Mixing Anthropology with Business

In today's "Talking Tech" column in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes interviews a 26-year-old who uses his anthropology background working at telephone headset-maker Plantronics. Gomes writes that anthropologists working for businesses are "hired for their observational skills, and then spend time with customers sussing out what they want in a product." Here's how the Plantronics anthropologist describes his job:

I spend a lot of time with the end user.... I'll spend up to two hours with someone. I also spend time with people in their natural environment. When you spend time with them in their office or in their car or on the subway, you start to see things that they don't even recognize they do. It's the little tics that I'm interested in.

One of the interesting things he discovered: lots of people like to listen to their music with a headset pod in just one ear so that they can still talk to people or listen to their professors lecture at the same time (I guess classroom discipline is officially dead; RIP). Another interesting observation: "[I]n offices with creative or technical workers, managers are more accepting of music being played than are managers in a clerical environment. For a lot of people listening to music at work is considered unprofessional."

Makes sense. If you're sitting around in the middle of the night coding in solitary bliss, who's going to care what you're listening to? In offices where people are on the phone a lot, though, or need to talk with other people on a regular basis, having half your brain paying attention to something else might be considered rude and unproductive. At least the one-ear headphone method spares co-workers from other people's music choices. Lord knows I don't want Jessica Simpson or Rhianna tweeting in the background while I'm trying to have serious conversations with people about their career dreams and plans. I've had to ask more than one twenty-something employee to turn off the music streaming when the phone rings. Interns and new graduates, take note.