Somewhere around the 500th headline I read in praise of Hamilton, the universally acclaimed Broadway musical due in Europe next year, I was struck by a deflating thought: I’ll probably never see it. Not just because it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket, but because so many people – people whose tastes I trust – have raved about it that I now regard the prospect with annoyance. Two years ago, it was the Richard Linklater movie Boyhood, which I still haven’t seen; then Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which I still haven’t read. Straw polls of friends suggest I’m not alone in this reaction – call it “cultural cantankerousness” – which seems to affect books, films, plays, holiday destinations and restaurants equally. Increasingly, my first thought on seeing something described as a “must-read” is‚“Oh really? Try and make me.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as simple contrarianism. After all, we live in an era that champions ostentatious dissent from the mainstream, whether you’re a journalist trolling for clicks by explaining what “Donald Trump gets right”, or a hipster embracing fashions because others disdain them. And contrarianism has its merits: “Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority,” Mark Twain said, “it is time to pause and reflect.” But unlike contrarianism, cultural cantankerousness isn’t solely about appearing different from others: even alone in a room, I’d be disinclined to pick up Ferrante’s books if others were available. Nor is it because I suspect these works of art are no good; they’re probably all sensational. When it comes to, say, TV shows about competitive baking, I resist the pull of the crowd because I’m confident I’m not missing much. In the case of Hamilton or Boyhood, I’m sure my perversity is costing me real enjoyment.

So what’s going on? One explanation is what psychologists call “optimal distinctiveness theory” – the way we’re constantly jockeying to feel exactly the right degree of similarity to and difference from those around us. Nobody wants to be exiled from the in-group to the fringes of society; but nobody wants to be swallowed up by it, either. In toddlerhood and teenagerhood, this manifests as a bloody-minded refusal to do what we’re told, precisely to show we can disobey our parents. Perhaps it never entirely goes away.

But I have a different hunch about cultural cantankerousness: I think it’s a defence against the “fear of missing out”. These days, thanks largely to technology, we’re more aware than ever of all the exciting things other people are up to, in other places. The result is an edgy, distracted state of worry that undermines the pleasure of whatever we’re doing: what if we could be doing something better? My irritation at the plaudits heaped on any given book, film or play is a way of reasserting control. Instead of worrying about whether I should be reading Ferrante, I’m defiantly resolving that I won’t. That’s one less thing to worry about missing, leaving me free to focus instead on haranguing other people to watch Better Call Saul. No, really – if you haven’t seen it, you must.

Jun 24, 2016