Ethics, social media, and platitudes


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A couple of days ago, I saw some ridiculous photo on Facebook of a work team that looked something like this:

Stock Work Team

Now of course, that’s a stock photo that I stole from Google. It’s not the actual work team in question — although wouldn’t it be glorious if it was?

I scrolled quickly through the comments on this particular photo, and they were all of this variety:

“Best team in the biz!”

“Most creative group of individuals ever!”

“Making magic!”

I was a little bit confused. This was just a shot of a bunch of co-workers, presumably from a holiday party. Was this really the best team in whatever business they do? Was it the most creative gathering of individuals ever? Were they truly making magic? All of that seemed kinda far-fetched. They were eating cookies and cake and smiling together. But yet — that was everybody’s comment!

So I came to two conclusions: (a) this team must be bad-ass in some way and (b) I need to research platitudes a bit more.

Here’s how dictionary.com gets at platitude:

a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were freshor profound.

That seems like as good a definition as any to start with.

Platitudes have become a major issue in “modern society” — and I use that term in quotes because it seems awkward whenever someone says that, at least to me — because of the whole thoughts and prayers concept. Essentially, something bad happens — Paris, San Bernardino — and we all rush in with thoughts and prayers and changing our social media profile pictures. Politicians do it too. At the end of the day, it’s all meaningless platitudes. If you’re a politician and it affected you, work to change some aspect of it. If you’re an average citizen and you’re just doing it or posting it because all your friends are so you feel you should, well, what’s the purpose of that?

We’ll get back to social media in a second.

Why do platitudes exist?

For now: why do platitudes exist? Can’t people just say how they actually feel in a given situation, or not say anything at all?

Here’s the most basic reason, from an article in Psychology Today:

We’re drawn to these faux nuggets of wisdom in times of trouble because humans are hardwired to respond more vehemently to bad experiences than good ones. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s a good thing: Your chance of survival goes up if your reactivity kicks into high gear when you’re faced with a predator or flash flood.

People resort to platitudes when someone is in pain or trouble for a variety of reasons: They may actually believe in whatever the cliché expresses and share it in the spirit of helpfulness. Or they may not know what to say so they hone in on a platitude, wrongly believing that saying nothing would be worse. In the worst case, they’re simply emotionally careless, don’t get the difference between sympathy and empathy, or are deaf to the message the platitude actually delivers.

So your basic reasons are:

  • The platitude-sayer may believe it.
  • The platitude-sayer doesn’t know what to say.
  • The platitude-sayer doesn’t understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.
  • It’s all set up around the concept of a psychological immune system that kicks in on any bad experience.

If you break that down a little more, your core reasons for platitudes come back to:

  • Belief
  • Fear of inaction
  • Lack of understanding of current emotional state

Look at those last three bullets. That’s pretty much the three things that cause any project at work to collapse, right? Someone has an exaggerated belief in something or the other. Someone else is scared of inaction, so it’s Reply All time. And many people aren’t clear regarding the emotional states of the people they work with.

Kinda interesting, right?

Here’s a bigger point: humans operate according to a basic idea of social reciprocity. If you smile at someone on the street, you expect that back, or at least a head nod. If you share something that’s going poorly, or there’s a universal bad experience (Paris attacks), we expect others to be communicating and sharing, especially in a world where a percentage of us can access the immediate thoughts of others via social media. That’s the human condition. That’s why ‘happiness’ is really about shifting away from money and towards time and people.

The Dark Side of Platitudes

Some have argued that the problem with platitudes is that they ultimately steer us away from discussing questionable practices. There’s even been a research paper written on the topic of platitudes and business ethics, which features this line in the abstract:

Over the last generation, American Business Ethics has focused excessively on the process of managerial decision-making while ignoring the collective impact of these decisions and avoiding other approaches that might earn the disapproval of corporate executives.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Even this conversation below, which happens every day at every office, is essentially a platitude:

“Jim! How are you, bud?”

“So slammed! My busy season!”

“Don’t I know it! Racing to my 11:45!”

“Catch up soon!”

The Temple of Busy was literally built by bricks of platitudes. And again, it goes back to those ideas above — belief, confusion about real emotion, and not wanting to be inactive in a given situation.

The tie with ethics is much more nuanced than a ridiculous hallway conversation, but essentially: corporations and executives often resort to platitudes (i.e. cliches, buzzwords, corporate speak, etc.) when discussing key issues — because when you speak in that way, you obscure the main topic. And that main topic? It could be less than stellar ethically.

In that way, platitudes are a key defense mechanism — and as such, they ain’t going anywhere in most offices.

Social Media and Platitudes

This is where things can get real odd and/or dangerous. Social media is literally life comparison on steroids. As a result, it took the notion of “the rat race” — see also “Act II of Life”and made it worse for many people, especially because people tend to check Facebook and other social sites when they’re already depressed. How’s that going to make it better?

True story from my life on this topic: on Christmas Eve day, I was in Queens (NYC) in an Uber under the N Train. I was flipping through Facebook and looking at various pictures and comments, right? I was already a bit depressed (holidays, etc.) and I decided right then and there to just delete FB from my phone. I’m still a user, sure, but it’s not on my phone. So when I’m out and about, I won’t check it. I’ve had that for about 4-5 days now and it actually makes being away from a desktop more enjoyable.

I was trying to avoid meaningless platitudes about a shot of people in a Santa costume or whatever, perhaps because I’m a grinch. But the thing is, platitudes are everywhere on social media — and they’re even more prevalent during the times we really need to be thinking about the fabric of our society (elections, massive violent events, etc.)

Instead of doing that, we’re running around throwing thoughts and prayers on everyone’s Wall/timeline/etc. Are we really learning and growing and trying to understand when we do that, or are we checking a box?

Can we do anything about platitudes?

Probably not. They’re important to social fabric in terms of conversation, covering your ass, social media use, and much more. But there are a couple of places we could start:

Discussions About Failure: If people could become more comfortable having transparent discussions about failure, we’d likely have less of a need for platitudes. If something wasn’t going properly or according to plan, maybe people would feel comfortable talking about it openly. Because humans generally operate according to achievement models, we tend to question — but not discuss — failure, at the same time almost universally minting and accepting success. That’s a problem. Success and failure are essentially two sides of the same pillow; there’s no dichotomy there.

Empathy: You see it above — platitudes often emerge from a confusion about the difference between sympathy and empathy. Teaching empathy is notoriously hard, especially to adults, but the more people that understood what “empathy” is, the less BS platitudes we’d have out in the world. Unfortunately, at a broad level we may be moving away from that as opposed to towards it.

Using Social Media: Most people honestly have no clue how to use social media, and that goes for companies and individuals. (I’m very guilty of this too.) Companies try to sell all the time, which forgets the word ‘social.’ Individuals are seemingly always using it to prove something about their life or their beliefs or their position, and that doesn’t help anything, really. It creates a lot of circular discussions and depresses people. Just because people got shot somewhere doesn’t mean you need to post something, or share a link about ISIS, or respond to your friend. You can just be. You can think about it yourself and discuss it with your close friends. It doesn’t have to be ‘out there,’ although why we want it out there is another entire post on human psychology.

What’s your take on platitudes, cliches, buzzwords, and the like? 

Ted Bauer


  1. Hi Ted, interesting article. Thanx again! I’m gonna have to chew on some of it some more. Here’s a small (subjective, non-scientific) answer to your question (take on platitudes and cliches etc.). I have always thought they were sort of hollow, filling emptiness with the hollowness of meaninglessness and suggesting understanding each other, but actually retaining real contact and connection. But I also was very fascinated by them. Why do so much people use them to express themselves? I heard so much people with the same cliche life-motto. How come? Don’t they realize they share a thought/ambition/philosophy that’s identical to say…a billion other people? Maybe it has something to do with me growing older. In January I’ll turn 39, I have 3 sons (7,6,4) and my father died 1,5 year ago aged only 73. The amazing thing is that when you see cliches and platitudes as meaning-pyramids (or icebergs), you only see the top. So the cliche in itself is just a tiny thumbtack. But this point could also be seen as the only visible expression of the whole meaning-pyramid that’s hidden behind it. So, sometimes cliches are small ‘pars pro totos’ for a lot of meaning. That’s where cliches and platitudes become very meaningful, complex and worthy of further investigation. Ofcours it depends on the context and who’s talking. Another ‘deep, wise, contextless’ cliche from another Einstein/Dalai Lama/Ghandi/Obama on a Facebookwall is just another nice selfconfirmation that makes you feel good, especially because it gives you the feeling this ‘wisdom’ will learn you something ‘big’ in life which ar the same time gives you a motive for your procrastination. But all in all, when I hear a cliche out of an interesting persons mouth or in a real situation, such a cliche suddenly comes to life, let’s me discover the whole pyramid and even gives me glimpse of a heartfelt truth. I think that is why people love them: they’re always true, because they’re the cherry on the pie, the top on the pyramid the outcome of ages, the proven quality. On the surface they’re empty, meaningless and annoying predictable, but they represent doors to a lot of human truths that – like a lot of stories, myths etc. – make us feel real, connected, emotional and meaningful. And because we yes all the time, this chance of having the experience of being real and meaningful is also all around us. So…looking at cliches and platitudes this way, they may even be useful tools, antennas or crowbars for discovering meaning and starting real conversations, also to be used in corporate context. Maybe you like my comment or maybe you think it’s just another open door :-). Love your articles!

  2. I’m not sure that I can applaud this any louder. Bad things happen all the time all over the world; but they rarely affect me. I abhor “thoughts and prayers” spit out, or typed out, in some tail-tucked show of solidarity. Screw that. You want to show support – have an actual conversation, DO something – but keep your “thoughts and prayers” to yourself instead of seeking out a virtual pat on the back and ‘Attaboy!”.

  3. I suppose the johnvidet’s blog meant something but it was to weird to read and try to understand, i think it was the world’s longest platitude, was that the point?? I do love the word and meaning of empathy, it’s silent caring i think but who grades it s worth, platitudes are sound bites and held up as feeling, empathy just is

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