I don't usually venture along the shelves of self-help business manuals, but a book that makes claims to going beyond bullshit appealed. When you have been in senior university management as long as I have, forced to read truckloads of circulars from Hefce, UUK and dozens of other acronymed quangos, you have encountered more bullshit than a farmer does in a lifetime, so I embarked on Samuel Culbert's book with the hope that I might be given some useful tips.
I nearly didn't get beyond the sycophantic foreword, written by an old mate of his, and a dire autobiographical prologue where we learn about Culbert's depressive Christian Scientist mother, his heavy-drinking father, his childhood job in an asbestos factory and the "wise and generous 'Negro' foreman". But I persevered, and I'm glad I did, because if you can get over the style (or lack of it), which owes a great deal to daytime TV chat shows, there's some interesting and useful stuff in this book.
The first two sections, labelled as theory, are titled "Bullsh*t" and "Straight-Talk", and give scenarios about communication difficulties in the workplace, along with some down-to-earth discussion about why bullshit is so prevalent. The antithesis of bullshit is straight talk, but Culbert provides a lot of examples to show that straight talk is by no means just speaking your mind, and it requires quite complex negotiation. Telling the truth can become bullshit when an individual is solely motivated by self-interest. For example, "honest" criticism can be destructive and counterproductive if the criticiser fails to recognise his or her own motivation.
The third section takes the theory into application and is full of commonsense advice. Culbert's basic premise is that bullshit is inevitable in any working situation. Without it, he says, "the workplace would be about as serene as the lawless Wild West". He shows, through a series of examples, how interaction in a working context involves a whole range of strategies and subterfuges, some of which aim to deceive, and others to shield people from a truth that might be unpalatable. He attacks the concept of absolute truth and declares that all humans are limited by the truth they are able to see, have known and are able to tolerate. Don't expect other people to tell you the absolute truth, he advises: "they don't have it to give."
Under the bullshit of the title and the jocular chat-show host persona of the narrator are some shrewd observations about human nature and some sensible tips on how to communicate with fellow workers. The key he offers is to focus on the individuality of each person, to recognise that one size can never fit all and to understand your own motives, aims and ambitions - and above all to be open. The advice is structured so as to be applicable in several contexts, with your peers and with people above and below you. We all need to have our personal house in order, he says, which means minimising "the human penchant to bullshit yourself".
Culbert provides a set of hard-hitting questions in an appendix that certainly made me stop and think harder about myself and my collusion in bullshitting. If you can't bear his faux folksy style, just go for the appendix. I closed the book full of positive intentions, just like I feel when I read a how-to diet manual. Now for the proof of the pudding...
Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-Talk at Work
By Samuel A. Culbert. Kogan Page. 168pp, £12.99. ISBN 9780804758857. Published 1 April 2008