LinkedIn is always good for a laugh. When I’m busy, I’ll take a breather by clicking onto the professional networking platform for a giggle. There’s nothing better than watching a funky, unconventional post suddenly segue into a conventional pitch for work opportunities. They reel you in so deftly, so slyly, that you often don’t see the switcheroo coming.
A recent favourite read something like: “Volodymyr Zelenskyy has turned communication on its head. He’s direct, sincere and empathetic. He’s totally unique, a one-off. If you’d like to communicate just like the Ukrainian president, then contact Unsubtle Communications.” Then there’s the LinkedIn staple—the inspirational, self-made man. He’ll write something like: “I left school at seven with no qualifications and only one testicle, thanks to an unfortunate incident with a deckchair. By the time I was 12, I was running my own startup—a condom delivery service to save men the embarrassment of buying them in a supermarket. I built an empire by being an original. So sign up for my seminar and you, too, can be an original, by doing everything I say!”
And therein lies the irony.
On LinkedIn and elsewhere, the irrepressible need to be unconventional in the entrepreneurial age, to waffle on about originality and out-of-the-box thinking achieves the opposite effect, for me at least. They all sound the same. They sound utterly conventional.
On LinkedIn and elsewhere, the irrepressible need to be unconventional in the entrepreneurial age, to waffle on about originality and out-of-the-box thinking achieves the opposite effect, for me at least.
And yes, full disclosure, such a perception says as much about me—the eternally struggling author—as it does about the LinkedIn regulars. At face value, the business jargon is both tedious and terrifying. Until very recently, I had never heard terms such as B2B or C-Suite before. I assumed B2B had something to do with telecommunications and a C-Suite was somewhere that pregnant women went for a Caesarean section delivery.
It gets worse. I was actually hosting a radio show when I heard ‘C-Suite’ for the first time and I came this close to asking the businessman if he was, in fact, a gynaecologist.
As a consequence, I dismissed such folks as unspeakably boring to make me feel better, and to assuage my ignorance of anything vaguely corporate or unfamiliar. Besides, I had nothing in common with the white-collar mob, the nine-to-fivers who clocked in and out every day, climbing some dreary ladder to nouveau-riche respectability. On the few occasions that our paths crossed, any small talk of property prices, the stock market or investment opportunities usually precipitated a swift exit, especially if they didn’t speak properly.
When did it become acceptable for people to talk weirdly in business meetings? When I was a kid, only swimming instructors told me to take a ‘deep dive’. Now we take them on Zoom. When people lament their ‘bandwidth’, I wonder if they’ve had a stroke. They’re either taking discussions ‘offline’ or referring me to ‘thought-leaders’, reminding me, yet again, of the benefits of my hermetic existence. My inverted snobbery had long ago drawn a clear line in the sand. These were ‘beige people’, as Scottish comedian Billy Connolly likes to call them: bland, banal and indistinguishable types, obsessed with salary and social status and not much else.
When I was a kid, only swimming instructors told me to take a ‘deep dive’. Now we take them on Zoom.
And on the other side, there were the true societal misfits; the artists and the anarchic, the queer and the quirky, the outliers. People like me. Of course, such simplistic pigeonholing is mostly a load of rubbish. First, I’m not so much Hunter Thompson as I am the Mark Zuckerberg character in The Social Network, rambling on about my extensive popculture knowledge and offbeat lifestyle choices because I couldn’t attract the pretty girls in secondary school.
While it’s true that my unconventionality allowed me to think differently and win class debates, my more conventional friend was being fondled by the best-looking girl behind the bike sheds. Interestingly, he’s now a property agent, no doubt hosting ideation sessions about the residential sector (I’m not an advocate for the death penalty, except for the person who popularised the word ideation.) But here’s the thing. He’s not dull. Away from the PowerPoint presentations, he actually talks normally, about all manner of subjects, and doesn’t once ask to ‘touch base’ to improve ‘synergy’.
Whether it’s society or insecurity, the pressure to fit into prescribed boxes, to be seen as safe, reliable and, quite honestly, cliched, is dispiriting. Beige people are not necessarily beige. They’re just pretending to be. It’s no surprise that so much business is conducted not during the standard pitch or seminar (the boring, conventional bit), but afterwards, over beers and bar snacks (the random, unconventional bit). When people stop pretending.
Beige people are not necessarily beige. They’re just pretending to be.
Recently, I endured a humdrum speech from a business leader and immediately—and foolishly—wrote him off as a corporate automaton to avoid. Instead, he collared me for an animated discussion about Liverpool’s silverware chances (good), Manchester United’s chances (bad) and the prospect of English football rejecting dirty money (more chance of Fandi Ahmad being Singapore’s next prime minister). He was two different people. Two different personalities. One was entertaining, the other a day trip to the dentist. So why persist with this schizophrenic performing? Why not remove the straitjacket of conventionality?
Like the un-ironic posts on LinkedIn, it’s a bit of an act, a routine. An artificial or manufactured business exercise that plays out on both sides (watching creative types exaggerate their rebellious streak can be equally exhausting).
If only we could just, well, be.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write a LinkedIn post that exaggerates my quirky—and highly marketable—unconventional persona.
IllustrationChee Penn Ey