Relational Notification Norms on "Mad Men"

I joked that I wanted a footnote while watching a recent episode (“The New Girl” season 2 episode 5) of the TV show “Mad Men.” A scene between Don and Betty Draper was almost verbatim from the first page of the book I’m currently working on (working title Notification and the Information Order).

Don’s just come home around dawn after having a car accident while carousing with a client’s wife. Betty, his wife, has apparently been awake all night wondering where he was and that’s her first question when he comes into the bedroom. “I was in an accident,” he explains. Then there’s a back and forth where she says “why didn’t you call me?” and he says he did not want to worry/wake her and so on. She says, basically, “I’m your wife, you idiot — when this sort of thing happens, you call, it doesn’t matter what time it is.” She then adds that it doesn’t matter whether or not she could do anything about it, spouses call, period, the end. They follow this with him mentioning that the doctor told him he had high blood pressure and she gets bent out of shape all over again because he’d failed to tell her this earlier too.

In the book I use an almost identical scene to make the point that social relationships come with specific informational responsibilities and that these are constitutive of the relationship — in other words, they are a part of how we know we are in a particular kind/level of relationship. This relational dimension of information exchange is largely independent of the instrumental value of information (as in, you should have told me so that I could have done something different and achieved a better outcome for me or us) and so introduces an object of study for a sociology of information that is distinct from the object of, say, the economics of information.

Notification issues popping up on “Mad Men” was not actually an unusual event. It turns out that mis-nofitication is an incredibly common dramatic and humorous device. I started keeping a list a few years back when an episode of “The West Wing” (titled “17 People”) was all about how the characters squared their sense of their status in the White House inner circle and their relationships with one another and the president with the order and manner in which they found out about the president’s illness. It soon became obvious that variations on this theme were so common as to not warrant an exhaustive cataloging.

These ideas were first introduced in my 2006 piece in Sociological Theory (24,3): ―”Getting the Word Out: Notes on the Social Organization of Notification.”

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

2 thoughts on “Relational Notification Norms on "Mad Men"”

  1. My first thought was that this was a gender thing — men don’t give information about themselves just for the sake of maintaining a relationship. They’ll readily talk to give opinions (about sports, politics, technology, etc.) or to solve a problem, but not just to inform. (Remember Kramer on Seinfeld warning Jerry that when you’re married you have to talk about “your day”?)But then it occurred to me that a guy might tell another guy about the accident. Not Draper, of course, who doesn’t tell anybody anything. But I could imagine some guy telling his buddies about an incident like this. Then I thought, no, he’d be telling it as a <>story<>,not so much to inform but to impress or amuse (“So I’m driving on the Island with this bimbo, and we’re drunk out of our minds. . . .”).

  2. That’s an interesting distinction — telling as informing vs. telling as story-telling.I also like the gender point. It helps me to make a useful analytical distinction between relational and attribute takes on information behavior. It may well be that men or women (or rich vs. poor or whatever) tend to engage in more or less or different kinds of “relational information work.” But I can’t really get a handle on that until I understand the fundamentals of how information norms structure relationships in general. What’s useful in your comment is that it helps me to order these — the relational seems more “primordial.” This fits with how I’ve been framing the entire inquiry: as a Simmelian investigation of the forms of human information behavior.

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