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"Trash Talk" - The New Normal?

Remember the golden years of corporate communications? A press release here, a website there, an employee newsletter on the coffee table, speechwriting and special events, and so on. For the occasional company crisis - straightforward updates.
Sure, when all hell broke loose - as hell is wont to do, sometimes - you brought in a consulting SWAT team.
Amid all of this, there was one golden rule: No F-bombs.
And if you could get away with it in private, certainly you were highly, highly diplomatic in public. Standard practice: in a dogfight, simply say "no comment," and then work behind the scenes to make your viewpoint known. 
Times have changed.
Just yesterday, the story broke about Lena Dunham complaining that El Pais'cover photo portrayal of her is too gorgeous, so probably Photoshopped, and therefore inauthentic. This prompting a deposition-like response from El Pais, also in public, and Lena's public apology over Instagram. 
We have the new CEO of the health insurance benefits brokerage Zenefitsblaming the old CEO of Zenefits, in public, for its woes. (An employee memo somehow got out to both the Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed.)
And we have two Yelp employees (here's links to #1 and #2) writing "open letters" on Medium about how horribly they feel treated by the company, which might not be so bad except the company's CEO responded to the first one with a semi-sympathetic Tweet (!) and to the second one with a curt nastygram over the same social media channel. (H/T to Justin Bariso for following this story and posting on it; Vox has reported on responses posted by the first employees' peers.)
Who's responsible for the "new nasty?"
In Establishment circles, which cross lines from politics to media to the most elite of academic institutions, it's become fashionable to blame - in very intense terms - Presidential candidate Donald Trump for lowering the level of public discourse.(Note: I'm not advocating for or against any political candidate in this post, but rather commenting on the communications environment we find ourselves in; Trump is a key part of that environment.)
For example, in a Harvard Political Review article titled "Donald Trump Gives Us The Politics We Deserve," Arjun Kapur writes:
"The burning question on the minds of Americans across the country is exactly how Trump has become the GOP frontrunner. The answer lies in the degeneration of American democracy."
That Mr. Trump speaks his mind is certainly true; that he's politically incorrect is incontestable. But where some see his style as hateful, others find it refreshingly honest: As someone said to me recently, "He says what I think."
Survey data shows that Trump's candor indeed resonates with many. According to a recent Pew survey, less than 1 in 5 Americans (19%) "trust the government always/most of the time," and more than half (55%) believe that "ordinary Americans would do a better job" solving the country's problems.
Yet clearly, there are other factors at play. Here are some hypotheses:
  • Social Media: The proliferation and immediacy of social media means a lot of things. For one thing, the public is now empowered to "talk back" rather quickly and abruptly when they are dissatisfied with a product or service, and so it makes sense that this consumer attitude should flow back into the workplace. For another, the window of time in which one can respond is incredibly short. As the complaint goes viral, not saying anything is often interpreted to mean that you're at fault.
  • The No-Commitment Workplace: Given the instability of the current job market and the fact that the long-term job is becoming a relic of history, employees are less likely to focus on what their employer might think of their public statements and more likely to see themselves as "free agents" working from gig to gig.
  • Pop Culture - Battle Rap: Prominently featured in the Eminem movie 8 Mile, this is a form of public contest where two rappers confront one another with with lyrics "often written solely for the purpose of impressing people." Essentially it is a public war of words, and that, together with the ethos of rap - which is to take back the power that society has taken from you - has informed individuals' attitudes toward public discourse. And who can forget those epic "Twitter wars," which have the feel of battle rap as well?
  • Rhetorical Style - Generation X: It's been my impression, based on my own experience, interacting with other Gen Xers and based on viewing Gen X-oriented television shows (e.g., The Walking Dead) that refreshingly blunt language is preferred by this generation. Although we have many different rhetorical styles, authenticity is common to all of them.
  • Millennial "Expectations": Again this is my impression, based on my own experience, interaction and reading - Millennials expect more from the workplace than previous generations. But unfortunately, what they encounter usually doesn't stack up. That discrepancy inevitably will lead to public blowups from a generation raised on the Internet and social media.
...and yet at the same time as all this is happening, there is increasing awareness of the negative effects of "micro-aggressions" and bullying talk. Such treatment is considered akin to verbal violence.
So where will public discourse go in the days, months and years to come?
Who knows?
Clearly we are living in unusual times - with a rate of social change that is nothing short of unprecedented. And that change is having an effect on the way we talk to one another, both in private and in public.
While right now it may seem that all we can do is watch, the actions we choose to take in response do have an impact.
Here's hoping we can find ways to be both honest and respectful - now and in the future.
Copyright 2015 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. Dr. Blumenthal is founder of the BrandSuccess consultancy and co-founder/strategic advisor to the All Things Brand community portal. Opinions are her own and not those of any government agency or entity or the federal government as a whole. No commercial or noncommercial endorsement expressed or implied. You can contact Dr. Blumenthal on LinkedIn or at her website.
Photo by Mark Lundy via Flickr (Creative Commons). Don Draper photo viaWikipedia. Lena Dunham screenshot via her Instagram account. March 1 Yelp Tweet via Twitter. Trust graphic (screenshot) via Pew.

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