Playing the Bullshit Game

Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations - André Spicer, 2020

Why is bullshit so common in some organizations? Existing explanations focus on the characteristics of bullshitters, the nature of the audience, and social structural factors which encourage bullshitting. In this paper, I offer an alternative explanation: bullshitting is a social practice that organizational members engage with to become part of a speech community, to get things done in that community, and to reinforce their identity. When the practice of bullshitting works, it can gradually expand from a small group to take over an entire organization and industry. When bullshitting backfires, previously sacred concepts can become seen as empty and misleading talk.

When Anna Weiner moved from a New York publisher to a Silicon Valley start-up, she was stunned by the way people spoke.

Weiner was stunned when ‘the influencer brought a scooter into the office and rolled about barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking: value prop, first moved advantage, proactive technology, paralellization. Leading edge-solutions. Holy grail’. ‘It was garbage language to my ears’, Weiner writes, ‘but the customers loved him. I couldn’t believe it worked’

Bullshit is a ‘discourse which is created, circulated and consumed with little respect for or relationship to reality’ (Spicer, 2013, p. 654). It is ‘crafted to wilfully mislead and to serve the bullshitter’s purposes’ (ibid; see also Christensen, Kärreman, & Rasche, 2019; Spicer, 2017; McCarthy, Hannah, Pitt, & McCarthy, 2020).

I will argue that bullshitting is triggered by a speech community with many conceptual entrepreneurs, significant amounts of noisy ignorance and permissive uncertainty. These conditions are likely to spark the language game of bullshitting.