The success of E. L. James trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey is so significant that some are saying that we will see a mini-baby boom as a result of the erotically charged prose. Women who weren’t planning on another child are reporting “Grey babies.” More than 350,000 people have offered up “Likes” on Facebook. Hotels have replaced the Gideon Bible with copies of Fifty Shades. Adult stores are seeing a boom in sales for the, uh, “gear” that finds use in the books. Songs mentioned in Fifty Shades are finding their way on to iPods. This success means that we will be seeing and hearing a lot more about “Fifty Shades” as sequels, copy-cats, and the inevitable movies roll out.
Why is “Fifty Shades” Popular?
So what is the deal about this trilogy in particular? Romance and erotic fiction is nothing new. The books are first efforts from the British TV producer, and frankly they read that way. The plot, such as it is, is not remarkable. I could go on, but my point is not to criticize the books; there are hundreds of blog posts that do a fine job of roasting the literary merit of “Fifty Shades.”
My point is that E.L. James is enjoying a runaway hit because these books reflect two critical communication dynamics that are rarely called out so explicitly (pardon the pun). “Fifty Shades” is crazy-popular not because women and men are sex-starved deviants. “Fifty Shades” is crazy-popular because it is a compelling example of intentional, direct communication.
The two main characters Christian and Ana form their relationship in the first book through a series of “on the record” conversations—and even formal contracts. The conversations that normally start love relationships are usually rife with hidden signals. Wants and attractions are usually only hinted at, implied, or “understood” as a shared cultural norm. There is very little subtext in “Fifty Shades.” Even these very personal, typically private conversation themes are discussed in detail in the light of day. What makes the dialogue powerful is that these explicit, on the record conversations are directly connected to an articulate inner-dialogue within our narrator, a fresh college graduate named Ana. Her narrative point of view lets us in on the mix of emotions and tensions that always orbit around their individual and shared motives. She is constantly looking at all the angles—and acting directly (and boldly) on her judgments. This connection between a very explicit level of intrapersonal communication and interpersonal communication is compelling. It is all “out there.” Anyone who has been in a relationship for more than a few days has experienced the exasperation of wondering “why doesn’t he/she get it?” “What I want is so obvious!”
In “Fifty Shades” we see two people actively and unambiguously negotiating to meet their individual and shared desires. I admit it made me think, “Well maybe I ought to just say what I think.” Sounds easy, but disclosure is always difficult—and our motives for the disclosure can vary widely. Academic research in self-disclosure tells us that when we do tell another person something personal, it may be for impression formation—or it might be for social control and manipulation. And there are gender differences in reasons for disclosure. For men the number one reason to disclose is catharsis—literally to get it off of their chest. For women it is relationship maintenance and enhancement. The point is that “Fifty Shades” seems to demonstrate how much people can do when they actually talk—directly and honestly—with one another. They kind of kick the door in on relationship disclosures. It is inspiring in a crazy way.
What’s more, we see the main characters spending a lot of time debriefing and offering guidance about the best way to communicate in their relationship (and do other things). This is called “meta-communication.” It is always interesting when people take the time to actively consider what elements in their communications, behaviors, and assumptions are working—and which ones are not. When I see a team debriefing a meeting, or when leaders actively consider the right word choices and approaches to bring news or directions to their teams, I know that excellence is possible. Meta –communication is the act of learning together. And there is a lot of, er um, learning in “Fifty Shades.” The main point here is that where there is success there is active meta-communication.
Lessons from “Fifty Shades”
So, yes, “Fifty Shades” is clearly a naughty pulp distraction—but there are key communication examples that mean business:
- Being actively reflective about what motives are in play (for you and the other parties) when you are communicating
- Giving permission to be very direct and “on the record” about what is important, needed, off limits etc.
- Communicating directly about how successful, accurate, helpful your communication behaviors are for all involved
No I am not suggesting “Fifty Shades” for your next management reading group. I am simply saying that the interpersonal communication elements of “Fifty Shades” are as tantalizing as the prurient subject matter. The idea of being able to communicate with such force and candor is very compelling. I believe that Christian and Ana’s example is hitting a strong chord because we are seeing that (a) with communication we can handle most problems and (b) we are in control of our communication. We just need to pay attention.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, Carmen Voilleque and I identify the very specific communication behaviors that great leaders use every day. At the core of their success is a sense of “open motives” and transparency. The result is trust, vision, and real power to make changes, to make things better.
And yes, I am strongly, on the record, suggesting that you read Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership as a part of your management reading group. If you don’t have a management reading group, start one, right away. You will gain ever so much sophistication and communication prowess.
Save “Fifty Shades” for the beach trip.