Bullshitting: Is it a shame or a superpower?

Privileged North American males are bigger bullshitters than other Anglophone groups around the world. Why do we reward and encourage them?

Photo by Mark Vegas on Flickr

Last week, I was reminded of the “bullshit” phenomenon at work. The new CEO called a meeting, in order to meet all of us. He introduced himself and asked if we had any questions. Dozens of responsible, hard-working employees smiled up mutely at him from behind their masks. After an awkward moment of silence, a couple of employees piped up. Both of them could only be described, even by the most charitable onlooker, as lazy complainers. One fabulously slothful young man even took it upon himself to thank the CEO, on behalf of all of us, for coming to the meeting. The CEO walked away remembering the “bullshitter’s” names. When we get put forward for promotions, who do you think is going to have the better chance? The shy, smiling “worker-bees” or the hyper-confident slackers? Can we succeed through modesty and hard-work? Or do we have to promote ourselves with overconfident “bullshit?”

Privileged North American males are the biggest bullshitters

Thanks to a great article by Nicholas Kristoff, in the New York Times, I have started to realize that bullshitting isn’t a minor annoyance. It may actually be an essential precondition for success and prestige in our society. Kristoff referred to a fascinating study by John Jerrim, Phil Parker and Nikki Shure called Bullshitters: Who Are They and What Do We Know About Their Lives?. The study survey was done in conjunction with the famous PISA test. The PISA, if you haven’t heard of it, is used to rank the academic success of 88 OECD nations. Jerrim, Parker & Shure surveyed 62,929 teenaged PISA participants in nine Anglophone countries in regards to their self-perceived competence in answering certain Math problems. Students were asked to rate their ability in Math skills that included fake skills like “declarative fractions” and “proper numbers.” The “bullshitters” declared themselves highly competent in all skills, even ones that don’t exist. The tendency to bullshit was analyzed according to nationality, socio-economic level and reported gender. You may or may not be surprised to hear that economically privileged North American males were far more likely to bullshit about their prowess than any other group.

Is confidence more important than talent?

It dawned on me decades ago, in Grade 12, that confidence may be more valuable than talent. I was chosen, despite my indifferent ability (did I bullshit my way in?), for the regional Physics Olympics. My partner Glen was “the golden boy” of our grad class and was earmarked for admission to the competitive UBC Engineering program. Despite Glen’s legendary brain power our Grade 12 project was a disaster and came in dead last. Our Grade 11 teammates earned a respectable 3rd place for their (totally separate) project. Despite the fact that Glen and I lost, we were given 3rd place medals on account of the Grade 11’s achievement. I felt deeply embarrassed and apologized to the Grade 11s.

My partner Glen, on the other hand, was proud of the 3rd place medal and added this as a “win” to his scholarship applications. I called him out on his deceit and he shamelessly replied that he had given the Grade 11s some “advice,” and so deserved to share in the prize. In case you’re wondering, he went on to Engineering with full financial support from his parents while I waitered my way through a Humanities degree. Both of us were equally lacking in Engineering talent, but Glen had the superpower ability to unabashedly bullshit. Was it a gender thing? Was it a privilege thing? Was it a confidence thing?

Bullshit is a superpower

You would think that overconfident bullshitting would eventually lead to disgrace, but the “bullshit” mindset seems to be a superpower that liberates the “bullshitter” from feelings of shame. It’s one thing for a corporate pawn to shmooze his way into a nicer cubicle, but what if “bullshitting” is the currency in which we trade for university entrance, academic awards or high-stakes leadership positions? The American election of 2016 proved to us that ill-informed blustering actually can and will “trump” talented contenders with superior qualifications even at the highest levels of world leadership, never mind at my insignificant level. Clearly Glen wasn’t any more talented at Physics than I was despite his glowing reputation. He was, however, far better at tuning out shame and strategically accepting credit in ways that would be noticed by the people who make decisions.

Do we unintentionally bullshit by virtue of who we are?

Before I get carried away criticizing North American men, I am going to have to make my own confession. I admit it. I have bullshitted a lot in my 50 years of life. I am guilty of overconfident assertions of ability and talent. We live in a world where we “polish” our résumés, “fake it till we make it,” and “smile like we mean it” even when we don’t. Most of us have also been tripped up and pushed back numerous times by superior bullshitters. It is too easy for me to point a finger at bullshitters of the privileged male variety. I am also guilty of the same sin, and I have certainly bullshitted ahead of other, more deserving people in my time.

Race and globalization add a whole extra level of unfairness. While teaching in Egypt and China I was horrified to find that my local colleagues, who had the same qualifications and workload that I did, were making a fraction of my salary. Because I am a caucasian from a western country and “looked good” to the parents/customers, my work was valued at a much higher salary. The fact that I didn’t protest or walk out after learning that fact made me just as guilty of bullshitting as Glen or one of my lazy co-workers.

I have been in the job market now for 33 years, I worked with many people who shamelessly took credit for work they didn’t do and were promoted and awarded for skills they didn’t have. It would be easy to feel angry and bitter, but I have also bullshitted my way ahead of other more deserving people, either intentionally or by accident of my position of privilege.

The power of “bullshit” leaves me with a “chicken-egg” debate in my head. Does bullshit create us or do we create bullshit? Which comes first? Are we groomed to be bullshitters? Do our families and societies instill overconfidence and shamelessness in us from day one? Are our chances of success greater when we are able to benefit from blocking out rules of fair play and decency? Privileged North American teens generally go on to be privileged North American adults who expect first dibs on opportunities, promotions and social status. Is it because we expect it, and because Western culture celebrates and encourages “bullshitting,” that we often get what we want and feel perfectly entitled?

Sources

Jerrim, J., Parker, P., & Shure, N. (2019). Bullshitters: Who Are They and What Do We Know About Them? IZA Institute of Labor Economics, IZA DP №12282(April, 2019). Retrieved April 3, 2021, from http://ftp.iza.org/dp12282.pdf

Kristof, N. (2021, March 04). How to reach people who are wrong. Retrieved April 03, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/opinion/progressives-conservatives-think-again.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Pisa — Program for International Student Assessment. (n.d.). Retrieved April 03, 2021, from https://www.oecd.org/pisa/

Feminist writer, traveler, teacher & runner. I have a B.A., B.Ed. & M.A. and decided, for my 50th birthday, to finally write for fun.

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