Wednesday, May 23

Assholes In Print

My most recent story for the Tampa Tribune was about, for lack of a better word, assholes.

In that last sentence, "for lack of a better word" isn't a cliche, or a trite phrase to pad out a sentence. There simply isn't a better word than assholes to describe the ill-mannered, malicious, bullying, irritating, sabotaging, abrasive characters that ordinary people commonly encounter in the work place. The gist of my story, which can be found here (at least temporarily), is this: assholes aren't a trivial annoyance at work -- they chase good employees out the door, hurt the bottom line, and compromise an organization's mission.

Sadly, assholes is one of those words that simply isn't allowed in a major metropolitan daily newspaper -- I was forced to use "jerk" in its place, which is a suitable word but doesn't carry the same emotional weight as asshole, in my opinion.

I was only allowed to use asshole once in the story, as you'll see in this excerpt:

"[Jerks] have always been with us and will always be with us," said Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

(Why the brackets in that last quote? Sutton doesn't actually use the word "jerks." He uses a word that's highly discouraged by The Tampa Tribune's legion of copy editors — one that's only permitted once in this story, and that's only because it's in the title of Sutton's latest book: "The No Asshole Rule.")

After the story ran, many people in the newsroom have congratulated me for slipping asshole into the newspaper. I haven't heard any complaints from readers about the asshole, but I have received some calls and e-mail messages about the story. Here are two of my favorites:

-- One caller left a message saying the story wasn't informed enough. He said I should have referred to the complete works of Sigmund Freud, as bullies are all people who were neglected as children. He also said I should have referred to a book called "Athiesm: The Case Against God." At this point, the voice mail system cut him off because his message was too long so, sadly, I will never understand the relationship between religion and assholes.

-- Another caller left a message saying "I believe you've reached your highest level of incompetence" and then proceeded to launch into a rant about his recent experience with people selling American flags in front of a local Wal-Mart. Once again, the message was cut off because it was too long so, sadly, I will never know how American flag sales make me an incompetent reporter.

I used the asshole story for my Monday morning WFLA Business Report and, of course, I knew that I couldn't use the word asshole on the air -- even in the title of a book. So I basically rewrote the lede of my print story into a one-minute script, incorporating some of Dr. Sutton's tips for dealing with assholes.

Here's how I started the script:

Has your workplace become a ... well, jerk-place?

Jerks ... bullies ... creeps ... tyrants ... schmucks ...

They're not just an annoyance.

They're a real drain on your productivity -- and your company's bottom line.

Jerks come in all shapes and sizes ...

You get the idea, right?

About an hour after taping the segment, I'm told that it's unsuitable for TV. Apparently, the word jerk is verboten on the air. It's simply not professional. Later, it would be explained to me that it's unacceptable for me to say or imply someone is a jerk, but it's okay to cite or quote someone else calling people jerks.

At the last minute, I had to rewrite the entire business report, using phrases likes annoying coworkers and prickly personalities, and record it again.

I'm still not sure what to make about this jerk incident on WFLA. I would never, in a million years, have thought that jerk would be a problem word on TV! I'd argue that there's a difference between talking about jerks in the workplace and specifically naming a particular person as a jerk, but what's the point in arguing? The most important thing I learned is that I should probably cancel my plans for a retrospective of the early films of Steve Martin on WFLA.

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