Bullshit hiding in plain sight

I talk about the bullshit in what we read all the time. I’m so deep into it that I’m inured to the whole concept. But I had an experience yesterday that helped me recognize just how pervasive the problem of bullshit is.

Here’s the scene. I’m running a plain writing workshop for a group of employees who have to write in their jobs at a community organization in Manhattan. The location is a room in their main building, just off the lobby entrance on the ground floor. This meeting room is right in the thick of things — a small tributary branches off from the stream of people coming into the front lobby, with individuals regularly swooping through this meeting room to a public rest room on the far side. Because of the nature of the organization and what it offers to the community in the summer, the traffic includes a very diverse set of people, with ages ranging from about two to 95.

I am setting up my computer and PowerPoint and connecting it to a projector at the front of the room. Once I get it set up, my first slide is projected onto the screen.

As I’m sitting there, a casually dressed woman comes into the room trailed by two enthusiastic three-year-old girls in summer dresses. (It isn’t clear to me if she is their nanny or their mother.) As they go hurtling across the meeting room towards the ladies’ room, she glances up at the screen and smiles. “That’s really good,” she says.

About five minutes later, a very old woman with a walker enters and slowly makes her way towards the ladies’ room, accompanied by some kind of a caregiver. She glances up at the screen. “Writing without bullshit,” she says, not too loudly, but very clearly audible from where I’m sitting in the front of the room, by myself. I’m mortified. But it’s clear from her tone and her determined march across the room that this slide makes sense to her. She is not offended. It appears that to her, it fits perfectly in the context of Manhattan in 2018.

I switch the presentation to my second slide, which is blank, in hopes of not creating any incidents that might lead to conflict or lawsuits against my client for disturbing the peace and public profanity. Eventually, the employees arrive for the training, we put up a sign outside the door that says “Private Meeting in Progress,” and the parade of ordinary local residents ceases, for the most part.

But it strikes me that the reactions of these “civilians” reveal a lot of how we perceive the things we read all around us.

Neither of the local people who saw the slide reacted negatively to the profanity.

Neither wondered why you’d need a talk on “Writing Without Bullshit.”

These people — and I think, nearly everyone — recognizes that there is a high degree of bullshit in what they read. They get notices from their landlords, read posts on the Internet, watch pharmaceutical ads on TV, and receive emails from their banks. They wade through a waist-high torrent of bullshit every day. They navigate it fine, for the most part, but they know it’s there.

I recently read an account of a woman with five cats who had bought an odor-reducing spray, Febreze, but wasn’t using it. Market researchers from Febreze came to visit her and learn more about their product and how people use it. Her house was indeed stinky. Why didn’t she use the product?

Because she could no longer smell the cats. She had become desensitized to the smell.

It’s the same with all of us. We know the bullshit is there, but we don’t think about it. We assume it is just part of the environment. We assume there is no way to fix it.

But consider this, for a moment. For every impenetrable, misleading, rambling, poorly written piece of text we need to fight through, there is a writer. Someone wrote it. Bullshit does not just have victims — it has clear perpetrators as well.

They could do better, if they only cared.

What I tell writers to do every day here, and on every page of my book, is not shockingly new material. How to write better is not some arcane set of rules that only experts can understand. Everything I write about writing has been said before by others. It’s good advice, and I hope it is persuasively written, but it ought to be what we all do by common sense.

Everyone knows what bullshit is. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Old women with walkers, nannies, moms, businesspeople, teenagers, professional writers, and plain old regular people who have to read and write a few words to navigate their way through life.

Wake up. Don’t continue to be part of the problem. Resolve to stand out by being clearer and not wasting readers’ time.

For just an instant, I am going to fantasize that people will listen to this and the world will become a little less noisy. At that point, my work would be done.

Well, that fantasy didn’t last long. Back to the grindstone. Will you join me?

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  1. In a word, amen. I tell my students that the bar for effectively writing and speaking is so low that being even decent can distinguish them from their peers. There’s something refreshing and different about actually stating things clearly today.

  2. I haven’t given a single person a link to your blog (or actual book) who hasn’t come back and said “WHERE WAS THIS ALL MY LIFE”. Your description of the Febreze cat woman is spot on and I guess that means I’m the one telling people their house smells. 😀

  3. Hi Josh. I’m an elementary school teacher, and I read your blog daily. I love teaching, and I think it’s one of the most important jobs in the world. But like any other industry, bullshit pervades. “Authentic learning”, “21st century skills”, and of course, “data driven practices” taint our profession. Your words pertain to teachers too, and I wish more of us would keep up with you. Keep fighting the good fight.