In some still-to-be-discovered ancient civilization, there very well might be a cave in which hieroglyphics list the top 10 uses for fire. That means there likely were people in an adjoining cave who angrily disagreed with that list.
Call it list rage. While it lacks the higher profile of its cousins — road rage, computer rage and the still classic the-umpire-is-blind rage — list rage is just human nature.
The Twin Cities, and Minnesota in general, rule when it comes to lists.
We earn raves for our cleanliness, industriousness and urban green spaces. We’re applauded for our passions, from biking and reading to music and theater. We’ve even been listed as one of the nerdiest places in the country, which we’ve decided to take as a compliment.
Nonetheless, when we encounter a list that leaves us out, it can be hard not to take that slight personally. We already have a chip on our collective shoulder about being flyover land, and it doesn’t sit well when list-makers on the coasts ignore us, even if we’re ignoring whatever it is they’re listing. A snub is a snub, said Katy McEwen, artistic director at the Brave New Workshop, and we shouldn’t put up with it.
“Why do we care about these completely arbitrary lists?” she asked rhetorically. “Because underneath our mild-mannered, snow-encrusted exteriors lie the hearts of warriors. Vikings! And Vikings don’t back away from a fight, no matter how stupid or meaningless or how little bearing it has on anyone’s anything.”
Recently, Shape magazine listed the fittest cities in the United States, and we weren’t included. But last summer, the National College of Sports Medicine ranked the Twin Cities as the fittest metro area. Two lists, two different rankings. That doesn’t make sense — and that makes Minnesotans mad.
The anger doesn’t surprise Carol Bruess, a professor at the University of St. Thomas who specializes in interpersonal communication.
“We want to feel like we matter,” she said. “Because we are social beings, that sense of mattering comes from how others evaluate us. Whether it’s a list published nationally or feedback from a friend, we all are seeking a sense of self, and when we find out others don’t see us the way we see us, it can be a bit irritating and even upsetting.”
Of course, there are some lists that we don’t want to be on, such as Orkin Pest Control’s ranking of cities with the biggest bedbug infestations. Other lists we don’t mind missing, including the worst cities for spring allergies (recently reported by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America).
The psychology of list mania
Ignore the rankings, said John Tauer, men’s basketball coach at the University of St. Thomas.
When the Tommies were ranked No. 1 in a poll last season, “I told the team that they should be proud of it and then move on,” he said. “If we start to think too much about it, it can get distracting.”
As a psychology professor at the college, he suggests that the rest of us do the same with lists.
“They’re fun, and if that’s their only purpose, that’s great,” Tauer said. But the lists often lead us to making comparisons.
“Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to those better than us, and downward social comparison is when we compare to those who are worse than us,” he explained. Both can be positive: An upward comparison might inspire us to work harder, while a downward comparison can bolster sagging confidence. If we become fixated on comparisons, they can derail us, he warned.
Lists have long been a mainstay of journalists, said Brendan Watson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota. One of the main journalistic goals of a list is to start a “dialogue” — list-speak for argument. But he agreed with Tauer — don’t put too much stock in lists.
“A lot of these rankings use meaningless data,” Watson said. “We’d hope that the consumer would have enough skepticism to consider the criteria, but that’s not always obvious to the casual reader.”
Jenny Collins, a freelance writer in St. Paul, lists lists as among her favorite things to read. But she does so with her ego in check. “People get so offended by them,” she said.
She divides lists into two categories: “Those that look at things with a different perspective than you and those that look at things with the same perspective as you. Lists either broaden or confirm what you already think. Sometimes it’s nice to read a list of, say, the best movies that agrees with what I think. But I also like to look at lists that make me aware of movies I haven’t seen.”
Where do our cat videos rank?
The Internet is awash in lists. Websites like Ranker.com, Toptenz.com, Listography.com and BuzzFeed.com do nothing but run lists of everything from the best fake products featured on “The Simpsons” to the most unusual public festivals. Our cat video film fest didn’t make that list (insert your own derogatory comment about the list-maker here).
No list about lists is complete without mentioning the modern-day guru — David Letterman and his nightly Top 10 list.
“The Letterman team has mastered the form,” said Dave Walbridge, a Twin Cities comedy writer who also teaches writing (www.procomedywriting.com). Because of Letterman, the format “is incredibly popular. It’s the No. 2 thing I teach after the traditional set-up-and-punch-line form. It’s basically one set-up followed by 10 punch lines.”
As a reader, Walbridge likes lists because “they’re a great way to convey a lot of information in a hurry.” But as a writer, he worries that we might be getting close to list overkill.
“It’s probably going to happen,” he said. “We’re being bombarded with them.”
But in the meantime, we need to be ready to rally to the cause whenever some misguided list doesn’t give us the respect we know we deserve, McEwen urged. For instance, we were recently left off Amazon’s list of most-read cities — because we don’t buy enough books online.
“It’s not about the list, it’s not about the status, it’s not about the win,” she said. “It’s about the fight.”