In the words of the legendary standup comedian, George Carlin, bullshit is everywhere.
There’s no denying it. Whether it’s the white noise of corporate platitudes, or just inflating one’s sense of self, we are no strangers to this type of talk. In the publishing world, we’re particularly attuned to it because we’ve been wrestling with the beasts of fake news, yellow journalism and filter bubbles for years now. One might say bullshit has taken on a life of its own and it is, for the lack of better wording, obnoxious.
So, this begs the question: how does a newsroom company tackle the issues of bullshit language in the workplace, given that it can have dire effects on both business operations and employee satisfaction?
The witch doctor speech of modern times
The modern world is overloaded with information, which is why we have developed a keen taste for bullshit stories. No matter if they are true or false, people are now, more than ever, inherently drawn to them – and though they’re most common in the realms of marketing and advertising, they show up in news, politics, social media, higher education, and modern-day work environments in general.
So what exactly is bullshit? In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, John. V. Petrocelli, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, defines it like this: “Communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge”.
We, on the other hand, like to call it the witch doctor speech of modern times.
And you can’t miss it these days. Just dig a little deeper into the Internet and you will find lots of businesses posting fluffy B.S. about company culture, putting words like “innovation” and “creativity” in the same context, or over-using buzzwords, obscure euphemisms, and corporate jargon like SEO rockstars, or social marketing ninjas. It’s cringeworthy, or as our British colleague likes to say “really, really naff”.
And it doesn’t just present a linguistic challenge. You can dig up stories about Silicon Valley-inspired entertainment rooms and facilities that disrupt the work-life balance, team-building activities that employees don’t feel comfortable with, or companies with happiness managers that use joy as a metric for workplace effectiveness. These practices might look good on paper, but it’s time we called it as we see it: it falls neatly into the category of bullshit.
And let’s not even get started with advertising lingo! It’s best we let George Carlin do some explaining in our stead.
With all the corporate nonsense and hogwash in the world, how do you deal with company culture bullshit?
The best tactic to win over your opposing interlocutor (and come out unscathed in the process) in any kind of conflict is to point the finger at yourself, too. Developing a healthy doubt of your own certainty isn’t necessarily an exercise in self-sabotage. When I learned I was assigned to write about our no-bullshit culture, my first instinct was to see if I could find examples in-house, then uproot it and leverage my claims on how we tackle it.
So I asked all the departments – not just HR – and was immediately told from all sides that we at Content Insights aren’t bullshit-free, and nor do we claim to be. In fact, every company has a fair share of its own – no one is exempt.
But do you know what really makes our team capable of handling our own bullshit? We all revel in self-deprecating humor. Knowing that we also have weaknesses and shortcomings without the fear of pointing them out makes us feel like a unified collective – and we believe this is something that spirited bullshit talkers fail at miserably because image and reputation are brought to greater concern than relationships with colleagues and the profession itself.
Our prescription: a healthy dose of sarcasm in the office is always an excellent method to prevent the cringe gland from flaring up. Contrary to popular belief, it promotes psychological well-being and strengthens social relations, according to research at the University of Granada. If scientific papers seem too highbrow, just read a copy of ‘Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble’ by Dan Lyons. It is dubbed “the best book on Silicon Valley” as it humorously “injects a dose of sanity into a world gone mad” – that, courtesy of Alex, our Head of People Operations.
Ultimately, as long as we call a spade a spade (without the brutal honesty and robot feelings), we can become more attuned to spot bullshit in the future and be more conscious of our own.
According to Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and owner of the website CallingBullshit.org: “One of the common habits of successful working teams is that their members learn to call B.S. on one another without disrespecting or perceiving disrespect. That allows the team to rapidly cut through mistaken arguments with a minimum of social friction.”
It is easy to view the world from a cynical standpoint, but if you write off everything as bullshit, you will miss out on many bullshit-free opportunities. So get curious, work on your facts and, to quote Aretha Franklin: “show some respect.” Why? Because respect begets respect.