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Cut the BS with Penelope Trunk

Cut the BS


Penelope Trunk

Business speak (BS) discriminates against women and people of color. That was the assertion that Penelope Trunk made during our visit. I was surprised by her thoughts -- not because they weren't true, but because I've simply never viewed BS that way. When I wrote this book, I thought of business speak as nothing more than a fun and quirky nuance of modern day workplaces. But Trunk challenged that thinking by pointing out that most of the terms defined in the book were originated by well-off, white men. No argument there. Our research of terms supports that conclusion. But, Trunk says, the problem is we use language as a tool to determine who is like us (and who is not). Combine that with the fact that most of the people in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies these days are also well-off, white men and you can see why she finds BS discriminatory.

Simply put, well-off, white men use the language of other well-off, white men to help keep people who are not well-off and white and men out of positions of power in business. The conclusion that BS is discriminatory is especially thought-provoking given recent events with police protests in the US. Read my full Q&A with Trunk here to see what I mean.

Bob Wiltfong (BW): How would you describe your job in the business world?

Penelope Trunk (PT): I’m a coach. I think at this point I’m probably a coach.

BW: How did you get into that role?

PT: I started out playing professional beach volleyball, and all my friends who were making money in the business world thought I should be doing that. I learned to hand code HTML right when the internet was starting, so I was kind of like right place, right time. I launched a company and it sold. I just started launching companies.

BW: Did you have a business background before you launched a company?

PT: No, I read a lot, but you don’t really need a business background to think of businesses to get off the ground. It’s sort of a formula. You can do back-of-the-napkin math. You just need a knack for thinking about what will work. It’s kind of like my superpower.

BW: What was the company that you first sold?

PT: I had been working with Swathmore College to figure out how to teach people how to teach math, and a place called Encore Software had been building software teaching people how to do math. So, I bought the URL and put all three of those things together and I sold it.

BW: Did you know early on that buying that URL was a smart business move or did it take a while for it to show itself?

PT: I never know if what I’m doing is a genius move. I’m always guessing. I mean, nobody thinks they’re a genius the moment they’re a genius. They’re just praying.

BW: What did you study in college?

PT: Political history.

BW: With that background, did you have to learn some business terms to build credibility for yourself in corporate settings?

PT: Well, when I learned political history, I was in the heat of feminists taking over political history. I learned to go back, starting at Plato, and learn the misogyny of political history, so I went into the workplace and I was like, “Wait. Every piece of jargon [here] is mysoginist.” I [thought] I would be like my professors and just educate people [on that], and they would be so grateful to me and we could all deconstruct the language of the workplace. I got fired [instead].

BW: You got fired because of that?

PT: Yeah, nobody gives a crap about that. [They] just want[ed] me to shut up [and do my job].

BW: That’s heart breaking. Do you think that’s still the case?

PT: Yeah. Yeah, I do. It’s because, I mean, people like to work with people that are like them and language is a way to figure out who’s like you. I mean, on one hand, it’s bad that it’s a way to keep people out, but we can’t have our lives include everyone. [If we do,] then we[‘ll] feel like we belong nowhere. So, it’s a problem.

BW: With that said, what advice do you give to a businesswoman, for example, who is trying to climb the corporate ladder using business speak?

PT: She’s choosing to play a white man’s game. She’s not going to change it because the only people who want to play that game are white men. White women don’t want to play that game. That’s why they’re not there. There’s no point in being like, “You guys. We can’t keep talking about sports analogies because women don’t like it.” [If she gets to a C-suite position], there’s only two women in a meeting she’s in ever anyway, so it doesn’t make any sense. She might as well just learn all the sports talk because she chose a male-dominated career.

BW: But do you think that as women start to make their presence more known in the C-suites of Fortune 500 companies that the nature of that business speak will change?

PT: No. I mean, women already earn more than men do in their twenties. They out-earn men in their twenties, and they get promoted more than men in their twenties. It’s not like we’re waiting for women to get more opportunity or more power. Women can do whatever they want. They’re just choosing not to go to the C-suite, so I don’t think we’re going to see that. Women don’t want to be there. They’ve already made their choice. It’s not like we’re waiting for women to get some grand opportunity or more wealth or something. They don’t want that.

READER NOTE FROM BOB WILTFONG: There are plenty of women (my wife being one) who are willing and able to pursue careers in the C-suites of corporate America. For Trunk to say women don't want that option is overally broad and inaccurate, in my opinion.

BW: With Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In book leading the way, you don’t think there’s going to be more women trying to make it into the C-suite?

PT: That’s a joke. She wrote the second book, [Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy,] to say leaning in wasn’t a good idea. There’s a famous poll by Pew Research, [,] that says the majority of women with kids would like to work part time…so I don’t think there’s going to be any trend any time soon for that to go up.

BW: How about people of color and other minorities? Do you foresee the selection of business terms changing as they become more established in positions of power?

PT: I think racism is entrenched in the business world because it’s entrenched in our schools. Our schools succeed by zip code. If you’re rich, you have a school that does well. If you’re not rich, you don’t have a school that does well and that plays out by race… Harvard just had a big lawsuit and they spent a whole year getting all the data for why our public schools make it so Harvard can’t diversify… Our economic system [rewards] people who have the resources to work as many hours as they can. The people who have the resources to work as many hours as they can are college educated and have a spouse at home who’s capable of running a household and keeping a marriage together…. [Unless a] guy wants to be a stay-at-home dad, it’s going to be all men [in positions of corporate power].

READER NOTE FROM BOB WILTFONG: Again, I found this statement too broad of a conclusion for me to agree with. I get her point, but I found her thoughts over-simplified things.

BW: There’s a book I’m reading right now called “The Years that Matter Most” by Paul Tough. It’s basically an examination of the college admissions process with this same conclusion that you’re coming to which is the system was created by wealthy white people to favor wealthy white people.

PT: Oh, that’s so interesting. It’s really getting to me the whole college admissions thing. [When] we raise kids [in this country], we never [tell] them, “You’re so smart. You can grow up and take care of children.” We say, “You’re so smart. You can grow up and [make lots of money].” All this [business] lingo you’re talking about [in the book], it’s actually language that shuns people who are at home. This is language that implicitly makes people who are at home taking care of children sound weak. It’s really messed up.

Now I think you can understand why Trunk changed the way I view The BS Dictionary! My conversation with her actually made me more proud of the book. That’s because, when Tim Ito and I wrote it, one of our primary goals was to educate and enlighten readers on commonly-used business terms, so they could walk into their next meeting knowing what these terms are and how to use them properly. Knowledge is power, in other words. But I think my conversation with Trunk also made me realize how important it is to be transparent in our business communications. We need to ensure that the people we’re talking to know what we’re trying to say and have equal understanding of the concepts we’re expressing. If they don’t, it’s probably best to leave your BS at the door.

Finally, I'm proud to say that I am a stay-at-home dad (besides being an author and consultant). I am not shunning stay-at-home parents with this book. Heck, if anything I'm helping people like me laugh at the poor saps who have to say this stuff every day! I think Trunk is correct in saying that, generally speaking, we in America don't define being a stay-at-home parent as valuable as being a successful businessperson. That has to change. I am starting with my own kids by letting them know that their intelligence may land them a big salary one day at a company or it may find them changing the diapers of their child at home. Either way, they are smart and valued. That is the opposite of being weak.


BW: How did you teach yourself to code HTML?

PT: I had a boyfriend who was a computer scientist and I went to graduate school. We didn’t have any money to call each other, so he showed me that, if I could do HTML, then we could talk to each other unlimited.

BW: You created an online platform for you and your boyfriend to communicate for free?

PT: Yeah, it’s all about sex. For me, the internet was about sex even before it was about sex. (laughter)

BW: Are there any BS terms that you feel are especially exclusionary to anyone who is not a white man?

PT: Training. [Male consultants] didn’t want to be [known as] teachers because teachers is a woman’s job, so they developed the word “training” because that’s what coaches do. It’s tiny little things [like that] where…you don’t use women speak.

BW: What advice would you give to me on promoting this book?

PT: This is the secret to promoting your book. You talk to people like you’re talking to me, and instead of putting it on your site, you package [story] ideas [for journalists with it]. You give those…to journalists who are looking for [story] ideas and they write about your book with [those idea[s]. Your book becomes part of a trend[-ing coversation].

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