Huebner: The Art of B.S.

Coming to terms with insincerity doesn’t mean becoming a cynic.

by Julia Huebner | 7/27/18 2:30am

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the art of “B.S.” — a word too impolite to print in full, but too ubiquitous to shy away from.

A working definition might be helpful for this two-of-eight letter euphemism. Urban Dictionary, the online user-submitted and crowdsourced slang dictionary, features some colorful definitions for the term, including, quite literally “the excrement of cattle,” but also “nonsense,” “exaggeration” and my personal favorite: “something I tolerate every day.”

Everyone has B.S. that they put up with in their everyday lives. I define it as small instances that offend one’s sense of fairness or shroud truth in fluff. “I was drunk, so you can’t really blame me for what I said last night,” is the sort of statement that merits that designation. Claiming in an interview that one’s main weakness is “working too hard” is another perfect example. When I hear that prospective students at Dartmouth are told that Greek life isn’t a large part of the mainstream social scene here, I call B.S.

As with most big ideas, a professor at Dartmouth recently inspired my thinking on this subject. Last week, over KAF cookies for breakfast, we spoke about our newest undertakings around campus and the process and timeline associated with each one. Progress could be expedited, we joked, if only we inserted “B.S.” into our work, beefing it up and decreasing the messy, tough thinking in the middle. My professor laughed. Most everything in the modern capitalist world is B.S., he said. It’s the foundation of civilization and the economy. Sincerity is the golden nugget in a field of disingenuousness; most people go about their daily lives making excuses to and for each other, compromising when they shouldn’t and pretending to not see things for how they actually are. I’ll peddle my own B.S., as the argument goes, and, in turn, be enticed by yours.

Students, including myself, have often been tempted by this tendency to exaggerate and embellish. Last week, I overheard a conversation at a corporate recruiting session between two ’20s, who decided that résumé-padding would make them seem more attractive to employers. Mild dishonesty as a job-seeking tactic isn’t just relegated to corporate-minded high-achievers. Later that week, I congratulated a friend on a superb presentation in front of a large group of Dartmouth community members. “If there’s one thing that Dartmouth does well, it’s that the school prepares you to speak on something you know little about. They should award a major in B.S. here,” he said in response.

While preparing to write this column, I sat and thought about all the times my actions could be described as B.S. Every article I’ve been assigned for class that I’ve lightly skimmed instead of deeply understanding for class and every “of my gosh, of course!” as a response to “We should get a meal at some point!” are prime on-campus examples.

Examples of how people cut corners, tell partial truths and delude themselves on a daily basis are plentiful. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Or maybe it is, and I’ve succumbed to being jaded. However, upon reflecting on my professor’s comments, I struggled to imagine a world free of insincerity. “Part of the reason that people B.S. is that it’s the only way to get anything done,” a friend pointed out to me. I do agree that no one can perform their best in every activity at all times. I don’t hold myself to that standard and don’t expect anyone else to.

Then I thought about the feasibility of a B.S.-free world. All tactics to impress and entice anyone — future employers, parents, professors, significant others, friends and peers — would go out the window. All lies, including those told to protect feelings and dance around discomfort, would be a thing of the past. Could a society overflowing in genuineness and perfection actually function?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but at least — in this case — I don’t pretend I do.

At first, I felt a certain level of resignation in coming to the conclusion that the world is based on half-truths. So many processes are considered rigged games — ones that you shut up about and enjoy when you benefit but silently tolerate when you don’t.

I have no solution to liberate one’s self from daily doses of our favorite two letter euphemism. Claiming that I did would be — you guessed it — B.S. However, reframing the issue provides a nice sanity check. Instead of counting every instance of B.S. in my day, I’ve started tuning into the unnecessary sincerity around me. Instead of expecting everyone to be accommodating, I see thoughtfulness as a delightful addition to my life; while people should be warm and compassionate and genuine, they aren’t obligated to be so.

These days, I’ve adopted an (admittedly privileged) 80-20, “win-to-loss” headspace. Going through life expecting “wins” 100 percent of the time breeds entitlement. But reserving 20 percent for B.S. and its accompanying friends, boredom and bad luck, makes me feel thankful for the days where they only take up 18 percent of my time, or on the sunniest, friendliest day in the quaint town of Hanover, around 11.5 percent.

That’s no red ribbon solution or groundbreaking concept, but at least it’s not B.S.