Media Culture Could Use Some Shibui

What is shibui? It’s a Japanese aesthetic quality described by Wikipedia as a combination of qualities including simplicity, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness and imperfection. Objects that display shibui may be functional art. They often have gray mixed into their coloring. People can also show shibui qualities in their character or behavior. For example, someone who contributes to the success of a group without self-promoting is behaving in a shibui way.

In the world of social media, there is a shortage of shibui. We are surrounded by voices clamoring for attention. Some organizations advocate creating memes and telling stories to break through the noise. Many marketers use a “hard sell” approach in which they repost content often or email audiences many times. I’ve been advised by marketing professionals more than once to send similar emails to people five times to get their attention.

Branding is the hammer behind the nail of marketing. Personal brands are like armor, both asserting and disguising the identity of the professionals behind them. I’ve written about the flaws of personal branding here before – including how creating a personal brand can be challenging for people from underrepresented groups.

In this noisy and overly assertive climate, some shibui would help diffuse the pressure. Here are some thoughts on how qualities of shibui can alter the climate of heavy self-promotion that seems to be so common in social media and communications in the northeastern United States.

Simplicity is underrated in some circles. But describing things clearly, accurately and straightforwardly breaks down many communication barriers. Simplicity can help one reach audiences of different class, work and educational backgrounds. It can also help media-saturated readers relax and focus on the essential information one’s trying to communicate. In recent years, web designers have gravitated toward simple, unobtrusive layouts; writers can do the same with their copy.

Silence is a very intriguing tool for communicators. Pausing while conducting an interview can lead to unexpected revelations. Choosing what to leave unsaid is part of a journalist’s craft; these choices can make or break an article. For content curators, choosing what to omit is as important as choosing what to include. Advertisers are aware of the power of these qualities and sometimes leave their audiences guessing on purpose. Taking time to listen and watch what others are doing is important for social media managers.

Modesty, everydayness and naturalness are qualities that can win respect but are often ignored in high-visibility fields. Many people view salespeople and publicists with mistrust because they believe there is a lack of authenticity in their communication. In some cultures and fields, there is a real distrust of salesmanship. I grew up around many people who were influenced by Mexican culture. They told me modesty was valued relatively highly in their families and social circles. In environmentalist social circles, many people mistrust artificiality and self-promotion too. Eco-friendly product marketing often addresses this preference.

Imperfection is powerful. It can humanize people and organizations. Being able to admit flaws, apologize and learn from one’s mistakes can help one build real relationships. Brene Brown has written about how vulnerability and taking risks can make people more empowered. But in high-visibility professions, there can be immense pressure in the other direction – pressure to be perfect, have all the answers, and never have a bad hair day. Media can exacerbate this pressure. It’s impossible for a famous person – even a talented and well-known marketer – to look perfect to everyone. Striving for an illusion of flawlessness reduces one’s ability to connect with people on a human, healthy and real level. When personal branding is based on creating illusions of perfection, it contributes to this problem.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be authentic in how I use media and mass communication. This is difficult; there are many pressures in the other direction. But I believe that, in the end, respectful honesty can build credibility and relationships. High-pressure marketing and personal branding can have the opposite effect.

Shibui can empower people and organizations to communicate clearly and sincerely.

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