Guest post by Zsolt Mohacsi.
Il mare agitato
How to communicate more authentically?
In short, the answer is: by being more authentic.
Being authentic means following the maxim “know thyself”, as ancient Greeks advised. It means being aware of one’s true identity and appropriate style elements. If someone strives to be authentic, one needs to make choices based on these factors and actively say yes or no in all facets of life, including business. We tend to forget that business is not life, but at most a mediocre stratum of earthly activities.
From a modern business perspective, authenticity seems to be a limiting factor. Firstly, as an organisation grows, it tends to gradually become more and more mechanical. What does it mean? As Laszlo Kovari has pointed out in his book Critical Thinking?, most companies operate like a machine. Instead of being a context for people to realise their potentials, they squeeze people into artificial roles and a web of expectations that are in fact a strangling bed of Procrustes for anyone striving for authenticity, or in other words, being oneself. While a small business might represent the true identity and style of its owner to some degree, a large corporation represents nothing. Even small companies (especially start-ups) attaching themselves to the grand machinery of their industry become eerily mechanical. Of course, brand advisors tell us otherwise, but the fake personality attached to legal persons is only an illusion to make us spend more money.
Secondly, as long as the primary goal of an organisation is to optimise KPIs, all activities of the company, including declarations of values or corporate communications, will serve this specific goal. Consequently, communication ceases to be communication in its true meaning, as its primary goal is not to deliver meaning (information) from A to B anymore, but to achieve a desired behaviour of B – in fact, to manipulate B, so A can cash in. We can sugar-coat it as much as we want, but corporate communication today is propaganda. This is why we might raise our eyebrows when large oil companies talk about sustainability or banks boast their alleged altruism, and so on.
Necessarily, any communication, especially in the business domain, is to some unavoidable degree, bullshit. In short, bullshit is a message that disregards truth (see Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit). As a result, bullshit is not necessarily lying, but can be a superficial, meaningless blabbering that seems to make sense. Alternatively, it can be pure schmoozing to the degree that not only the bullshitted, but also the bullshitter starts to believe in it. Unfortunately, de-bullshitting business communication is hindered by the fact that bullshit not only manifests itself in the way an individual or a company communicates, but also in the very being of actual roles, as David Graeber has pointed out in his book Bullshit Jobs. We can even argue that not only jobs, but entire departments, business models, even industries are bullshit. For such businesses, the only authentic statement would be: we are just here for the money, and if we lived according to the values that we claim to be ours, we would penitently close or decide to fundamentally transform our business (which equals to making a landmine factory fabricate medical equipment for children).
Our argument, of course, seems to be nonsense from the economic perspective, which states that any need or desire deserves to be fulfilled, unless it breaks the law. Potential needs and desires are limitless; as there’s always another flavour to try or another game to play. Hence, the industry needs only to make sure these needs and desires are created in the first place. Postmodernity is built on the constant chasing of the next unmanifested desire. Almost nobody stops for a moment to ask: why all needs or desires are to be fulfilled? And one might find that the answer is two-fold: to escape from oneself, while others can earn on one’s self-avoidance. It seems we are in a collective frenzy of self-escape, turning away from our own authentic self.
The landscape is dominated by loud-mouthed players, who happily splash in bullshit. We know the roaring pseudo-lion, wearing an impeccable suit, who cherishes production above all else, and tacitly despises but also fears thinkers. Such people have no identity in the true sense, so they would cease to exist shall their fake splendour would suddenly dissipate. Naturally, if someone sticks with authenticity in a mechanical role or environment, one will quickly become a “foreign body”. And as we know, foreign bodies are ejected from an organism. Hence, in today’s business environment most of us are trapped in the status quo of bullshit, with mutual, multiparty consent, while being taken hostage by our own anxiety. I believe the majority either tacitly accepts bullshit or has become so numb that is not capable of recognizing it anymore. The existential fear of getting fired, losing “reputation” or being ostracised from the business community weighs on each individual to the extent that dissenting voices are self-censored. And we have to admit: the individual is fragile. Yet, there is a silent but growing bullshit-apathy in the business community, as even seasoned managers of large companies willingly admit in private discussions, after the second beer, how much they are fed up with the system. Their hair is slowly turning grey, their life is withering away like dry autumn leaves, and their only consolation is that they are insured for a private bedroom in the hospital. Their words are someone else’s; and is not here to stay.
Bullshit is circular: bullshit feeds more bullshit. Clients – who often do not know better – hire mechanised bullshit factories (brand agencies) to spread their “word”. As these campaigns are usually successful if enough financial firepower is put behind them, the results justify the methods. As a result, more companies and people follow suit. Like any Ponzi scheme, the ever-greater Potamkin-edifice is doomed to collapse under its own weight, sooner or later. The Achilles heel is embedded in its raison d’être: the disregard of truth. Just pull the money-plug, and you will see what remains of the achievements of great “leaders” of our times: people will scatter to the four winds. As it turns out, most of the “leaders” are not even managers, rather mere proconsuls of our KPI-maniac Zeitgeist – devoid of character, they can only blabber or shout one thing: perform!
The authentic basis: myself
Despite the grave context, positive change is always possible. The only questionable element is the magnitude of attainable change. Following the principle of focussing on what one can influence, the starting point is always myself, or: my own self. Business people should ask themselves: what would happen, if I finally re-possessed my own mouth, and would start saying things that belong to me, things that I truly believe in? What would happen, if the man who I force to wake up at 7 AM and make him walk to work every day, flinging a crocodile-skin suitcase, would suddenly go in the direction he truly desires to? What if he finally said the fuck you or au revoir (word choice strictly depending on personal style elements) he has dreamed about for endless nights to his boss?
Breaking out of vicious circular bullshit, of our own bullshit life, requires an authentic and uncompromising stance; one that comes with conviction and courage. It requires shattering one’s own lies, first and foremost – which coincides with the internalised collective lie – without mercy. Such a stance is inevitably heroic; but, in contrast with today’s view of heroism that reduces its meaning to show-off and sentimentalism, there is no wall of cheerleaders encouraging the lonely wanderer. One’s payment, in the short run, is solitude, torment, self-doubt, fear. The path is lonely. Of course, given that our entire economic and social system is built around the maintenance of a collective lie of appearance, success, and career, one has to tread carefully. As the individual is almost powerless, smart compromises are necessary. Despising a life optimised for bill-paying does not mean neglecting material obligations. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But nothing more.
In the end, if one submits to bullshit – meaning that one identifies with it and believes in it – in the truest sense of the word, one ceases to be. He will not only have a bullshit job, but will become a bullshit person – a flake, who appears but does not really exist. He might earn a lot of money, but the uncomfortable question will linger on: who really earned that money? Anything that such a person does or says is worthless. Even the biggest player, with the loudest mouth and the shiniest smile will once look in the mirror, for a millisecond only, and will see a dead man in it. László Krasznahorkai said once in an interview, that every man has at least one moment in the day – say, when he sits half naked on the side of his bed at night before going to sleep – when he suddenly becomes aware of his miserable state. Let this person be the CEO of a banking conglomerate. He will know. And this millisecond will haunt him for the days and years to come, until the moment of settling the final accounts arrives. This moment almost surely comes; while our entire society is built on its constant negation and our industries furnish the tools of forgetfulness to alleviate the pain caused by the former. Interestingly, negating my own demise comes hand in hand with the negation of my own self. This self-negation is currently happening on a global scale, affecting everyone, at an accelerating pace and with increasing gravity. An authentic person, in such an environment, inevitably seems to go against the current, even by simply holding his position and refusing to concede further pieces of his identity. The same is true for businesses: in today’s context, authenticity has an ever-increasing price to pay.
Organising underground fights and blowing up skyscrapers, like Tyler Durden did in Fight Club, leads nowhere. The true fight is a fight within myself, with my own ego: to face my own reality, with my inner and outer possibilities and limitations, and who I truly aspire to become. And I must face the question our entire society is built to avoid: death. It seems to be paradoxical at first sight, but by asking the fundamental and ultimate questions, the sense of my own life can slowly dawn unto me.
I need no psychologist for that, especially not another personality test – those only serve to make a couple of million bucks for another swindler, who never dared to grab life by the hair and look her deeply in the eyes. If one can stand the gaze of the Nietzschean abyss when it looks back onto him, can at least call himself a man.
The rest of the cowards can shake hands with the psychologists and sit in the box offered by them. It’s a comfy one, isn’t it? Lovely, how lovely it is indeed…
Of course, any communication to some degree is prone to compromise on truth or be imperfect in style. In the manifest world, no one or no thing is perfect. I open my mouth, and I am already uttering falsities. I make a clumsy move, and I already feel like an imbecile. However, from our perspective what matters is the constant aspiration to perfection, the genuine and firm intent to be as authentic and truthful as possible, and to remain faithful to one’s own ideal. Meaningful change starts within; communication only follows. I need to recognise who I am first; then make a decision to live according to this understanding and take the risks that inevitably follow. If I am an entrepreneur, I might have captured a vision that I would like to realise, unlike those whose real “why” is to become a millionaire and pose next to a huge vehicle on social media.
Once I recognise my ideal self and decide to do my best to become as much as possible like that ideal, I open the way to my own authentic life. Similarly, companies can strive to be “authentic” – according to the principle of organicity laid out by the Authentic Organization – by not setting maximising profits as their primary objective, but the creation of a context, in which coworkers can fulfil their potentials. They choose their clients and employees, and do not try to squeeze people in their abstractions like job descriptions. If a company can willingly subject its own profit-orientation to values, authentic communication arises from this fact automatically. Authentic people and organisations communicate authentically, it is simple as that.
An authentic business is purely an “extension”, a context created by its owners for themselves. They might inadvertently bullshit a bit here and there, in accordance with the de facto meaninglessness of contemporary life, but their aspiration to convey meaning remains genuine. Unless they are on the brink of collapse (or perhaps not even then), authentic people say no to certain collaborators. For them, million nos carve the shape of a single yes. The opportunist of our age says: “money is money”, and gaily takes the assignment flinging the thickest envelope, priding himself in “feeding his employees”. Not only that: he actively seeks out the highest bidder in all circumstances, regardless of any qualitative criteria. The task of authentic businesspeople is to find other people in an undifferentiated mass, with whom they would like to do business with. It is fine to take target audiences into consideration, but as a conscious act of choice, not as a slavish following of greed. For the opportunist of our age, the only answer to greet life with is an enormous yes; until one day life itself will turn its face to him.
On choice of words
Buzzwords might help attract attention in the short run; however, if one signs up to be the advocate of the latest trend, one signs up to be a nobody. The trend of the day perhaps was a genuine idea of someone not following trends in the first place. The danger of buzzwords is a separation from meaning. Shallowness directly stems from the mechanical nature of business: where truth is not the first criteria, it will not stop its fall at the second place – it will eventually become the last thing anyone cares about.. Unfortunately, business communication today is laden with a jargon of inflated meaning. Words like “innovation” make yawn or shiver every person who is not completely dead inside. Every new start-up claims to be part of an “emerging ecosystem”, every tech firm promises “disruption”, every multinational corporation is so keen to promote “integrity” – not to mention “changing the world”. I can only suggest companies to gently leave the world alone. Compared to that, simply stating what a company does is a superior achievement.
Business language – even the term itself – is flat and stale. In contrast, children can invent surprisingly accurate, yet novel words to describe feelings or concepts adults indoctrinated by standardised higher education are not even aware of. The great Italian poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio has crafted countless words that are used in his mother tongue up to this day. Owning the right words indicates an active stance towards possessing reality: they express the intent to shape reality, not to be shaped by it. However, most business communicators either repeat what is said to be “cool” by the ephemeral majority of the day, and are snatching at keywords like a cat tries to catch a moth, or ruminate on expressions that were already expired at the day of the first ingestion. And the few brave ones, who try to play with words, end up producing clumsy or outright barbarous constructs – mostly because to be funny or witty, one needs to have a soul. But the worst of them takes ancient expressions, mangles them, and serves them on a plate for the masses to ingurgitate.
Some principles to heed
How does an authentic person talk? An authentic person strives for virtue, anything he does or says reflects this effort. The more self-realised one is, the more virtuous one is. Consequently, communication will reflect his effort to follow virtues and to avoid vices. When it comes to virtue, there is nothing new under the sun that the ancients have not already told.
I love him who scatters golden words in advance of his deeds, and always does more than he promises: for he seeks his own down-going – wrote Nietzsche, describing an attitude antagonistic to today’s dominant approach to life. Not keeping one’s word was almost unimaginable even a hundred years ago, and today – and the writer of these lines is aware of his enormous debt in this regard – it seems that the word promise lost its original meaning, and exchanged it for “wish” or “whim”. Authenticity always had a price – often even life itself. Seneca mentions Roman general Regulus in his Letters, praising that he kept his word to go back to Carthage, even though it meant his death by torture. And today we often struggle to keep a 5’o clock tea appointment.
Saying more than necessary has been considered a sin across traditions; while today loquaciousness seems to be the standard disposition. While a virtuous person is taciturn by default, today people feel the urge to fill silence with noise. If there is no one to talk to, they turn the music on; if they hear silence, they fill it with as many words possible. In an individualised society, relationships en masse become mostly transactional (as David Graeber described it in his book Debt); while the counterparty remains interchangeable.
Hence, accountability for words and deeds dissipates; especially because now we seek mostly not only external confirmation, but also a lack of external reprisals. If we can avoid the latter, it seems we can do and say anything we want, as long as it conforms with others’ expectations. What would stop us, if we mastered the game? Sociopaths, crescite et multiplicamini! “Nothing unnecessary” is a practice to follow even in word choice; or, from another perspective, finding the right measure (est modus in rebus) in communication. We forgot: the utmost reason to say anything is to inform, never to convince. Most of the time, one should not utter a single word.
A Hungarian poet, Dezső Kosztolányi resented the appearance of the word fantasztikus (fantastic) at the beginning of the 20th century, pointing out that it is “bombastic” and “etymologically degenerate”. It became a “filler” word, devoid of meaning. Naturally, a word can have multiple meanings, depending on its context; however, such expressions rather conceal one’s intellectual inertia. One suffering from this condition is not aware of what it is that one wishes to express, so like a macaco taken by an unconscious urge, grabs the tool closest to him, let it be a brick, to quickly hammer a nail in the wall or just to throw it at his counterpart.
We often choose exaggerated adjectives to describe ordinary, everyday situations and feelings: we “love” or “go crazy” for a new pair of sneakers, or find a simple meal “magnificent”. Although ornamental, poetic exaggeration of trivia can be a valid style element for some, if it stems from an authentic quality (like Sicilians), the bullshit bombasts of business stem from the lack of the latter. Thus, here comes the tide of interchangeable words of interchangeable people, with the vast coterie of fashionable buzzwords. Also, how many occasions to speak are truly necessary? Most meetings are useless, especially in a bureaucratic or business setting. It is better to take a nap or read a poem instead.
To approach the same question from a higher angle: most situations in life are unnecessary. One also needs to carefully examine the reasons for having spoken or done something at all. Being taciturn or still per se does not make one authentic, as both can still be signs of dementia.
I have spoken.
Image: Piero Manzoni: Artist’s Shit (Merda d’artista), 1961