People & Human Resources

A novelist reveals the power of calling people out on their bullshit

Martin Kovacs /

For many people encountering bullshit usually provokes an internal conflict – a desire to call it out is typically overridden by the social nicety of staying silent.

But US novelist and freelance journalist Michael Grothaus says actively calling out “bullshit” or “BS” from others, and himself, not only saved him time, but money too.

“One of the worst feelings I can think of is knowing that you’ve let someone bullshit you,” he writes for FastCompany.

But many people often feel even worse after they do call someone out — a reaction that Grothaus describes as “maddening”.

“In other words, paradoxically, we seem to care more about the feelings of the person lying to us than about the consequences that not confronting their bullshit has on our lives,” he observes.

Having consulted with Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and owner of the website CallingBullshit.org, who pointed to the ability of successful teams being able to confront each other without being disrespectful, Grothaus decided to take action. and set out over the course of a week to “call out anyone and everyone as soon as I realised they were bullshitting me”.

The BS spotter

The first step for Grothaus was to hone in on interactions where he was being bullshitted. He found he needed to be attentive in order to unravel narratives and expose potential inconsistencies.

“Sudden changes in a story or the inability to answer questions about what they’d already stated were clear tip-offs,” Grothaus said of his interactions with others.

He also points to the importance of context, observing that “the messenger is as important as the message”.

“Does the person delivering the message have anything to gain by how you choose to act on the information?” he said. “If you can keep that question in mind, it’s much easier to spot people who may be bullshitting you.”

Saving money and feeling power

Grothaus says that the first person he called out was a smartphone repair shop clerk, who told him he needed to replace his smartphone battery, when it had in fact been replaced just six months earlier. While his normal reaction would be to leave and never return, he instead confronted the clerk.

“It was then that the clerk’s hovering manager came over and glanced at the computer screen and said: ‘Ah, yes, we see that now’,” he writes.

“He then offered me £25 off the repair price of the screen for their ‘mistake’ if I wanted to proceed.”

Grothaus says the event encouraged him to keep going, and subsequent interactions also delivered positive results.

“All of this — all of these little wins, no matter how small — made me feel really good because I was taking back power,” he said.

He also observes that he consquently became more self-aware.

“One other thing my little experiment revealed is it made me much more conscious of my own bullshit,” he writes.

“I started to examine what I was saying to other people with a more critical eye and began to notice I seemed to bullshit just as much as I encountered it.”

Calling people out

Grothaus writes that while Bergstrom says there is no single right way to call someone out, but he goes by the following guidelines:

  • Call out the claim, not the person — focus on the claims being presented rather than the person presenting them;
  • Do it with respect — don’t be disrespectful, and learn how to accept being called out yourself;
  • Do it with humility — avoid adopting a righteous tone, as you could be the one who is wrong; and
  • It may not be malicious — someone may not be bullshitting you, they may have just made a mistake.

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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  • Sharon

    So true!