The ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’

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    The Secret Agent Report - The 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'

    December 2013

    The 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'

    The Secret Agent Report takes a different turn for the last release of 2013. Rather than analyse data, this month we discuss something intangible – the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of property.

    Property Quirks & the ‘Je ne sais quoi’

    Finding the property that ‘just fits’ is at the core of what we do. This factor is often hard to gauge. Like buying a gift for a good friend because you thought they would like it, only to find that it wasn’t to their taste. Humans are complex! Often we can’t explain why we like something, or why something makes us feel a certain way. The French have a saying to describe this feeling; ‘je ne sais quoi,’ which translates to ‘I don’t know what’. This is kind of like how we would say “I can’t put my finger on it’… A pleasing, indefinable and elusive quality or quirk.


    In this edition of The Secret Agent Report, we explore some of the factors around choice and why, biologically, we might describe a property as having a good feel. After studying data relating to coffee shops, lifestyle, parklands and housing styles throughout the year, it felt like the right time to work on something a little more ambiguous to round out the year.

    So how do we get that ‘je ne sais quoi’ feeling? Lets discuss.

    Edward O Wilson, American sociobiologist / biologist, thinker, naturalist and author has spent his lifetime studying as he calls them; “the little things that run the world.” Here we are talking about insects, bacteria and micro-organisms, that make larger organisms and environments possible. In his book The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012), Wilson writes about how humans have a limited sensory realm in comparison to other species, and how this affects our visual preferences;

    “…neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze… The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance.”

    These factors may be coming into play when we enter a furniture store to buy a new couch for example. The clean, linear design of the sofa may only be appealing because the slightly flawed texture of it’s wool fabric provides that 20 percent redundancy Wilson speaks about. He makes mention of the ability of great art to guide the viewers attention around a piece, something that may be felt in a great room or space.

    He also provides other clues as to why we might choose a place to live;

    “Studies have shown that given freedom to choose the setting of their homes or offices, people across cultures gravitate toward an environment that combines three features, intuitively understood by landscape architects and real estate entrepreneurs. They want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean. Even if all these elements are purely aesthetic and not functional, home buyers will pay any affordable price to have such a view. People, in other words, prefer to live in those environments in which our species evolved over millions of years in Africa. Instinctively, they gravitate toward savanna forest (parkland) and transitional forest, looking out safely over a distance toward reliable sources of food and water. This is by no means an odd connection, if considered as a biological phenomenon. All mobile animal species are guided by instincts that lead them to habitats in which they have a maximum chance for survival and reproduction.”

    Biologically, we are prone to make certain choices and strive to certain ideals. What other factors may be at play when searching for space to live, work or create?

    In 1943 Abraham H Mazlow released a paper titled A theory of human Motivation. His idea was that once our basic needs are met (ie: air, water, food, shelter…) we then move on to attempting to satisfy more complex needs.

    “A want that is satisfied is no longer a want. The organism is dominated and its behaviour organized only by unsatisfied needs. If hunger is satisfied, it becomes unimportant in the current dynamics of the individual.”

    His ideas were then presented visually as a pyramid which is shown below. It is interesting to think of the interaction between the basic need of shelter and the need of self-actualisation. Perhaps a feeling of ‘je ne sais quoi’ toward a space comes about when a mix of our needs, desires and ambitions are aligned.

    Mazlow's Heirachy of Needs

    A pyramid is a common way to visualise Mazolw’s Heirachy of Needs theory as first published in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation.

    So now we’ve covered some social science, lets move on to fashion (which can be seen as another social science!).

    Trends play a big part in our attraction to property, and Google Trends lists Australia as third on their list (after Portugal and Sweden) of searchers of the term ‘home styling’ (sourced Nov 2013). Breaking that down further, Victoria scored most highly, out searching all other Australian states/territories. We care about home styling trends, and it can definitely have an effect on the sale price of a property. Vendors and agents spend a lot of time and money trying to create the ‘je ne sais quoi’ in properties on the market.

    There is a business in creating that ‘gotta have it’ feeling.

    The Design Files is a website (slash blog), that showcases homes and home wares Australia wide – as well as art, retail, craft and food. The team put together an event in which they style an entire Melbourne home (with help from sponsors) that is open to the public. Naturally everything is for sale. This year they have expanded the event and will be travelling to Sydney to host Open House in a new market. The concept allows to the consumer to feel a connection to objects in context, in a way that perhaps wouldn’t occur in a showroom or shop, or from looking at images online.

    Alain De Botton is a philosopher and writer from Switzerland / Britain who has written extensively on the subject of a human’s experience with their surroundings. One of his more recent publications is The Architecture of Happiness in which he discuses the different messages that can be decoded from buildings, and how we can channel these in order to understand life more deeply. He speaks of the Japanese word; ‘wabi’ used to describe the beauty in deformed pieces of pottery, rain falling on leaves, moss and raked gravel.

    “…wabi, of which no western language has a direct equivalent, which identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things.” 

    This is an interesting concept that brings us back to the 20% abstraction discussed earlier.

    There are things that we are all striving toward and biologically need, things that take our breath away, the ‘wabi’, the ‘je ne sais quoi’, the 20% quirk that makes us feel comfortable and allows our limited sensory realms to understand. To try and shed just a little more light on the unexplainable, we will leave you with a quote from perhaps Secret Agent’s most collectively respected human being.

    At the beginning of one of his lectures at Caltech entitled The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences Richard Feynman says:

    “We must, incidentally, make it clear from the beginning that if a thing is not a science, it is not necessarily bad. For example, love is not a science.”

    And without getting too far into thinking about the science of love and attraction – pheromones and procreation and natural selection, this is what we are saying. It probably doesn’t matter why a room or a property gives you the shivers – it’s something personal that you can seek and find for yourself. Magic!