[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Micah Baldwin wants you to break the bullshit curse

Forgive me if this post is a bit pedantic, but it’s not clear to me that Micah has identified precisely where the aforementioned bullshit is housed or how much of it there is. Of course, his general advice against bullshitting yourself and others is sound. But that in itself is not terribly instructive. And some of the situations that presumably gave rise to Micah’s post aren’t actually the kind of thing I’m guessing he would identify as bullshit upon further reflection.

The post starts out:

How are you?

In your head, how did you respond? Did you automatically blurt out “fine”?

My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Carter, once told me that answering the question “How are you?” with anything other than “I’m fine” was a waste of breath.

People don’t really care how you are.

It’s the same with honesty. People don’t want honesty.

Not to get all liberal arts here, but humans are complicated. One of the things that separates us from the blue-green algae, other than the extreme delight we take in captioned pictures of misbehaving cats, is our complex language. And Micah’s lead-in here is an example of one of those manifestations of linguistic nuance that cranky people adduce as evidence of rudeness or selfishness but which are actually just people being people. We make some noises with our mouths and they may sound like other noises, but there are all sorts of other cues we use to figure out whether someone is asking how we are or whether they are essentially saying “Hello.”

The latter use is what is known as “phatic.” Wikipedia, as always, has the authoritative example:

Similarly, the question “how are you?” is usually an automatic component of a social encounter. Although there are times when “how are you?” is asked in a sincere, concerned manner and does in fact anticipate a detailed response regarding the respondent’s present state, this needs to be pragmatically inferred from context and intonation.

So, no, the fact that you say how are you and someone says they’re fine is not sufficient evidence of a bullshit artist at work. Likewise if you ask somebody about their startup and they say “we’re killing it.” Now, that is a dumb thing to say because it has become a meaningless cliche in the startup world. You should probably maim that person. But if you are an investor in or advisor to that startup and that is the beginning and end of their response to your inquiry about how they’re doing, then that startup’s problem is not bullshit but simple interpersonal communication. And that might cause you to second-guess your investment in those people.

I guess if you’re a real hardliner about maximizing every breath you take on this planet, then you may have issues with the entire enterprise of phatic communication. But that strikes me as a different point altogether and also a battle not worth fighting. Don’t be that person who spends their life trying to convince people that we should say we drive on a driveway and park on a parkway.

The post continues:

“How’s it going with your company?”

“We’re killing it.”

Shut up.

I’ve taken to answering that question with “It’s interesting.”

Blank stares and fear that I am eliciting a response flow over faces.

“It’s interesting” is a more honest answer, I guess. But if that person’s intention was not to get into a long conversation—or any conversation—about the health of your company, then that may come across as needlessly aggressive or weird, especially if there’s no elaboration. This kind of communication may look like a question, but it is often our way of marking the beginning of an interaction by eliciting a short and mostly meaningless response. A way of establishing that the other person is listening to you and not still trying to commit to memory the lyrics of Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The more important point is that the people asking this question are not necessarily being insincere. Their blank stares are likely not because they don’t care about you or your company. People who want to have an actual, in-depth conversation will usually, if they’re at all proficient in the interpersonal arts, communicate as much to you.

Micah goes on to suggest that these kinds of answers (“We’re killing it!”) reflect self-deception, and that this contagion of bullshit goes on to infect a person’s relationships. Relationships with friends, family, investors and others who deserve more than a phatic “How are you?”

He ends the post with a call to action:

I challenge you to take a day and care. I dare you to listen actively and when you ask someone “How are you,” that you demand a deeply truthful answer.

When your employees, investors and friends ask about your business that you tell them truthfully whats going well, and areas you need help. It’s amazing. People, especially friends, by default, want to be helpful. It’s a gift to provide them the ability to participate in your happiness.

I think Micah’s right that people often preach but actually abhor honesty. Most people are afraid of being exposed as a fraud. That their companies are houses of cards, that they are less smart or fearless or whatever than they’d like other people to believe. And many of us will engage in pathological amounts of self-deception in order to avoid confronting even the notion that we might be less than we portray ourselves to be.

All of this is a problem in the startup world as well. Because it’s inhabited by humans. And Micah’s right to call attention to the need for honesty and sincerity and a willingness to listen to one’s friends and peers. But if his diagnosis of the problem is correct, and I suspect it is, the symptoms are not to be located in these routine moments of small talk but in the unwillingness to follow that up, at some point, with real substance.