Culture clash of “experts” and “idiots”

by | Sep 16, 2014 | Blog | 3 comments

icedteasweetAfter six months of living in Charleston, SC—my first time residing in the Deep South—I now realize I keep hearing the same “fake ask.” Different speakers have delivered it in person at more than half a dozen venues.

Just as troubling to me, I didn’t even notice the trend until this past week when the “fake ask” sounded so sickening sweet and insincere that my teeth started to hurt. Think Southern sweet tea with an extra cup of sugar.

As background, “Let’s do lunch” used to be my classic example of a “fake ask” when helping clients develop compelling calls to action to get employees to take action.

A “fake ask” is a stand-alone comment that on face value implies a call to action, such as we’ll find a date to dine together.

The inference though is that nothing will happen—especially in the short term.

Other examples of “fake asks” are “We want fully-engaged employees.” and “We’re interested in what you have to say.” There may be desire behind those requests, but there’s no arousal to do anything.

Now, my classic example of a fake ask is, “We want to hear from you.” The Charleston meeting event emcees and the keynoters deliver this statement in earnest before and after their presentations, and often during.

The kicker? The question and answer session is totally missing from the event. No Q&A’s whatsoever. Not even a token inquiry or planted query. As for after the meeting, no surveys or ways to contact the speakers.

At the meeting, only those on the stage are speaking. Nobody else is clarifying a point, asking a question, making a comment, starting a conversation or doing anything else resembling 2-way dialogue. Instead, the presenters are talking at us, and reminding us that they want to hear from us.

In an era where people respect, value and trust their peers, often more than experts— as the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer reports—these meetings are wasting a golden opportunity to add peers’ voices to the conversation—especially since we’re already in the room.

Why revert to the old “expert/idiot meeting” with the “expert” on the stage and the “idiots” in the audience?

“There’s no time,” the meeting organizers say when I ask.

The “no time” rationale is a non-sequitur since time is all we have, as great philosophers and others have observed.

(As one enlightened individual remarked, the event organizers and speakers also may fear that they will lose control of the message, and the meeting might get a wee bit messy. That of course would make things much more thought-provoking, stimulating and memorable.)

So what’s the point of showing up in person?

If we watched a video instead, we wouldn’t have to incur any opportunity costs to get to the event. No need to get dressed, no time and money spent traveling, and more time to do other things, such as converse with interesting people.

Yes, but there’s networking, the meeting organizers emphasize.

However, the “networking” at these events doesn’t have any structure or processes around it. For people like me who are new to the area and hardly know anyone and who are borderline introverts uncomfortable in these settings, this is not appealing.

Hmm. Maybe this is more than a “fake ask.”

Maybe it’s culture clash?

Maybe it’s too much Northern efficiency to start to poll people in the room and hear what they have to say?

Maybe listening to audience members is cramming the Silicon Valley “peer-to-peer” or “sharing economy” down these Southerners’ throats?

Maybe being inclusive is too 2014, especially with so many newcomers infiltrating Charleston, this wonderful 344-year-old city?

But cultural clashes aside, Bless Your Heart—Southern code for nicely saying you’re an idiot—business people today need to acknowledge that expert/idiot meetings are past their prime, especially for a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world in which we must constantly evolve how we work.

If you ever want people to get out of their seat and do something, you’ve got to show respect that they’re capable human beings who bring their brain to work. That means listening to them in the moment and looking for ways to involve them.

Meanwhile, as an advocate for and practitioner of smart-mob organizing and other peer-by-peer practices to transform organizations, I can’t condone meetings that silence diverse voices.

Nor can I embrace inconsistent behavior, saying you want to hear but not following through— “all hat, no cattle” as we say in Oklahoma.

What about you?


  1. Forrest W. Anderson

    Great post Liz! Though I am surprised to hear you are a “borderline introvert.” 😉

  2. Louise Fitzgerald.

    Your article is “telling it like it is,” which is a characteristic I’ve always admired. Where did this article appear? You continue to impress me with your insights and energy. You go girl!

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Louise and Forrest. I’ve only posted the content here to date. It’s a topic I feel passionately about, especially as I learn more about the brain. We’re social creatures who want to interact and converse with others–on terms that are comfortable for us. (Forrest, I HATE going into a large room packed with people I don’t know.) Yet too many leaders still want to talk at people and then they complain that people are more interested in their devices. But if I and others get the signal that our voices don’t count, it’s much more rewarding to check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and zone out, than pay rapt attention to someone who doesn’t seem to care about us.

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