Trevor's Reviews > Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

Snoop by Sam Gosling
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Mar 13, 09

bookshelves: psychology, social-theory
Recommended to Trevor by: Jennie

Do you know that feeling you have when you have enjoyed a book and are about to write a review and think, “God, I hope that not everything I say sounds like a criticism.”

Well, I did enjoy this book, but I’ve a horrible feeling that might not come across.

If I’d been writing this book I would have started off by calling it, “So You Think You Want to be Sherlock Holmes?” Do you know how the start of every Holmes mystery has him showing off by telling his new client (or the ever corrigible Dr Watson) what he or she has been up by his remarkable ability to connect the dots on a series of clues left on or about their person? And do you know how in some stories Holmes gets Watson to have a go first – and after Watson has invariably grabbed all the red herrings and (in my strangely appropriate pair of mixed clichés) made a meal of whole thing, Holmes then points out the correct interpretation? Well, that is as near as I can get to telling you what this book is about.

In Gladwell’s Blink – and I don’t have a copy of the book, so I can’t check that this was actually the guy he was referring to (although, if I was a betting man…) – he talks about how people do remarkably well at judging the personalities of peoplethey have never met just by spending a little time in their room. This guy has made a career out of precisely this stunt.

Years ago, when I was working in local government, I did a series of personality tests. My all-time favourite was the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI). I had hoped that this would prove to be a metallic box with two moveable handles on top which one could use to control friends and family. Unfortunately, it proved to be a kind of graph in a circle. The graph was made of four points in four quadrants and each of these had its own colour – green, blue, red and yellow. Now, again, if it was me, I would have made the green quadrant beige.

(Sorry, an aside: part of the process of working out what you are like was a series of flash cards that were scattered about on the floor and you had to pick up four that you felt best described you. The cards said things like: Creative, Sexy, Smart, Lively, Porn Star – you know, the sorts of things most of us think we are as a matter of course. Then there were cards I initially thought were put in the mix as a bit of a joke. I nudged my friend over one of these – Punctual. Now, I was working at the time in Strategic Research and we were doing this as a joint exercise with Financial Services. I nudged my friend and said, “Imagine coming here and picking that card. Imagine living a life in which the only positive thing you could say about yourself was that you generally turn up on time to things.” We all sat down with the five adjectives we had selected that best described ourselves – I’m not sure if ‘empathy’ was one of mine or not now. Anyway, we each had to hold up our first – and most important - card and explain why it mattered so much to us. The first guy was from Finance and he said … I kid you not … “Punctual: Well, anyone who knows me knows I like to be on time.” And, ladies and gentlemen, I can also report that he said this with real pride. I know, I’m as disturbed by this as you are, but I can only report what actually happened.)

Where was I? Oh yes, personality tests. The other part of this process was to guess what your graph would look like prior to them showing the graph specially and scientifically produced on the basis of the questions asked a week before in their terribly scientific survey. What I found most disturbing about this was that the graph I drew in anticipation and the graph they produced from the survey were identical. I’m honestly not telling you this to show how incredibly self aware I am.

For this book to be useful – and it is trying to be useful – it has to show you two things. Firstly, that personality types exist and secondly, that personalities are somehow able to be glimpsed via how we organise our stuff. I think the guy who wrote this book really wishes he was much more organised than he actually is. As someone proudly moderately organised – I know basically were my stuff is and don’t feel in the least uneasy because in my bookcase Zola is in the top left and Balzac is in the middle of the same shelf. I try to avoid such bourgeois notions as alphabetical order.

I’m also not totally sure what to make of personality types. In the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I’m an INTP. But one day I joined an Internet group of fellow INTPs and found I had nothing in common with them at all. Also, when I got my Herrmann Brain Instrument back I found that my graph was virtually identical to the only person in the office I felt I had nothing in common with. If you were an employer and you wanted to employ someone to fill a particular gap, I’m sure getting either me or this other person would certainly not have been anything like the same experience for you.

I’m telling you all this, because whatever personality types are, they definitely don’t tell you what someone will be like – and if they don’t tell you this, it is a bit hard to know what it is that they do tell you.

I’m also a ‘shades of grey’ kind of guy. Are you introverted or extroverted? Well, you know, that sounds a little black and white for my tastes. So, given that personalities are problematic for me, that is going to make the rest of this book somewhat problematic too. If it is hard to say what a person’s personality will be like, and, honestly, the guy who was virtually identical to me in the HBDI couldn’t really have been too much more different from me, then it is hard to know what you are learning by learning someone is probably an extrovert because they like to wear loud clothes.

The stuff I found most interesting in this book was that we tend to think of neurotics as being hyper-depressive, but actually they tend to be the people with motivational posters on their walls. I really liked the idea that this was the case, in fact, I have extended it to organisations generally – and so accepted this without question.

The other thing was one of those nice things that are obvious once they are explained, but that I would never have thought of at all if they hadn’t been explained to me.

I was in this guy’s office this morning. He is a HR manager. We were led into his office and it was very strange. There was nothing in the room that had any personality at all. Not a single photograph. Stuff was neat, but not really ordered. For example, there were bits of electronic equipment on the bookshelves - they weren’t untidy, but you wouldn’t really say they were in just the right place either. The only ‘personal’ things in the room were a ‘footy fixtures poster’ which was in his plain view for him while he was sitting at his desk and a poem of some sort about the Tigers (a local football team). This was on a shelf set so high that he would have had real trouble seeing it while sitting at his desk, but was immediately visible to anyone sitting anywhere in his office.

And what did I learn from snooping about is office while he spoke? He is a man who likes to keep his private and professional lives separate. It might be that his private life is a mess (odd how I immediately checked to see if there was a wedding ring – and wasn’t at all surprised to see that there wasn’t) and that he sees his office as a sanctuary.

All the same, he is the HR manager, and so ought to be the human face of the corporation. It was also interesting that there were no corporate symbols about his office either. If you wanted to build a nearly perfectly characterless office, it would be hard to go past this one. Don’t pretend the football stuff is a symbol of his personality (although, I suspect he probably would like to be considered a Tiger). Football conversations are the conversations one has when one wants to say as little as possible about themselves. Which is possibly why they are the preferred conversations of men.

My very dear friend Ruth makes up entire life stories of people in cafes based on the scantiest of evidence gleaned from half overheard conversations. I always marvel and always love these beautifully constructed factual-fictions.

So, although I am not sure what a personality is, I did enjoy this book and do like the idea of becoming a snoop.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Anthony D (new)

Anthony D Buckley Fabulous review, Trevor.

The organization where I worked gave us all personality tests. I concluded that they worked rather like horoscopes or other forms of fortune telling.

Suppose the test reveals that you are an "entrepreneur" or an "independent thinker" or a "host" or whatever other category they happen to have. Then you have an almost irresistible impulse to examine yourself and to prove quite conclusively that this definition of yourself is correct.

"So I'm a 'host'," you say to yourself. "Well, yes, I do like to have friends round, and I meet up with them for coffee. And I am very generous at Christmas time. It must be true".

So too when a fortune teller reads your palm and explains that at around the age of forty you had a difficult time at work. Immediately, you can recall that difficult time, and you stand back in amazement that the palmist is actually correct.

It's hokum, I fear. On the plus side, it can reveal hitherto hidden truths about ourselves (I myself read my horoscope every day in the newspaper and learn a lot thereby). Moreover, it can be convincing hokum. But it's hokum for all that. It's why Popper liked scientific theories to be framed in such a way that you could disprove them.

Jennie I'm glad you liked the book enough to get something out of it. I agree that not all of it was earth shattering, but I thought it was interesting. And I'm really curious so snooping works well for me!

Trevor Thank you both. I really liked the idea that there are things about your character that you might not like, but that you also might not be able to do anything about. So, you can tidy, but that isn't really going to fuol anyone that you are a deeply ordered person.

message 4: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard OK, my personality test anecdote:

Many years ago I was a sales engineer for a big tech firm. I'd been with a customer that morning, so I showed up late to the "group development" meeting where my peers had just taken a personality test and had them scored and graphed on the whiteboard.

The presenter was discussing what the graphs indicated while I did my test and caught up, and when I handed her my form she totted up the scores then gave me a funny look and said "Oh... this should be interesting." My place on the graph was quite a ways from all my peers, and they all snickered.

Back to the "group building", the presenter reiterated the question under discussion, "What is the purpose of a corporation?" Everyone else had reached a comfortable consensus that it had to do with shareholder profits before I'd joined. But I'd recently read The Gold-Collar Worker (yeah, this was a looong time ago) and pointed out that customers, employees, and even the community must also be satisfied. The discussion immediately turned heated -- many switched to my more "nuanced" view, others stuck to their initial perspective. The presenter just sat back and grinned.

Turns out her process told her correctly that I love troubling still waters. There was more to it than that, but I still recall her satisfaction of the success of the lesson.

I actually agree that most personality tests are too much like horoscopes or tarot card readings -- but occasionally I've looked that some of the other "horoscopes" and realized I'm nothing like those. I'm a ENTP (or INTP) on Myers-Briggs, and some of the other categories are as undescriptive of me as "punctual" would be.

Trevor I upset the woman who gave me the MBTI test by saying that I would much rather be an ENTP - as far as I could see they were intelligent and the life of the party. Just what I would like to be when I grow up. The woman who gave me the test was upset as she felt I should accept who I am more - bugger that.

message 6: by Anthony D (new)

Anthony D Buckley Bugger that indeed

Helen (Helena/Nell) In my teaching life, I ask students to self-assess their own written work, under the usual criteria. The most boring of these is 'Spelling, punctuation etc'.

Recently a young man wrote beside this criterion: 'I think I am pretty punctual'.

message 8: by Bruce (new)

Bruce C'mon, Trevor! You were forced to take Meyers-Briggs and didn't immediately torch it for the pseudo-scientific fraud it is? You are too kind and generous a man.

I was stuck in a 3 week management training session centered around this nonsense, and asked them (in a cordial, genuinely curious, and non-hostile way) to produce any peer-reviewed empirically-based study that would support the validity of MBTI's existence. I also wrote to the company contact I was given, and followed up with a wee (very wee) bit of independent research.

I got bupkes. Made me so peeved (not that these folks would sell bunco, but that an academic employer would pay to impose it on its staff) that I shot off more than a few memos.

Fat lot of good it did me. Some people just gotta believe.

Trevor I ended up in the same group as they decided to pop Jung - I took it as high praise, given he was their god.

When I was made redundant from a job once I was sent to one of those places that help you find other work - outplacement? The man was chatting away to me and somehow we got onto MBTI and I told him my letters. Big mistake, obviously. We kept on chatting and the guy kept saying things like, "but of course, you would find that a difficult career given your inability to finish anything". I couldn't for the life of me work out what he was on about and so asked him. He said, "As an INTP blah, blah, blah" I may have stopped listening at this point, but I didn't actually hit him. Needless to say, I never went back and complained to work about the next to useless course they had sent me on. As you say, some people just got to believe.

I've seen people say things like, I'd bet you're an ENSJ and I always think of someone saying, "Don't tell me, you're an Aries, right, well, am I right?"

Nell, I love the punctual line above, I've been thinking all day for a comical reply, but can't top it.

message 10: by Bruce (new)

Bruce "Don't tell me, you're an Aries, right, well, am I right?"

"Ned?? Reyerson?!!"

Trevor For a long time my party trick was to tell people I'd changed star signs as, "Leo really wasn't working out for me." You must try this sometime. You have no idea how pissed off people become when you say this.

Helen (Helena/Nell) In the college where I work we have forms for registering changes of personal details. One is for name/ address. Another is for change of gender or birth date.... It never occurred to me as odd, until someone brought me the form and asked me how a person ... would change ... their birth date.

message 13: by Eric_W (new) - added it

Eric_W What's really fun is to "game" the test. I've been to so many of those "touchy-feely" things that I'll occasionally change personalities for the heck of it. But it's a big industry, let me tell you. Why is it that academic institutions seem to be so susceptible to that crap.

message 14: by Scribble (last edited Jan 02, 2011 03:40AM) (new)

Scribble Orca Hee-hee, Trevor.

You are soooo INTP. And shame on you for not welcoming yourself.

But I agree with you. I remember once squizzing the updated experiments conducted through Hay and associated tertiary instiutions which were touted as further evidence of the accuracy of these tests.

All the subjects which were tested belonged to one socio-economic class. So unless a person belonged to this same class, applying the MBIT as a means to determine how that person approached and synthesised information would give a false result.

Personally I prefer Chinese Astrology. That's a 12 x 5 matrix of possibilities! Except I'm not Chinese :(

Trevor I read a wonderful book about this shortly after I wrote this review The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves - I can't begin to tell you how wonderful that book was and utterly fascinating GNF.

Sometimes, when I walk into a friend's office, I move something on their desk and say "You'll find the energy levels will improve now".

message 16: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca "Sometimes, when I walk into a friend's office, I move something on their desk and say "You'll find the energy levels will improve now"."

Trevor, how modest of you. You know it's your presence in their office that is the uplifting of the atmosphere :D. I mean, really. Ascribing a person's energy level to something inanimate. I'm sure they see through your ruse.

Trevor There's lots of money to be made from Feng Shui and Crystals if I could only learn how to keep a smile off my face.

message 18: by Tria (new) - added it

Tria INFJ, here, IIRC. =P But "alphabetising is bourgeois"?! When you're talking to someone with OCD whose disorder manifests in alphabetising *everything*, that seems a kind of mean thing to say. ;P Which, I am. And have no choice about it.

Trevor One of the things Michael Apple says somewhere is that it is hard to say anything without potentially offending someone - the most appropriate response is to own up immediately and expect that most steps will be potentially mis-steps - I hadn't even thought about this as being potentially offensive and I'm sorry.

My standard male excuse is that it was meant as a joke - not that that is much of an excuse, really...

Eglė Author rarely has any control over a book's name. Editor's can go really crazy over this :)

Trevor He probably liked the title, to be honest, but some reference to Holmes would have seemed appropriate, I think.

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