Why does cynicism sell? (This site sucks)

I know I’m fond of criticizing the world. I have many posts with titles like Why X sucks and the myths about Y. Many writers do this too and I wonder why. A first pass suggests it’s easier to criticize than it is to make things.

For example, lets say we have two essays:

A) What makes managers great

B) Why managers make us miserable

Somehow the confession, by writer B, that there’s something wrong and they’re going to talk about it strikes me as more honest than writer A. Writer A sounds like a fool. A Pollyanna. He sounds like someone who thinks everything is wonderful and probably has no insight as to why. Whereas Writer B, although he might describe some horror stories, offers a chance at insight that might help turn things around.

I’m from NYC, and people from NYC are prone to skepticism.  Simply put, if I don’t see you call bullshit on something, I fear you don’t know how.

I do realize this can get in the way, so I do my best not to go too far. I wonder what you think. Let me know.

8 Responses to “Why does cynicism sell? (This site sucks)”

  1. Eric

    Talking about what enrages you is easier for many reasons, obvi. when you’re passionate about something you can go on long rants about that subject. It also requires no research to go “hey this site/blog/post sucks” as opposed to looking up reasons for or against a topic. Look at sites like digg & reddit, they are MADE on positive/negative comments and people trashing other’s work. Although some of these cynical bastards online can be pretty funny, ie a comment someone left on my Digg about some new concept car read simply “s**t car is s**t” – gave me a good laugh!

    Also I grew up just outside NYC, but moved to Philly after college…New Yorkers are saints compared to the attitudes of Philadelphians (and I say that with all love for both cities)

  2. Terence

    I love your site, your ideas, your essays and look forward to any new entry you post.

    I have found in my 60+ years on this freckled ball we call earth that pointing the finger at “them and the horrible things they’re doing” never brings me happiness, peace, or joy.

    Now, my first reaction is often to go to that place of blame and victimization but time and practice has shown me that I ALWAYS will find peace and tranquility when I focus not on what they do but on how I react to it.

    Some may call that a pollyanna reaction but I have found that in life the only control I have is on my thoughts, reactions, and decisions.

  3. alsomike

    For me, cynicism is a problem when it is secretly a way of avoiding disappointment – I think this is often the case with what you might call preemptive cynicism. Then it just becomes a drag on doing anything at all.

    Another way of looking at it is that its often difficult – in this culture, at least – to convincingly articulate the value of modest progress. It seems like we are addicted to grandiose visions; we are only motivated to action if a heroic victory is likely.

    I’m thinking here of an article by Peter Drucker (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/management-the-five-deadly-sins-1501842.html) about mistakes GM made, and one of them was a desire for huge profit margins. Japanese automakers were happy to exploit the lower cost, lower profit-margin opportunity that American automakers neglected. Similar pattern: Xerox and Canon.

    So perhaps cynicism is a way of valuing modest progress, of “let’s suck less” as a motivating factor. Too often, it seems that Pollyanna-ism and ridiculously optimistic goals are used to justify sucking at the basic, unsexy blocking and tackling that tends to make the difference in the end.

  4. Mark Mzyk

    I think there is more cynicism than positivism, because cynicism is a way to lift ourselves up. I think a lot of cynicism comes from us not wanting to see others do better. It’s a way to keep up with the Jones.

    I see Sally just developed and implemented a great idea, but I didn’t. I don’t want Sally to get all the credit for it. Since I didn’t do anything, I need to find something to criticize, that way people can be distracted by the criticism (however small it maybe). I’ll get credit for finding the flaw, while Sally gets less credit for what she did.

    In the end, I feel better about myself, because now Sally doesn’t look so great, and I can give myself credit for doing something.

    If instead I give Sally praise for what she did, it means in a way I’m admitting I can’t take credit for it and I’m giving her all the benefit. This is how it should be, but it’s the more difficult path to take.

    I think the reason why we find people who are always positive and not cynical so grating is that they don’t rip others apart. This is how we wished we behaved, but since we don’t, we have to be cynical about them. It’s a vicious cycle.

  5. Sean Crawford

    If people in NYC are cynical like you describe Scott then it may be that some bad apples have ruined the barrel. In contrast I picture a mid-west lady on the porch at church. If I say an “only joking” lie, or a sarcasm lie, then her face will be troubled at first until she catches on. I mean she gives me the benefit of the doubt and assumes I am honest. I suspect a NYC street guy is living behind glass, with a millisecond delay, where he checks for truth before he reacts. Thus he avoids being hurt by bad apples. To me the lady is wide eyed and normal while the NYC guy is narrow eyed and- lives a less refreshing lifestyle. Perhaps, then, if you can’t trust the folks around you, then you get cynical about people and things everywhere…. Incidentally, my favorite U.S. citizens are soldiers: I always found them to have an ego-less unafraid eager curiosity about things.

  6. Sandy

    I’m more with Scott. My experience has been that inveterate boosters tend to gloss over inconvenient facts that make their forecasts of a new golden age so much horse-carbon-footprint.

    It’s not that cool new things are bad; it’s that boosterism–particularly on the part of the latest management fad–is often done by ex-practitioners who have lost the feel for what This All Means when the rubber hits the road. Seriously, if I see Tom Peters gushing about a new “game-changer” “transformative” method of business-doing, I’m pretty sure I can safely ignore it. There might be some good nuggets in there, but you have to go through a lot of that horse-carbon-footprint to get to them.

    If inveterate boosters wouldn’t make such outlandishly exaggerated claims, people like me wouldn’t become inveterate cynics. If you manage to impress a cynic, I’ll listen. If you are chronically pounding sunshine up my carbon-emission-pipe, I’m probably going to ignore you.

  7. Megan

    Perfectly stated!!! It’s about time someone actually drew attention to this, and pointed out the obvious… I guess other blogs who make such false comments, with ill-informed and basic one-liner comments are, in-effect, summing up their blog readership and the calibre of people they may attract…

  8. Lenore

    I found your advice to be thoughtful,amusing, and well planned…thank you.


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