Buzzword Bingo and You Are Not So Smart

We all know the idea of Buzzword Bingo. You create a matrix filled with so-called buzzwords and when, during a meeting or speech, you hear one of the words, you tick it of. When you reach a certain number of ticked words or have filled a row or column, you call out “Bingo” or “Bullshit”.

When you look at common buzzword bingo matrices, the words actually seem pretty normal. So what is so “bullshit” about them?

When a person uses a word, it can be in one of two circumstances:

  1. The person is familiar with the subject
  2. The person is not (sufficiently) familiar with the subject

Case 2 is an example of Cargo Cult, where someone mimics, without understanding why, the behaviour (the use of certain words) of people they see as successful, hoping to achieve some of that success as well.

The listener can be in the same two situations as the speaker. Since the proper or improper use of a word is in the eyes of the beholder, or better said, the ears of the listeners, we end up with the following four situations:

  1. The person is familiar with the subject and finds the word is used properly
  2. The person is familiar with the subject and finds the word is used improperly
  3. The person is not (sufficiently) familiar with the subject and considers the word improperly used
  4. The person is not (sufficiently) familiar with the subject and considers the word properly used

If we put these two lists in a matrix, we get 8 different combinations.

Buzzword Bingo

Of these 8, there are 3 combinations that could spark a Buzzword Bingo: combinations #3, #4, #7 and #8. But only 1 of them is a genuine Buzzword Bingo where the listener does not embarrass him- or herself: combination #4.

In combination #3, it should be a constructive debate on the use of the word. Both people are familiar with the subject and could experience a valuable learning opportunity. In combination #7, the listener would only embarrass him- or herself. Finally, combination #8 is the saddest case, both parties are not familiar with the subject and both embarrass themselves.

It should already be clear that playing Buzzword Bingo is a dangerous game, one in which you are more likely to ridicule yourself than anything else.

Sadly, it is even worse. As we learn from David McRaney in his book You Are Not So Smart, people have a strong tendency to think they are smarter than the average. They think they are in combinations #3 or #4 when in reality they are in combinations #7 or #8. That’s why people love to play Buzzword Bingo, they honestly think they know better, they honestly think they are right and the speaker is a clueless person.

Reality is sobering: you are as stupid, or as smart, as the person you are listening to. So if he is using a term you think is a useless buzzword, it is probably as much you who doesn’t understand the word as it is him performing a ritual in his cargo cult.