Do I dare call bullshit aloud? Do you?

A daily side-effect of my moderate fame is a barrage of “special” offers, guest-post requests, pleas for attention, and modest, tasteful bribery.


It’s not bad; most are sincere, and even those blatant marketing ploys requesting me to “review this fantastic new book that’s so relevant to your readers who are aching to read it” are professional, direct, and come bearing gifts (even if it is just a free book).

My response is always well-mannered, even when the correspondence lands squarely in the class of spam:

Thanks so much for extending me the privilege to let me “e-interview” Person You Claim is a Celebrity who you’re writing on-behalf-of, but I’m compelled to pass on your offer because “Vampires: Under the Cape” is not, in fact, directly relevant to my audience.

But tonight I’m thinking I shouldn’t be so kind. That maybe it’s even my duty not to be.

Why am I so kind in the first place? Why not just ignore it?

I think the answer is terrible: That I’m afraid I might piss off someone famous or potentially famous who then might not want to work with me in future or even say something bad about me in public.


Here’s what’s bringing this to a head.

Recently I got the worst solicitation to date. The title of the email was excellent: “Guest Blogger Proposal – An Interesting Twist.”

I won’t repeat the entire contents of the email, not because of “privacy” but because it was 729 words which is almost the length of this article and who has time to read all that? (Present company excepted. And yes it’s “excepted” and not “accepted.”)

Besides employing the conventional turns of phrase including “We are only looking for a handful of sites where we can contribute and don’t want you to miss out” (their easily-mistaken-for-hyperlink emphasis) and “saving you time and effort!” (their excessive use of bang), they had the audacity to suggest that I should “provide us with our own restricted login (preferred)” (their ludicrous parenthetical recommendation) enabling them to autonomously publish articles directly to you, dear reader, which they “guarantee will include sub-headlines and bullets written on topics like ‘how to …’, ‘7 tips for …’, ‘5 reasons…’, etc.”

Bullets and numbers in titles guaranteed?!? Fantastic!

If this weren’t sufficiently absurd, it turns out these people are affiliate marketers, and what they neglected to mention in the introductory email is that these auto-published articles would furthermore push products for them to monetize.

This time I couldn’t just “take a rain check” with the customary social niceties. Maybe it was the two “poor-man’s martini’s” I had just consumed (drop three ice cubes and swirl instead of getting out the shaker). OK yeah, it was definitely that.

But the ancient Macedonians used to make important decisions only when inebriated, the idea being that only when mentally lubricated are you free of the societal filters and self-doubt. Therefore you think and act as your true self. Therefore you are thinking and acting truthfully, and hence correctly.

With this in mind, my response was:

What a fascinating scam! I’ll have to let everyone I know about this ridiculous offer to pollute my blog with garbage. I’m sure my readers will be thrilled to know I’m introducing anonymous, self-serving posts filled with “bullets” and promotional offers.

Please send me more email with your contact information so I can post it on the Internet. I’m sure many folks would like to send you a token of their appreciation.

Surely the recipient of my missive couldn’t care less, but it’s important to me because I finally grew the stones to say what I feel even if it pisses someone off.

I mean, as much as Social Media is supposed to be about “honesty” and “being human” and “genuineness,” of course most isn’t. Bloggers fluff their feathers, coming off more confident, smarter, and more sure than they are (present company included, though at least I make an effort to reveal the emotional underbelly). Twitterers RT and “follow” and pander to the most minor of celebs (present company again included) in the hopes that someday that lesser deity might deign to RT one of their tweets or accept an email as non-spam because they’ve already “joined the conversation.”

I do too. Still do.

Do I dare to publicly disagree with a solitary thing Seth Godin says, lest he not consider me for his Domino project? Do I dare to disagree with Jason Fried lest he lay into me like he did Mint? Do I dare make fun of Joel Spolsky lest I not get invited back to Business of Software?

When do I earn the right to say what I think? Why do I think I need to “earn” that right? How many RSS subscribers or Twitter followers do I need before I decide it’s OK to rail against asinine offers like that email, or even gently disagree with luminaries who I do, in fact, respect?

I guess the answer is: This many.

To take Amanda Palmer a little out of context:

How strange to see
That I don’t want to be the person that I want to be.
And maybe it’s funniest of all
To think I’ll die before I actually see
That I am [already] the person that I want to be.

Maybe it won’t take you as long as it took me. Maybe you’ll see that “RSS subscribers” is not the measure of the quality of your thoughts. It’s true that experience matters, but it’s also true that you’ll be happier spending more time being the person you are, voicing the thoughts you have, and less time worrying about precedent or about which celebrity might RT it. Even if you turn out wrong, that’s still better than behaving the way you think other people expect you to.

So what if you’re wrong. Then you change your mind. And say that too. Big deal.

I’m certainly not the poster child for this. I have no brave footsteps for you to follow. All I’ve done is send a not-very-clever email to some affiliate marketer who has heard far worse a hundred times. It’s nothing.

Nothing to them, but a lot to me.

64 responses to “Do I dare call bullshit aloud? Do you?”

  1. Thanks for the first laugh of the day. Loved the ghetto-tini.


  2. Jason – I worry less about upsetting other writers than I do upsetting myself. Hindsight and increased wisdom make me terribly embarrassed about some of my early writing and business ideas.

    Every day I witness parents lecture children about the dangers of posting nasty or aggressive comments on Facebook. My fear of upsetting my future self is a much larger deterrent to completely honest writing than the fear of upsetting other personalities of today.

  3. Yeah, well, there’s of course that self serving lashing out to others who annoy you. And then there’s the raincheck approach. And then there’s the tap on the shoulders for showing us how bold you can be. And in then end? Well in the end it’s only up to you to and your conscience whether this was an authentic response or apologies should be in order. But, hey, heck, what do I know?! It’s your life ;-) – as in ‘pun intended’.

  4. Pick a fight with Jason, challenge Seth to come up with something concrete and tell Joel he’s jumped the shark again – but what is the point of wasting your energy lashing out at spammers/affiliate marketers/telesales and the like?

  5. Is this where I tell you how brilliantly insightful and awesome this post is, all in the hope that you’ll click through to my blog?

    • I just don’t get it: why not just ignore those pseudo spammers?Ok, maybe you do not want to offend anyone, I can understand that, but hey there’s little time in life and we must make the best use of it.
      I find counter productive to try to reply to them or even blog about it… 

      • Probably will ignore them in future, but the bigger point isn’t about responding to email solicitations, but rather the general concept of speaking truth even when we’re conditioned by society to hide negative thoughts. 

        • Unfortunately, it’s been evident in my life that I MUST focus on one particular thing what I want to change/dislike.  This means to be very cordial and polite, when something occurs I don’t like and it doesn’t really matter towards that one focus I’ve chosen. Anything besides that focus, I need to brush off, laugh at, embrace, and enjoy.

          I’m learning everything is a sell – and we most often cannot be direct, because people don’t generally care what we want.  They care what they want.  It’s a little extra effort to be polite, which goes a long way.  What do you think?

      • @f5e84c201ad50ae66c3ab0844b41ceba:disqus  , relax, it was a joke – a commentary on the comment spams that leave some sort of quasi normal sounding yet totally generic comment on a blog post, in the hopes of getting through the spam filter. And I left it on a blog post about spam.

        Do you get it yet?

  6. I’ve found that how loudly I call it is in direct proportion to how bad it smells. I could smell the outright auto-publishing scam attempt from way over here. Other petitions might not warrant such a strong response.

  7. Is that bit about ancient Macedonians true? Have a citation where I can read more? I love the sociological aspects of drinking.

  8. Why do you have to gently disagree with luminaries you respect? Seth Godin and Jason Fried are not always right, and are very often completely wrong. So are you. So am I. I think it’s OK to fervently disagree. I would consider it a privilege if I had lots of other smart people call me out in no uncertain terms on bullshit. Shouldn’t you really consider it a duty to do this for people you know who you respect? I think the key is doing so without being insulting, without disdain, without trying to put someone else down to build yourself up, without ego, and with the intention of constructing rather than destructing.

    • Yes I think you nailed with “it’s it your duty.” I mentioned that in passing at the start of the article but I didn’t really make the point like you did.

      Yes once you get some visibility, isn’t it a service not just to yourself but everyone else to voice other opinions or call out hypocrisy?

  9. There’s never a reason to burn a potential bridge. I think it’s best to think of such people as misguided rather than greedy degenerates. I’m sure at least some of them are good-natured people who write that way because they think they have to.

    So putting all these people down doesn’t really help you. You can’t bring yourself up by putting other people down.

  10. A friend forwarded this post to me. I’m on a panel with 2 other bloggers this upcoming Friday discussing the pros and cons of speaking your mind and the pros and cons of the resulting controversy. Technically I’m representing the ‘play nice’ side of the arguent, but the more reading and researching I do for my talk, the more I begin to lean towards cutting the bullshit and speaking our mind.

    Someone, somewhere, who is surely wiser than I said something along the lines of (yes, my memory is crap): I’d rather have people respect me than like me.

    I am beginning to agree with that person.

  11. The “cover your ass” mentality. Saw it in the corporate world every day, and pretty much everyone adheres to it, or they won’t last long in those worlds. What gets lost by this mode of behaving is immense, it’s basically opting for a very short term positive result and giving fuck all to any long term positive result. So those who know how to schmooze, speak glibly, flatter, and pander succeed. Those who think more carefully and look to t “greater good” are considered the losers.

  12. Ha, fine tuning that self filter so that you’re not cussing like a sailor when surrounded by children or overly polite to scammy spammers, I’ve made both mistakes.

    Ruffling feathers is the best way to explore your boundaries (the ones in your head). The people who raise a fuss you discover aren’t that important to you after all.

  13. I come from a British background and in that culture it is perfectly fine to disagree with others, and to do it passionately. But in the US, to disagree is disagreeable. To disagree is to create a disagreement and it is to be avoided. And that’s a shame.

    There’s ways to disagree with others in ways that aren’t disagreeable and we should do that occasionally, when warranted.

  14. Love this. Your posts are always very insightful. I struggle with the same thing. I get BS emails in my inbox. Wildly off topic pitches for posts. There are several popular “luminaries” out there whose writing I hate. I think they are idiots, producing nothing of real value and I’d love to go into complete scathing detail as to why I hate them.

    That said, I do tend to stick to being nice and not calling people out when I think they are idiots because I’m not sure it would do me any good. I can get people to like what I write without talking smack about/to other “marketers”. I guess I feel like writing the stuff I want to write should be enough to attract my kind of people, without having to go off about or at others. That said, it would be fun to let people have it every once in a while.

  15. We all disagree with others (usually often.) For me, deciding on whether to publicly or privately


    is less about whether I’ll piss them off and more about whether the discussion will lead to anywhere productive.

    For example, with political topics, I typically don’t discuss things publicly unless I know the person well and I know that we’re going to have a real discussion and there is a possibility that someone might learn something about the other side. Otherwise you’re going to waste your goodwill and get nowhere. Same with business discuss.

    Disagreeing with Seth Godin or Jason Fried might do more good in earning their attention and respect but only if you don’t bring a knife to a gun-fight. What I mean is that they have invested the time to think through their thoughts enough to feel comfortable putting their name to it and putting it into public. If you’re questioning them or pointing out exceptions, you better have done just as much investment and not be easily dismissible.

    If I can’t backup my perspective, they are justified in discounting my opinions as they know that I’ll take the “ready, fire, aim” with other things as well.

    So in short, I disagree publicly if I know I’m standing on firm ground.

  16. “the ancient Macedonians used to make important decisions
    when inebriated…”

    That worked out well for them.

  17. With respect to earning the right to say what you want to say, Paul Graham offers an explanation in his essay “What You Can’t Say” (

    “Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.”

    Its smart to debate with Joel (a non-idiot). An author with an audience such as yourself comes with inherent proof that you’re worth responding to. But the rest of us can only expect swift execution for shouting blasphemy regardless of the righteousness of our cause, so what’s the point?

    I’ll summarize with a few bullets and a promotional offer…

    * Smart person + Inebriation = Wise smart person (Macedonian leader)

    * Smart person + Inebriation + Agitating solicitation = Idiot (Jason Cohen)
    * Next time grab a Manhattan, its “as relaxing as a deep massage”

    We’ve all had those moments Jason, I don’t mean any offense. :) Keep it real, this stuff is great!

    • Haha, awesome! Of course no offense — personal growth is the opposite of being offended. If I didn’t want your opinion I wouldn’t post it. :-)

    • “Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.”

      Who is an idiot? This is probably a flawed question. Maybe we all have some level of idiocy. Even more, most people have a high level of idiocy when it comes to logical thinking and reasoning. Frequently, people that look perfectly capable of having an intelligent conversation reveal themselves as unable to do so. Are they idiots? They are nice people, relatively successful in their careers (I’m thinking about 2 male nurses with whom I independently had exactly the same conversation about Heart Rate Variability [HRV], which they didn’t believe exist and would not even give me the benefit of the doubt). At some point it became clear that they couldn’t follow me even though what I was saying was very simple and reliable; like “…take a look at paper X published on The Journal of Physiology” or “…visit Wikipedia’s HVR page”. Their answers are stuck in a loop: “…no way! I spent my days staring at heart monitors, are you going to teach me now what I do every day?” (Time to shift the conversation to “…it would be nice to have an apartment by the beach.”)

      They are not idiots, but what are they? They are the norm. They don’t listen. They haven’t discovered yet that the world, nature, the universe, whatever we’re part of, is very very very … complex. Can they learn that? I’d say yes, but that’s a different topic.

  18. One weeeee other thing about this before I close the tab. You earn the right to say what you think when you become a human being capable of putting together a coherent thought. Everything else is total bullshit. The blogosphere, the HN-o-sphere and the general echo chamber of the internet has geared itself to disgusting, sycophantic brown-nosing. When I get a mass email saying something great about Sarah Palin, I don’t hit Reply. I hit Reply All, and give everyone on that list a piece of my mind, replete with as much profanity as I feel necessary. Never mind the thing came from my dad’s golfing buddy, and fifty lawyers and bankers in Orange County now hate my guts. And mind you, I earn my way by word of mouth; but the clients I take appreciate blunt honesty. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be with me, and I wouldn’t be with them, and it works out a lot better for everyone. Compare that –or this–with carefully pruning and tweaking your online persona to be the most milquetoast, noncommittal, conformist, generally likeable, smart-but-not-too-smart, what have you… get outside the walled garden, baby. This isn’t about being a nice guy or not. It’s about having the stones, as you said, or basically believing that the world IS a better place when you spam the spammers, and that it DOES make a difference when you tell idiots to shove it up their ass. Really, what’s freedom? What else are we fighting for every day, and why the hell get out of bed in the morning if at some point you aren’t going to notice, and take pains to fix, a failure in the world?

    Does this mean I’m not a good guy to have dinner with? Hell no. Just the opposite. Nothing takes away your appetite like a saccharine-sweet sycophant.

  19. For exactly those reasons we created, to separate the idea from the face in front of the brain. To say what you truly think, not fearing pissing off
    Godin, Fried, or Spolsky. To say that the king is naked when he obviously is. To let loose what lives in our brains and see how perceptions about everything emerge.

  20. Jason, you are way too kind ! Telling like it is will gain you more respect from your readers than being “diplomatic”. If you don’t believe me, tune into a couple of episodes of “Top Gear”. Those guys, especially Jeremy Clarkson, will outright say if a car is crap and in an entertaining, but not ambiguous, manner. The show continues to go from strength to strength.

  21. I’ve been following your posts for a while and thoroughly enjoying your perspective, content and writing in general… But this was the first post that inspired me to leave a comment- just to say, I’m proud of you.

  22. Jason, I recently called out a “friend” on a request to chat over coffee that turned into a network marketing pitch. Actually, if he were a “friend” I would’ve been more polite. The worst part was him not being forthcoming, and saying “hey I’m into this thing, would you be interesting in hearing more about it.” As we’re having coffee, his friend happens to stop by… who’s high up in the organization. He slips into his spiel, and I suddenly feel like I’m seeing the “closer.”

    After I called him out he shot back at me and denied it, even saying that it was me that left early so he didn’t get a chance to talk. About 20% of me wishes I would’ve just shut up and left it, but after reading your post (and the fact he came back at me and denied it) I feel almost 0%. Most of the time you want to be nice, but if the other party is shady, you have a right to hit back.

  23. So what you are saying is that you actually wasted your time replying to what was obviously a spam message?

  24. I don’t agree with you. The problem is most cases are not as clearly wrong as your example. There may be many factors in why someone communicates a certain opinion. The big problem here is that most people think you need to communicate in an extreme way, instead of allowing for some nuances.

    Personally I only have great respect for people who will give an opinion, including a good reasoning for why they have that opinion. This makes for a good, constructive discusion. Otherwise is just becomes a shouting contest.

    • This is awesome :)

      Yet, you can have the best of both worlds: Write “Fuck. That. Shit.”. Your future employer might read it but he/she/it won’t know that you wrote it. That’s what we proudly help you do.

  25. Your post engendered (pun fully, and awfully, intended) a thought in me: how do gender norms, or for that matter, any cultural norms, play into your, my, others’ style of disagreement? If I take Josh Strike’s style in disagreeing with someone, will I be considered a b*tch whose advice should be discounted–or refreshingly, bluntly honest?

    My own keepin’ it real style: I try to remember everyone has a bad day or three, I don’t know if they’re working a job they really hate to pay the bills for an aging parent, and thus I try to cut them more slack than I cut myself.

    Yes, I’m polite. But if I do disagree (whether with folks like me, or with folks who are highly influential), I share my thoughts (recently did on @om malik’s blog).

    And, on occasion, just like you did with the scamming person, I lose it.

    • There’s no doubt that it’s different, but I think it can go both ways for each.

      That is, a man going off on a rant could be seen as cool and smart, but could be seen as a prick and asshole.

      A woman going off on a rant could be seen as a bitch, but could be seen as inspiringly confident.

      I’ve definitely seen all four of these cases, and of course frequently simultaneously. :-)

  26. Oh, the problems of Imperialists. That you even had to bother to write this is sad. Sad for you, sad for your family, sad for your community, sad for our country, and sad for the global culture we have created on the Internet.


    In fact, it is your DUTY to your society, because a society that punishes those who speak the truth soon enough devolves into a swirling cesspool of shades and illusions.But what do I know, I have been unemployed for going on 9 months, and severely underemployed for 3 and a half years. My integrity is stronger than ever, but what has it really gotten me, in this sick society that values superficial bunk over substance?So speaking from experience, allow me to correct you: No, you should not call bullshit. No one wants to hear it.

  27. I don’t quite understand why you think your answer is “pathetic”. It’s an outstanding reason. It says you realize you don’t live in a bubble and you do indeed treat others as you’d like to be treated.

    Yes, don’t disagree. Continue to challenge your desire to tell someone off because you know it’s just one gnat and obliterating one simply has no effect on the remainder.

    I have found, and it works fantastic, that writing the email I want to dearly send, and saving it, and not sending it for 4+ hours, gives me the proper perspective and then I find the joy in deleting it. (Never go to bed angry-email style.)If fact what I really want out of this article is more examples of your correspondence because it reveals the fixins of the persona that folks here are striving to emulate but don’t have the recipe! I know you’ve said you feel like a fraud, perhaps because you, again accurately, realize that luck is part of success and therefore the success you have is partly undeserved. But that’s not fair. If your success is 25% luck lets say then 75% of it was not accomplished by a fraud and that’s the only part that matters, the other part isn’t in play. How many have asked you “how do I get luckier?” (yea, yea, practice… – Gary Player).

  28. I agree with you. And I will even go so far as to say that I usually fall into this trap of sugar coating things for people simply because I don’t want to cause friction; the issue I have with going in the other direction is that once you lose that need to prevent friction you enter into the realm of disrespect and callousness which isn’t very pleasant either is it?

  29. I don’t think any person in a position of influence has the wherewithal to avoid getting frustrated by the woefully crafted pitches and general stink that piles up at their door. For one, it’s a royal waste of time. Two, the ever increasing volume of BS makes it that much harder to figure out who or what is worth investing time in.

    I freely call bullshit in my life. When you demonstrate that you’re willing to call it, that alone can scare off some of the stink. I do however think it’s important to maintain some level of diplomacy. How you call bullshit is more important than if you call it. As they say, pat your foe on the back as you send them to hell. My reasoning – what’s the point in being a prick about it? If people are really THAT stupid, being nasty is only serving as a pressure-relief valve for my own frustrations. And if I go off I end up feeling as intellectually unkept as the person I’m annoyed with. They’ll never change, so it’s just a waste of my brain power.

    In terms of the VC/investor world, personally I think how you call bullshit is really important. As a startup I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading blogs (specifically the comments and how the investor bloggers interface with the readers) and sitting in on panel discussions. I can honestly say that my partner and I wouldn’t take money from some of these folks if they put kick-ass terms on the table and promised to wash our feet. This is specifically because they abuse the right to call bullshit. They’ve crossed over to the dark side as I like to say…lost their sense of diplomacy. To be fair, it can be very hard to keep the bullshit calling in check when so many people are blindly clamoring for a piece of you. But there’s a fine line. Sometimes, even if calling bullshit is 1000% on point, you can just end up looking like a prick. Once that happens decent people with good ideas might think twice about reaching out to you.

    And just to be clear, I definitely do not think you have crossed over to the dark side. You’re actually one of the nicest people I’ve interacted with in this space. Just noting that it can be a slippery slope, especially the more popular you become.

  30. Spot on Jason. Spot on.

    The thing I have more of a problem with is deciding whether to respond to requests at all. On one hand, I hate sending something out and then not hearing anything, so I hate to do that to other people, especially when it’s a genuine request. On the other, it takes time to reply, whether the reply is polite or otherwise.Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, can I can I do a guest post on your blog? I swear it will be relevant to your readers. haha! :)

  31.  Jason,

    This is really more about deciding how to balance appeal and reality.  If you want a mass market appeal, then maybe you need to leave some of the complaining out.  If you want to build real informative discussions with intelligent people, you have to be willing to call bullshit and complain a little bit.

  32. I certainly post things that piss people off from time to time. Since my blog is primarily on statistics, software and snarky comments, it is amazing to me that people occasionally feel upset enough to call me names, tell me I’ll be unemployed for life (this week, that sounds lovely) and be insulting enough  to upset my daughters on the rare times they might read it.

    If I think your application sucks, I will say so. I am sure that there are contracts I have not gotten, job offers that I have not received because someone checked my blog and was appalled at the fact that I occasionally run statistics to check absurd allegations, say, about anchor babies – (we Latinos prefer  to call it the miracle of life) .

    I have deliberately not moderated my tone because I think it best if you are looking for someone who toes the party line, who never voices a controversial opinion and who will try to spin what the data show that we not work together because we’ll both end up unhappy.

    All of that said, I DO censor myself where it would hurt someone, even their feelings, unnecessarily. If I read an article that makes a mistake that is common or is just terribly written, I’m not going to call out that person just because their article was the one I randomly read.  There are tons of articles out there that make mistakes or are terribly written.

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