabeth emailed everyone in the class with this question: What are you seeing/sensing that you might label a cultural/lifestyle/environmental shift?

My answer:


Great to “hear” your voice again. I guess the thing that strikes me, well, there are several, but here’s one:

9/11 created a great lining up of the heavens–a return to all the old verities and traditions as we closed the wagons against the intruder, and now, little by little, we are returning to the full diversity of American life. (And by “diversity” I mean the vast experimentation that goes on everywhere, not only the distinctions of race and gender that are normally indicated by the term…though goodness knows race and gender have been a couple of the engines of this experimentation.)

There will always be an irreducible remainder here, a changed sense of Americanness, but slowly and surely it is a return to business as usual, and this is individualism in the marketplace (so that great outpouring of collectivity now goes away) and in the cultural world (so that “we must honor elders” feeling for orthodoxy is starting to go away too).

In a way this is a part of the war effort: after all, it is in some sense a struggle between open and closed societies. But something has changed in the tone of the diversity, and I can’t quite tell what. Sometimes I wonder whether it is a new sense of unease. It’s as if we (if a Canadian may include himself for a moment), we have a new sense of how rare we are, how risky our experiment is, how alone we are. It’s as if we have discovered that we are walking on a catwalk we had never seen before and we are much higher up than we had ever guessed. Some of the play and the optionalness of our experimental world seems to have disappeared. What we used to do for fun, we must now do out of necessity.

The larger question, however, is clear: we are returning to the “trend of trends,” a culture with hundreds of little sailing ships out there in the harbor. Very few men of war left on the horizon. Surely, one or two of these little sailing ships will come ashore bearing a message that changes all of our lives, but more and more we are a culture of many trends, rather than one or two single ones.

Needless to say, this makes marketing harder to do, and much harder to sell. Clients still want monolithic explanations. But frankly I believe it means that advantage goes to people as smart as you. They used to say that marketing isn’t rocket science…but I believe that’s changing. And this must mean that in marketing, only the smart will survive. So maybe that’s my trend: the field of marketing is driving out bad and pulling in good.

Best, Grant