Honing your BS Detector

Papa Hemingway once said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.  This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”  It doesn’t matter if you are a great writer, a hack writer, or have never written so much as an email, that shit detector is one of your most valuable tools.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on reading body language, facial micro-expressions or detecting changes in breathing or skin temperature from across the room, but there are a few sure signs that the person with whom you are conversing is completely full of shit.

1) Non-committal answers

No one likes a soft response.  And most people give them when they have nothing else to say.  But answering a question without saying anything is a skill that all good bullshitters will deploy without thinking twice.  Professional athletes are the best at this.  Listen to any interview Ozzie Smith ever gave during his playing days.  You’ll hear phrases like “one game at a time” and “try my best to help the team.”  He worked really hard to say nothing.  There’s a reason for it.

2) Long, meandering response to a simple question

We’ve all had to tap dance around a topic, and try really hard not to say what we were thinking.  Once you’ve done it, you can tell when your conversation partner is doing it, too.  And just like you, they are doing it to avoid saying something they either can’t say or just don’t want you to hear.

3) Answering a question other than the one you asked

Ever asked one question, only to get a wealth of knowledge about an unrelated item?  You may get plenty of information, though you may not care about any of it.  But with this “accuracy by volume” approach to conversation, the true bullshitter often gets away with saying nothing by saying a lot.

4) A straightforward answer, followed by a hedge

This is the most frustrating of the bunch, I think.  You’ll get an answer, think you’ve made progress in your search for meaning, only to meet with a “at least, as far as I know.  But that could change.”  Then, once their bullshit is uncovered, they have the benefit of plausible deniability on their side.

 5) Really big, really technical terms

Anyone who litters their conversation with irrelevant jargon or prodigious verbosity can be  almost assuredly full of shit.  Or a Wharton graduate.  Or both.

 So, what can you do about it?

Nothing.  Mostly, anyway.  Sure, you can try to trap them in written communication, but there’s no reason to think they will be more forthcoming.  You can ask for clarification, but they aren’t likely to suddenly decide to give you the information they have so carefully suppressed.  More than likely, if you call them on using tactic #3, they will switch to tactic #5 and hope you don’t notice.

As an HR practitioner, of course, you’ll see more of this than most people.  More shit gets slung at HR than any other profession, on topics that range from why Dave missed work to Betty’s third grandmother dying this year(six in the last two years, if you are counting).  People managers are known to sling a little as well, of course (“I did all my performance reviews on time!  The computer must have lost them!”), as well as the occasional executive (“This is the last round of layoffs, for sure”) and candidate (“Counter offer?  No, I can’t see accepting a counter offer from my current company, even if they offer one.  It’s not about the money, I really want to work for your organization!”)

Your best defense is to hone your detector so you can tell when the bullshit is being flung in your direction, and then learn to duck.


  1. This is good shit.

Lean HR is using WP-Gravatar

%d bloggers like this: