Bullshitting: Speaking Politically

by Perette Barella

The question of where informative speach ends and political speach begins came up recently in one of my social groups as we're electing officers for the next year. Candidates were asked to list some of the things they achieved over the past year to help us judge them. One of the candidates didn't like this, feeling it required him to start campaigning and made him feel like a politician.

I wanted him to answer to help cue my memory, but I also recognized his feeling because junk mail I get from Senator Jim Alesi talks about the great things he's doing as he runs New York into the ground. It bothers me when politicians tell me what they've done, because often I see through it; I spot lies, omissions, deceptions or at minimum I'm skeptical about their pronoucements of long-term effects or how great an effect something will have. I don't like attempts to manipulate me, and it's what it feels like they're doing.

But I recognize that there's a difference between that and describing achievements and skills "job interview" style—a politician is trying to sell his work and himself, whereas an applicant can simply list qualifications (and yes, I realize that the bad economy is making everyone participate politician style as time goes by—I'll come back to this).

A Sample

Over the last few years as my writing skills have improved I've learned it's as much what you say as how you say it. Using myself as an example, for the social group in question I could say of my involvement over the last year:1 

  • I was lead on the newsletter and the web site (with help from Lando and Delenn), including writing event descriptions, posting the calendar,  updating prices and policies, researching and writing articles, etc.
  • I created the fashion show and auction web sites, and a database to maintain auction data so Sheila and I could coordinate as she received items.
  • I installed a curtain in the women's room so we have a third stall
  • I started game night and ran it along with Sheridan.

This would be a fair description, "job interview" style. But if I was a politician or otherwise competing and wanted to talk up my achievements, I could say:

This year, I was point woman on the web site and newsletter, two key promotional venues for RKS.  By providing interesting articles and up-to-date news my efforts were key in growing membership by 37 members, allowing us to cut dues for our members during these hard economic times.  My February article on RKS history educated members about the group's past so that they have a comprehensive understanding of what it is to be a part of RKS.

I also created a web site for the auction, a key fundraiser for RKS that brought in nearly $7,000.  Through activities like this, I will ensure RKS' continued fiscal responsibility.  I also created a web site for the fashion show, a fun event that's important in community building, the basis of our organization.  Together with fellow board members, I intend to continue promoting a strong sense of community and responsible money management to ensure RKS' viability for years to come.

This year, I created game night to help bring our members together more often.  This is yet another example of my efforts to create community first-hand.  It's a great opportunity to kick back and have some fun with your friends at RKS, and if you haven't been yet, please come check it out.  It's really a fantastic evening.

I've also been involved in space maintenance, including improvements to the women's room to give members more privacy, and along with Kelly and others I've ensured we have a clean and hygienic kitchen for our parties.

Deconstruction

First, to document the actual conversion process:

  1. First, I actively took credit for doing stuff. Instead of "lead" on the newsletter, I'm "point woman," and I avoid watering that down by not mentioning others' contributions. Even if I don't explicitly state it, I want to make it seem like I did all the work.
  2. In addition to stating my contributions, I talk up the importance of the projects to which I contributed. It's a form of ignoratio elenchi—while I did contribute to the event, I'm using the event's importance and success to artificially enlarge the sense of my contribution. Combined with neglecting the rest of the team's contributions (which I can get away with, because I'm talking about me), it makes me sound indispensable.
  3. On the kitchen, I mention Kelly because I'm borrowing her image. She does a lot of work and people see her doing it—but now I've invoked her work as something I've helped with. Taking out the trash one or twice shouldn't be worth mentioning, but instead I've stolen some of Kelly's credit for myself.
  4. I made up growth of 37 and auction income of $7,000. They are probably inflated, but it is unlikely anybody is going to look them up because I sound so factual. If they do, I can state that I used a different membership growth period, or that I used a 15 month period— which is, after all, only a bit more than a year, so practically a year. I could say I used gross instead of net income, say I was using estimated rather than final figures, assert that $5,375 (another made-up number) is almost $7,000 (It's only ⅓ off). If all else fails, I could brush it off as a mistake in my estimation.
  5. I similarly spin the fashion show and its morale aspect.
  6. Game night is really no big deal. I let people in and we play board games; it's a nice social opportunity but nothing world-changing. So I talk it up as an important community event and describe it as "fantastic". Since I'm talking about the event, not me, it slides by people's bullshit detectors but I get an associative boost from it.
I do this all the time for my web clients' products. I avoid learning too much about them so that I can work with clients' belief in the superiority of their own products or services, because I can't bring myself to write something that's outright false. And so I've learned the language of dodgy marketing speak so I can live with myself at the end of the day.

But when it comes to me, it's different.

Bleeding into my life

Several months ago I went to some job hunting skills workshops at RochesterWorks.2  The big thing now is "selling yourself"—talking up achievements and skills as I've done here. But I'm bothered by the need to spin, and this recent discussion has brought clarity to my concerns.

Even if everything I stated is factually "true", it's far from forthright and definitely deceptive, and I am not comfortable deliberately misrepresenting myself. In part this is because I don't like having my "bullshit" and "I'm being manipulated" detectors set off, and even though I can apparently write copy that will slide by others' weaker analyses, I'm aware of the lie I would commit. But a bigger concern is cheapness I feel in playing this game.

If I am forced to resort to spin, what does that say for the skills, achievements, and efforts I've put in? If these do not speak for themselves, if they are not sufficient, then it follows that my skills are lacking, my achievements deficient, and my efforts worthless. To me, it seems that if I must stoop to playing the game, it's because the real truth doesn't speak well of me—and that prospect makes me feel terrible. To go along is to launch a frontal assault on my self-confidence, and fracture my sense of honor by deliberately distorting my presentation of myself.

Unfortunately, it's a right minus wrong game: although I don't know where or when it started, its use (and probable effectiveness) has encouraged more people to play. And now, it seems like skills and achievements are becoming less important that the ability to play them up into seeming much larger than they actually are. The ubiquitousness of spin is clear given that it's now established procedure, taught by the New York Department of Labor as The Way to land a job. And whether or not I like it, that's impetus for me to play.

But can I really do so with my self-confidence, my self-image at stake? It seems inconceivable that I could ever do well in an interview without a belief in myself intact. If I go along, I destroy my morale by violating principles I hold dear; if I don't go along, I have low morale because I it's hard to imagine winning when the other side has the advantage of a different set of rules.

So far, my reaction is to not play, to not compete at all. It avoids both the pain of dishonesty and the frustration of taking part in a competition that seems unwinnable because it is rigged. But with avoiding the problem is coming stagnation—I want to do something, but in a way that fairness, honesty, and ethics are respected instead of compromised. So far, I haven't figured out how to achieve that.

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