I recently did a video "book brief" for BNET about The No Asshole Rule and received a few strong complaints about the title -- the strongest in a long time. I responded, but I also thought that I would update my original blog posting on the topic. I have received some complaints now and then since the book was published, as you can see in my Publisher's Weekly piece and this wonderful letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. But as I have written here, I am mostly shocked by how few people object to the term, and by some of the places -- like this bible study class -- that use the word openly. Nonetheless, as I am getting more push back on the title than I have in awhile, I thought I would re-run a post that I put-up last October, before the book was published, on "Why I Call Them Assholes." I've edited it just slightly. In particular, check-out the comments from readers; they are wonderful. Here goes:
I confess that I have received surprisingly few complaints about publishing a book titled The No Asshole Rule (or if you speak German, Der Arschloch-Faktor). One of the most surprising things about the experience of writing the book, selling it to publishers, and now talking about it to various people, is how few complaints I’ve received about the somewhat dirty title. Perhaps the most serious complaint was from the Harvard Business School Press (HBSP), whose editors wanted to publish the book as long as I changed to a more respectable title -- something I declined do. Jeff and I have had a fantastic experience with HBSP on our current book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, and I would recommend them to any business author. But I found their negative reaction to the title a bit amusing because my original essay on the rule (called “More Trouble Than They Are Worth") was published in their sister publication the Harvard Business Review, and it contained the word “asshole” 7 or 8 times. In their defense, the Harvard brand is one that smacks of respectability and even a touch of stuffiness. And as I told them when they tried to get me to change the title, if I was in management at the Harvard Business School Press, I wouldn’t publish a book with “Asshole” in the title either, as even if it sold well, it would be bad for their brand image. So off I went to other publishers, and I've been delighted with Warner Business Books.
I haven’t had many complaints since. I have done media interviews where they requested that I use the word “jerk.” When I did a radio interview with Ron Reagan, he let me use the word “a-hole.” Just recently, though, I had a complaint that really got me thinking about why I use the word, and if it is a wise and civil thing to do. A couple weeks ago, BusinessWeek published a “centerfold” story about my perspective on brainstorming and a list of eight brainstorming tips based on my research and experience with creative teams. In the story, they (without censoring the title) were kind enough to say that my next book is The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace And Surviving One That Isn’t. The story provoked a most thoughtful e-mail from one reader:
One thing caught my eye, though: If it isn’t too late, get a new title for your upcoming book. Vulgarism has no place in serious business. It weakens your ideas and diminishes your credibility. Maybe you could brainstorm with some of your colleagues and come up with a better one.
This critique got me thinking about why I was using this “vulgarism.” Was I just being cute? Was I doing it to sell books? Certainly, I plead guilty to that charge -- it would be a lie to deny that. Was I doing it because I am a vulgar person? That might be true too, but the other books and articles that I write rarely contain dirty talk.
There are two main reasons why, at least for me, no other word works as well for describing these demeaning and mean-spirited people. The first reason has to do with authenticity and the second follows from my goal of affecting what people actually think about and do in organizations.
To start with authenticity, when I tangle with nasty person, I don’t think “what a jerk” or “what an abusive person.” The first thing that comes to mind is “what an asshole.” That is also the word that nearly everyone I know uses to describe these creeps, even though they may later censor it. In The No Asshole Rule, for example, I describe a law firm that actively enforces what they call a "no jerk rule" in media reports, but when I talked to a senior partner, he confirmed that, they call the people that they screen out “assholes” rather than jerks. And just the other day, my wife was talking with an attorney who specializes in labor law litigation, and this attorney was amused to hear the title of my forthcoming book because so many potential clients that she turns away are really complaining about working for assholes, not about sexual harassment or discrimination. This attorney reported that “asshole” is the word that her potential clients often use and nearly always really mean -- and she turns most away because it probably isn’t unlawful to be an equal opportunity asshole in most places, despite all the damage they do.
Finally, another sign that that this phrase is authentic from both an intellectual and emotional standpoint came, to my surprise, in an email that I received from an accomplished researcher who studies emotional abuse in the workplace. As I say the book, she wrote, “Your work on the ‘no asshole rule’ has certainly resonated with my colleagues and me. In fact, we often speculate that we would be able to predict a large proportion of variance in job satisfaction with one ‘flaming asshole item.’ Basically, if we could ask whether your boss is one, we would not need any other [survey] items. …. Thus, I agree that while potentially offensive, no other word quite captures the essence of this type of person.”
We teach our Ph.D. students at Stanford in the Center for Work, Technology and Organization who do ethnographies of the workplace that using foul language is sometimes necessary for providing accurate and realistic descriptions of what people say and how they feel. I believe that – in terms of both descriptive and emotional accuracy – other words are simply inferior for describing how persistently demeaning people act and, especially, the feelings they unleash in their victims.
My second argument is that, since my aim is to help people understand how to spot these demeaning creeps, understand the damage they do, and how to build civilized organizations that screen-out, reform and expel nasty people, I should use language that people will remember and spread. After all, as Chip and Dan Heath show so brilliantly in their forthcoming book Made to Stick, no matter how good an idea is, if it isn’t “sticky,” if it isn’t something that people talk about, recall persistently, and gets them excited, then it can’t have any impact on what they do. Chip and Dan show how “sticky ideas” are embedded in Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credentialed, Emotional Stories that Stick – which boils down to SUCCESS, one of the few “evidence-based acronyms” I've ever seen. I won’t lead you through a detailed march through these seven standards, but I do think that the phrase “The No Asshole Rule” fits their standards for a sticky idea better than, say, the “no nastiness,” “no bully,” or no “psychological abuse” rule – particularly because it is more emotional and more concrete than other phrases, it easier to weave into stories that “stick” with people, and it provokes an array of depressing, funny, and touchy stories from other people as well.
Again, perhaps I am just trying to justify or glorify my vulgar language or crass desire to sell books, but I believe that these other arguments about authenticity and stickiness are sound too – - with all due respect to the thoughtful person who gently chastised me in that e-mail.
P.S. Another reason that, at least for me, that no other word works as well that when I am acting like a nasty creep (I plead guilty, it does happen), I don;t say to myself "Gee Bob, you are acting like a jerk." I say to myself "You are acting like an asshole. Stop it." So -- again to be authentic -- this is what I call myself when I've been bad to help gain a bit of self-control, not some sanitized word.