Saturday, October 24, 2009

Will You Help?

Today, I'm writing to ask for your help addressing a challenge that has reached epidemic proportions. A scourge that knows no ethnic, racial, religious or geographic boundaries. An insidious affliction that affects rich and poor, tall and short, red and blue, public and private.

The problem I refer to is bullshit.

Once the province of politicians, scalawags and the kid who always forgot to do his homework, bullshit is now pervasive touching every one of our lives. Odds are you know someone who bullshits daily... it could be you!

Bullshit costs tax payers trillions of dollars annually. It results in wasted time and missed opportunity. It ruins relationships.

It you know someone who bullshits, then this article may be for you.

Causes of Bullshitting
The debate rages on as to the real cause of bullshitting; experts are at odds with one another. Yet, I would hazard to propose three causes that seem to pretty much cover it:
  1. Wanting to win an argument at all costs
  2. Not wanting to be found out (e.g., cheating on your partner, failing to fulfill a promise, not completing a work assignment, not wanting people to know that you listen to Barbara Streisand records, etc.)
  3. Not wanting to be honest about your real intentions or beliefs (e.g., agreeing with something to avoid an argument, saying you can't make an appointment when you simply don't want to go, saying you loved something that you really didn't like, etc.)
Identification and Acknowledgment
The first step to eradicating bullshit in your life is to recognize it when it's happening and then to act swiftly and decisively. Fortunately, many bullshitters are not skilled. You can tell immediately when they turn it on by looking for one or more of the following signs:
  1. An upward inflection at the end of a statement making it sound like a question, rather than a fact.
  2. Eyes looking up and to the left indicating that they're accessing visually constructed images rather than visually remembered images (eyes up and to the right).
  3. Eye looking left indicating that they're access constructed auditory images, versus remembered auditory images (eyes right).
  4. Hesitation and stammering.
  5. A smile that involves there mouth only, and not the rest of their face.
  6. Looking at you to see if you bought it before continuing.
  7. Really, really ridiculous statements.
  8. Statements preceded by "Would you believe..."
When seeing one or more of these key indicators, the easiest and perhaps best response is to ask, "Is that true?"

Typically, the inept bullshitter will stop in his tracks. He may hem and haw. He'll look to his left seeking some kind of visual or aural inspiration. He may avert his eyes or look away so that you can't see his mouth.

With any luck, he'll simply say, "no" or "no really" or "not exactly."

At this point, he may launch into myriad explanations, justifications and excuses, but you're not through the hard part.

Dealing with the Adept
As the epidemic rages on, practicing bullshitters are getting better and better and better. I'm going to outline several techniques used by adept bullshit artists to help you identify it when it's happening.

The Confident Bullshitter
Many bullshitters learn early on that, if you look someone directly in the eye, say things with strength and confidence and without hesitation, and if you don't let the ends of your mouth curve up, you can get away with pretty much anything.

The thing that gives away these artists is that they don't actually believe what they're saying. They find it hard to hold your gaze for an extended period of time. The mask that they screw their face into feels unnatural and is hard to maintain.

For example, if they're smiling, it's likely that just their mouth will be smiling and not the rest of their face. Their gestures and timing will be a little bit off. Over time, they'll start checking in to see if you're buying it.

In this case, the best solution remains asking "Is that true?" or perhaps a slight variant, "Do you really believe that?"

The confident bullshitter will not likely be deterred by these questions, initially. However, she'll also find it difficult to maintain the facade of confidence, slowly revealing the signs of an inept.
Hey, Is that Elvis?
A commonly employed technique of even inexperienced bullshitters is distraction with things that are irrelevant. In high school, I really, really, really hated math class. Each day I would walk out of Mr. Reedy's class feeling even further behind than the day before.

Over time, I noticed through his comments that Mr. Reedy loved handball and loved to complain about his wife. So, on days when I believed that I simply couldn't take another hour of falling behind I would start the class by asking Mr. Reedy a question about handball or his wife. It would easily chew up half the class.

Given that most of us have a difficult time staying on track, the distraction technique can be quite effective. Still you can address it by knowing what you're talking about (by what, I refer to the topic, not the subject matter), recognizing the attempt at distraction, and then simply asking, "what does that half to do with thus and such?"

Playing to Doubts
Some great bullshitters use the technique of positing. Let's say that you're in a meeting trying to make a decision. As you approach a conclusion, the bullshitter (either having failed to make any contribution to the discussion or not liking where the discussion is going) will posit, "Hey, have we considered thus and such? Even though we believe that we've come to the right conclusion, we don't know it's right. It could still be thus and such!"

What makes this technique so insidious is two-fold:
  1. There's no lie in the statement. The statement that some other course of action could possibly be correct is absolutely true.
  2. The posit plays to the fears and doubts of the decision maker.
This technique is typically employed at times when decisions are being made. They can be corporate decisions, team meeting decisions, personal life-choice decisions. The posit-er may come in the form of a team member, a friend, a family member. The posit-er's goal is typically to delay or divert.

When you recognize that someone is using the posit technique, there are several reasonable counter measures.

You can say, "Sure, thus and such is a possibility, but then, so are this and that. Why did you bring up thus and such? And why now?"

Alternatively, you can say, "Sure, thus and such is a possibility, but so unlikely as to not be relevant."

Or, perhaps best of all, "Do you really believe that thus and such is going to happen?"

The Best Liars are the Sincere Ones
The most difficult bullshitter to recognize and deal with combines all the above techniques with an overwhelmingly powerful catalyst, sincerity. In the moment he's saying what he saying, the bullshitter absolutely convinces himself that it's true. All the gestures are there. There are no telltale signs of eye movement. There's no hesitation.

These bullshitters often go on to become powerful politicians or prominent religious leaders or great lovers. They're the players. Over time, a player tends to lose touch with who she or he really is. They morph from situation to situation, relationship to relationship, adapting and sincerely playing the part.

The easiest way to identify this type of bullshitter is to bring their worlds together. For example, bringing people from work home to dinner, or bringing family members from home to work. Most players will vehemently resist having their worlds collide (a key indicator). If the worlds do come together, it can be an amazing show.

Alternatively, you can simply watch over time to see consistency in statements and beliefs.

If you find yourself in the company of a player, again, the easiest approach is simply to ask, "Do you really believe that?" Sometimes that simplicity and the directness of the question can have an immediately sobering effect.

Alternatively, you can ask questions like, "Why did you say that?" or, if they're referring to someone not present, "Hey, let's call so and so on the phone right now and check it out!"

A Bullshit Free Life

In the end, we only have bullshit in our lives because we allow it there. Even if your life is full to the brim, it's easy to completely eradicate it of bullshit.
  1. Decide that you want a bullshit free life
  2. Learn to recognize bullshit (it's easier than you think, and you probably already can do it)
  3. When you see it, call it (just ask, "Do you really believe that?")
You'll be amazed at how quickly either a) the bullshitter stops bullshitting, or b) the bullshitter stops inviting you to dinner.

What kind of weekend will you have?


  1. Hmmm... vairy interesteeng, Teflon. This post read in the beginning like a tongue-in-cheek article, but given the amount of detail you provided later, I finally figured you were serious.

    One omission, in my opinion (considering that you're customarily very thorough): there is no definition of the term 'bullshitting'.

  2. Well you see Sree, I would have defined it, but umm... err.. (glancing to the left), Iris interrupted me just as I was going to...


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