Talking bullshit in Australia vs. America

Let us begin by taking note of the “high tolerance of swear words” (Goddard 2006: 66) which characterises Australian speech practices, a point on which Anglo-Americans tend to differ judging from injunctions such as

“Forget the image of The Sopranos. Australians living in American suburbs quickly learn to stop swearing” (Goddard: 81)

My own experience of having learned most of my spoken English from Australians supports this view, as many of my American friends seemed quite uncomfortable with my liberal use of profanities.

In covering the range of meanings associated with bullshit, ‘pretentiousness’ crops up as an attitude evoking “a deeply ingrained skepticism” because

“Australian audiences have a very low bullshit tolerance. There’s not much scope for lyrical or musical pretentiousness in Australia.” (Donald Horne quoted in Goddard: 77).

Frankfurt makes the same association observing that “‘pretentious bullshit’ is close to being a stock phrase”, although he opines that “pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constituent element of its essence” (Frankfurt: 11).

While Goddard concentrates his efforts on describing ‘reactions’ to bullshit (that is to say, calling out bullshit: “Spotting and seeing through bullshit” Goddard: 76) and identifying the values behind this critical attitude, Frankfurt is more inclined to analyse the act of bullshitting itself :

 “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (Frankfurt: 33-34)

There are other interesting parallels (“to make hot air” [Frankfurt: 43] versus “all airy-fairy stuff” [Goddard: 78]), but it is worth dwelling more on the possible reasons for the different approaches to the usage of bullshit.

From an Australian perspective,

the “social ideal of egalitarianism” (Goddard: 66) creates “imperatives to avoid appearing special and self-important, to avoid any impression of indulging in bullshit” (Goddard: 79).

On the other hand, the high value placed on the concept of freedom in American society leads Frankfurt to distinguish lying from bulshitting by observing that

“a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom” (Frankfurt: 52),

which is practical since

“bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” (Frankfurt: 63)

From this sketchy comparison it can be concluded that a given society’s values exert a significant influence not only on the usage of cultural key words but also on the perspectives from which those employing them are judged.

Bibliography

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton Printing Press.

Goddard, Cliff. 2006. “Lift your game Martina!” deadpan jocular irony and the ethnopragmatics of Australian English. In Goddard, Cliff (ed.) Ethnopragmatics: Understanding discourse in cultural context. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 65-98.

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1997. Understanding Cultures through Their Keywords. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 227-231.

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