The Gervais Principle II: Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk

We began this analysis of corporate life by exploring a  theoretical construct (the Gervais Principle) through the character arcs of Michael and Ryan in The Office. The construct and examples provide a broad-strokes treatment of the why of the power dynamics among Sociopaths, the Clueless and Losers.

Series Home | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | ebook


This helps us understand how the world works, but not how to work it. So let me introduce you to the main skill required here, mastery over the four major languages spoken in organizations, among Sociopaths, Losers and the Clueless. I’ll call the four languages Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk. Here’s a picture of who speaks what to whom. Let’s use it to figure out how to make friends and influence people, Office style.


The Calculus of Organizational Dynamics

The Gervais Principle operates at the slow tempo of promotions, demotions, layoffs and hirings. The bulk of organizational life, however, plays out much faster. One conversation at a time. The different species in the organization speak different languages.  If the MacLeod Hierarchy and Lifecycle provide the space and time, and the Gervais Principle is Newton’s law, the various languages together constitute calculus. You have to learn calculus before you can do anything useful with the theory.


Among our three groups — Sociopaths, Clueless and Losers, we have four unique languages. Powertalk is the in-group language of the Sociopaths, and that’s what we’ll talk about in this post. Posturetalk is the language spoken by the clueless to everybody (they don’t have an in-group language since they don’t realize they constitute a group). Sociopaths and Losers talk back to the Clueless in a language called Babytalk that seems like Posturetalk to the Clueless.  I’ll cover Posturetalk and Babytalk in the next installment.  Among themselves, Losers speak a language called Gametalk. This is the only language that has been properly studied and documented. I won’t cover it at all, but you can learn all about it in the pop classics on Transactional Analysis (TA, a Neo-Freudian school) from 30 years ago (now available in updated editions): Eric Berne’s Games People Play and What Do You Say after You Say Hello and Thomas Harris’ I’m OK–You’re OK. Yes they’re dated and have been parodied to the point that they seem campy today. No that does not mean they are useless. Yes, you need a brain to read them critically today. Add these three books to the two I already referenced (The Organization Man and Images of Organization).

Finally, Sociopaths and Losers speak rarely to each other at all. One of the functions of the Clueless, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization. But when they do talk, they actually speak an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk if it were worth naming. It is the ordinary  (if rare) utilitarian language of the sane, with no ulterior motives flying around. The mean-what-you-say-and-say-what-you-mean stuff between two people in a fixed, asymmetric power relationship, who don’t want or need to play real or fake power games. This is the unmarked black triangle edge in the diagram.

Let’s do the most important language, Powertalk.

The Elements of Powertalk

Here are two examples, of good and bad Powertalk respectively.

Fluent Powertalk

At a Dunder-Mifflin management party, shortly after Michael and Jan disclose their affair to David Wallace, per HR requirements, Wallace casually invites Jim to blow off the party for a while and shoot hoops in the backyard. Once outside, Wallace nonchalantly asks, “So what’s up with Jan and Michael?” He is clearly fishing for information, having observed the bizarre couple dynamics at the party.

Jim replies, “I wouldn’t know…(pregnant pause)…where to begin.” (slight laugh)

David Wallace laughs in return. This is as eloquent as such a short fragment of Powertalk can get. Here are just some of the messages being communicated by the six words and the meaningful pause and laugh.

  • Message 1: It is a complex situation (literal).
  • Message 2: I understand you think something bizarre is going on. I am confirming your suspicion. It is a bizarre mess, and you should be concerned.
  • Message 3: This is the first significant conversation between us, and I am signaling to you that I am fluent in Powertalk.
  • Message 4: I know how to communicate useful information while maintaining plausible deniability.
  • Message 5: I am not so gratified at this sign of attention from you  that I am going to say foolish things that could backfire on me.
  • Message 6: I am aware of my situational leverage and the fact that you need me. I am not so overawed that I am giving it all up for free.
  • Message 7: I am being non-committal enough that you can pull back or steer this conversation to safer matters if you like. I know how to give others wiggle room, safe outs and exits.
  • Message 8: You still have to earn my trust. But let’s keep talking. What do you have that I could use?

The key here is that only Message 1 is comprehensible to the truly Clueless; this is what makes for plausible deniability. You cannot prove that the other messages were exchanged. Losers can partially understand, but not speak Powertalk. To them, Powertalk is a spectator sport.

We can speculate with a fair amount of certainty what someone like Michael would have said in such a situation if his and Jim’s roles had been reversed. He would have been so gratified by the attention that he would have babbled out an incoherent and epic narrative without further prompting. Wallace would have taken the information and walked away without paying.

A Powertalk Trainwreck

Here is the second example, illustrating Michael’s inability to speak Powertalk.  This is during Michael’s salary negotiation with Jan, again shortly after their affair has been revealed and there is a clear conflict of interest to maneuver around. Much to Michael’s dismay, Jan insists on Toby’s presence, to maintain a witnessed appearance of perfect due process.

Jan offers Michael a modest raise, which he knows (thanks to being coached by Darryl, as we saw in the last post) to be a lowball offer. He is shocked. He feels betrayed. He has no idea it might be useful to hide his inner reaction with Toby present. His response:

“Jan… After all we’ve been through…” (with a hurt, puppy-dog look in his eyes)

Jan struggles desperately to return to the necessary script of due process. Toby, in one of his rare (and revealing) displays of perfect Schadenfreude, starts scribbling furiously and gleefully. A dull and routine HR role has suddenly turned meaty. A train wreck is imminent. When Michael furiously asks him what he is scribbling, Toby mutters under his breath, “taking notes for the deposition.”

A cut later, we see that Jan has given up trying to get Michael to talk on the two seamless levels that a Powertalk script would have required. She switches to Babytalk, hopelessly attempting to separate an official on-the-record talk track with a through-gritted-teeth coaching track. Finally, she gives up and openly succumbs to the conflict of interest by revealing her negotiating position completely.

She says, “Michael, I can give you 12%, but you have to ask for 15.”

Michael still doesn’t get it. After a little back-and-forth fumbling, and a frustrated Jan telling him to “Just ask for 15,” it is finally clear to Michael what he is supposed to say. He goes:

“I want 15%”

Jan, with a sigh of relief, says, “I can offer you 12%”

Michael, plaintively, comes back with, “But you said 15%!” Even after it is over, he still doesn’t grasp what happened.

If it had been two Sociopaths navigating around an affair, it would have been no fun at all for Toby ((if I recall correctly, Toby is asked to leave at some point where the collapse of the due process fiction is too complete to permit the presence of a real witness — somebody correct me if I am misremembering).

The Characteristics of Powertalk

Multiple layers of meaning are not what make Powertalk unique. Irony and sarcasm are modes of layered communication available to anybody. As you’ll learn if you read the Transactional Analysis books, Gametalk is all about multiple (usually two) levels of communication. What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other. Powertalk in other words, is a consequential language.

When the Clueless or Losers talk, on the other hand, nothing really changes. Relative positions remain the same all around. Shifts happen only by accident. Even in the rare cases where exploitable information is exchanged, its value is not recognized or reflected in the exchange. Posturetalk, Babytalk and Gametalk leave power relations basically unchanged. Posturetalk and Babytalk leave things unchanged because they are, to quote Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Gametalk leaves power relations unchanged because its entire purpose is to help Losers put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts.

Another way to understand the difference between Powertalk and the other languages is with a card-playing analogy. In Powertalk, you play with money (the currency is most often reality-information). In the other languages you are playing with no stakes. The most important enabling factor in being able to speak Powertalk is simply the possession of table stakes. Without it, whatever you say is Posturetalk. The only Powertalk you can speak with no table stakes is “silence.” If you are Clueless or a Loser and accidentally acquire some leverage (like when Phyllis learns of the Angela-Dwight affair), but can’t speak Powertalk, the old adage applies: a fool and his money are soon parted. As those Chester Karrass people like to say, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.

If you’ve watched movies dedicated to the evil sorts of Sociopaths (like say Wall Street or Boiler Room) you might be under the impression that Sociopaths communicate by retreating to places where the Clueless and the Losers can’t hear them. Out there on the golf course, or in private dining rooms in exclusive restaurants, you might think, they let their guard down and speak bluntly, with liberal cursing and openly cruel jokes about non-Sociopaths.

You couldn’t be more wrong.  That sort of private candor is actually a type of aggressive Posturetalk prevalent among the Clueless in the more superficially macho (finance) or actually dangerous industries. A fine example is Joe Pesci’s Clueless (in the Mafia context) character, Tommy de Vito, in Goodfellas. I don’t have time to analyze this movie, but a word to the wise should be sufficient: the true Sociopaths in the movie, like the characters played by Robert de Niro or Ray Liotta, never trap themselves in a corner with their own posturing: “I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh…I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how?” Yes, Tommy shoots the waiter (another Clueless Posturetalker who unwisely sasses a Clueless guy with a gun), but that still counts as “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The bulk of Sociopath communication takes places out in the open, coded in Powertalk, right in the presence of non-Sociopaths (a decent 101 level example of this is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Hermoine is the only one who realizes that Prof. Umbridge’s apparently bland and formulaic speech is a Powertalk speech challenging Dumbledore). As the David-Jim example shows, Sociopaths are in fact more careful in private.

Why? Both examples illustrate the reasons clearly: for Sociopaths, conditions of conflict of interest and moral hazard are not exceptional. They are normal, everyday situations.  To function effectively they must constantly maintain and improve their position in the ecosystem of other Sociopaths, protecting themselves, competing, forming alliances, trading favors and building trust. Above all they must be wary of Sociopaths with misaligned agendas, and protect themselves in basic ways before attempting things like cooperation. They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath.

So effective Sociopaths stick with steadfast discipline to the letter of the law, internal and external, because the stupidest way to trip yourself up is in the realm of rules where the Clueless and Losers get to be judges and jury members. What they violate is its spirit, by taking advantage of its ambiguities. Whether this makes them evil or good depends on the situation. That’s a story for another day. Good Sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality. Evil Sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck. Losers and the Clueless, of course, avoid individual moral decisions altogether.

Do watch Wall Street or Boiler Room if you haven’t by the way; appropriately, in an Office Halloween party, Ryan comes dressed as Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street and archetypal modern finance Sociopath. Goodfellas is great fun of course, but not as easily translated to non-criminal workplaces. It is based on a true story, as is a more recent Mafia story, Making Jack Falcone. Though distant from our worlds, criminal worlds have the one advantage that they do not need to maintain the fiction that the organization is not pathological, so they are revealing to study.

How Not to Learn Powertalk: Toy Guns and Treacle

Assuming you have table stakes, how do you learn to speak Powertalk as fluently as accomplished Sociopaths? That’s hard, and I’ll provide a couple of pointers at the end. It is illuminating though, to look at a couple of examples of how not to acquire the skill. People who try earnestly to learn Powertalk from recipe books end up merely expanding their Posturetalk vocabulary. There are two good examples in The Office. I’ll call these vocabularies Toy Guns and Treacle. These are vocabularies within Posturetalk that reflect Clueless attempts to mimic Powertalk, so this is actually a bit of a preview of Posturetalk.

Toy Guns

Toy Guns is the vocabulary of empty machismo.

The example is again from the Michael-Darryl salary negotiation. Michael prints off negotiation guidelines from Wikipedia and attempts to use a series of recommended formulaic tactics.

First he tries switching chairs and rooms to disorient Darryl. He merely disorients himself.

Next he tries to follow a rule to “not be the first to speak.” Sadly, he can’t stand the tension and, oblivious to the irony, breaks the silence with “I will not be the first to speak.” At which point Darryl calmly comes back with, “Alright, I can start.”

Finally, the abject performance reaches its nadir when Michael forces Darryl to adhere to the ritual of writing down his opening offer and sliding it, folded, across the table. When Darryl attempts to just hand it to him, Michael insists on the sliding. Darryl humors him (the basic motivation in Babytalk is “humor the baby” — we’ll see why next time).


Treacle is a vocabulary drawn from apparently win-win/play nice frameworks, but deployed with adversarial intent.

The example is from a Sociopathy sideshow: Angela’s fiefdom, the Party Planning Committee. In the episode in question, Phyllis attempts to use textbook “nice” manipulation methods (such as “active listening” and “effective feedback”), which she learns from some unidentified training material. When Phyllis repeatedly screws up (getting a sign printed wrong, and then failing to get forks and knives along with spoons), Angela blows up. Phyllis tries to manipulate Angela into “effective feedback” mode by asking the formulaic question, “How does that make you feel?” Angela, with icy sarcasm, explains that she is feeling “angry” because Phyllis is “stupid.” She then proceeds to explain (icy sarcasm continuing) what forks and knives are.

For those of you unfamiliar with this stuff, the way “effective feedback” is supposed to work is that the criticizer points out the specific behavior in question without judgment, and then explains how the behavior made him/her feel. Preferably when the incident is immediate and fresh. It is supposed to lead away from the toxic business of labeling others and evoking defenses. Great in theory for people whose interests are aligned.

But when a bad-faith incompetent like Phyllis attempts to use the technique to deflect a tirade from an angry Sociopath with no reason to be nice, initiating the “effective feedback” psychology parlor game is about the same as putting on a sign labeled “Kick Me!”

Predictably, Phyllis got kicked.

Why the Textbook Material Fails

So what is going wrong here? Why can’t you learn Sociopath tactics from a book or Wikipedia? It is not that the tactics themselves are misguided, but that their application by non-Sociopaths is usually useless, for three reasons.

The first is that you have to decide what tactics to use and when, based on a real sense of the relative power and alignment of interests with the other party, which the Losers and Clueless typically lack. This real-world information is what makes for tactical surprise. Otherwise your application of even the most subtle textbook tactics can be predicted and easily countered by any Sociopath who has also read the same book. Null information advantage.

The second reason is that tactics make sense only in the context of an entire narrative (including mutual assessments of personality, strengths, weaknesses and history) of a given interpersonal relationship. The Clueless have no sense of narrative rationality, and the Losers are too trapped in their own stories to play to other scripts. Both the Clueless and Losers are too self-absorbed to put in much work developing accurate and usable mental models of others. The result is one-size-fits-all-situations tactical choices which are easily anticipated and deflected.

And the third and most important reason of course, is that your moves have to be backed up by appropriate bets using your table stakes, exposing you to real risks and rewards. A good way to remember this is to think of Powertalk as decisions about what verbal tactics to use when, and with what. The answer to with what is usually a part of your table-stakes. The stuff you are revealing and  risking. If you cannot answer with what? you are posturing. You are not speaking Powertalk. In the Jim-Wallace example, with what was Jim’s superior knowledge of the Michael-Jan story.

Bottomline: you cannot learn Powertalk from books.  Which leads to the question: is there any way to learn it at all?

The Art of Powertalk

Even in the hands of fluent Powertalkers with an understanding of their own credibility, command of the language is simply not a formulaic or procedural skill. It is a thinking skill.  We’ve learned so far that it is a very thoughtful and calibrated use of language based on an accurate and current sense of your actual power. It is a game played with real stakes. Just knowing whatever few rules exist is of no real use, it’s merely a basic condition of participation.

There is a reason I used an analogy to vocabularies in the last section. Remember those kids who earnestly memorized big word lists for their SATs and the GRE? Notice any of them winning literature Nobel Prizes? Vocabulary expansion efforts can at best put the finishing touches on organically acquired language skills. There is no shortcut to organic language acquisition; reading well-written stuff and writing constantly is the only way. The same holds for Powertalk. You learn through real Powertalk conversations with other Sociopaths. Betting real stakes (information, credibility, labor and literal dollar money). You get played for a sucker a few times along the way before you wise up. Even if you are a good Sociopath, you learn to swallow your distaste and occasionally play hardball when you have to.

But if you do have the table stakes to join important conversations, and the mental toughness to play risk-and-reward games with every conversational move, there are a couple of skills worth practicing.

One skill is storytelling, and I covered aspects of this briefly before (Bargaining with Your Right Brain). With enough practice (a LOT), this gives you big-picture control over conversations.

Low-level utterance-by-utterance control is much harder, and the one thing you cannot do is engineer 7-8 meanings and calibrated amounts of power and leverage into every line you utter, through careful word choice. You don’t have the luxury of minutes or hours between responses (you can do that over email though). In most conversations, you have tenths of a second per response. In that time you must steer the tempo of the conversation — its rhythms, emotional subtext and energy level — to affect power equations the way you want. Chapter 3 of my book Tempo covers these things briefly.

By the way, for those of you who have the stomach for a rather academic look at organizational languages (what you could call silo or guild languages rather than power languages), try this paper: On Languages for Dynamic Resource Scheduling Problems, by Warren Powell.

So that’s it for this time. In the next part, we will look at the world of the Clueless through the lens of the Duning-Kruger Effect.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Truly. Epic. I can’t get enough of this series. I’ll round up some coffee buddies. Thanks a ton for your effort here, it’s giving me and my socio buddies a lot to talk about.

  2. Hello Venkat,

    And thanks for a really enlightening lecture (actually it’s a couple of them, since I first ran into the one about the “Gervais principle”) and I’ve been – literally – shocked about the light they shed on everything I saw around me in my last 8 years spent in various, smaller or larger, “corporations”. I found myself in both losers and clueless roles, but it’s refreshing to understand why (and, more important, the “why not”-s).

    Please bring up the next ones, it’s fantastic!

  3. Outstanding!

    I found this whole discourse, including the highly insightful diagram a perfect map by which to diagnose all my own successes and failures in a corporate life, in situations of “trans-layer” interaction. If I had gotten this manual a decade back, I’d have at least practiced with more self awareness :)

    One important reference you seem to miss here is Thorstein Veblen. He is a precursor to William Whyte, in terms of big picture thinking on hierarchical socioeconomic organization. In “Theory of Leisure Class’ he dissects “pecuniary” interest (the root sentiment that powers an effective sociopath). In “Theory of Business Enterprise”, he analyses the motivations, behaviors and speech of the Sociopath (entrepreneur, businessman) who strives to force arbitrage across various layers and silos of an existing economic equilibrium, to serve self-interest.

    I am definitely up for PostureTalk (and can offer many tidbits from standard HBS styleguide). Again, Veblen will show you (as Whyte does even more granularly) that PostureTalk is a kind of “perennial and unmitigated assuaging of status anxiety” in front of all counterparties, by the (typically) upper Bourgeoise striving middle manager.

    I like our characterization of BabyTalk in terms of the transactional analysis in I’m OK You’re OK. I guess it is a set of general strokes to brag about one’s own minor victories within a specific footsoldier cubbyhole. Overall, I am definitely in favor of the remaining pieces. I guess with the last two, you will go further afield of The Office for examples.

    Keep belting ’em out!

    • I’ve started but not finished Veblen, to be honest. I also get the sense that unlike Whyte, his focus is primary at the level of all of society rather than a single organization… that makes the scale a little too much to tackle (Whyte does some suburbia and limited cultural analysis, but not a whole lot).

      Will get there, but probably not through this series.

    • BTW, Re: Babytalk doesn’t really fit into transactional analysis. This is because games in Berne’s sense require mutual (pathological) payoffs and understanding of a multi-person script. The Clueless aren’t even smart enough socially to play mutually satisfying games with others (that’s why they get left out of Loser social circles). Babytalk is a weak one way substitute — Babytalkers don’t get typical Berne-ian payoffs in the TA sense. They humor the babies (Clueless) for other out-of-game reasons that I’ll get to.

      • I presume then that inter-clueless posture-talk must be directed outside, or be in small competitive bouts, with positive escalation as the main tactic. In other words there’s no bursting the bubble, just that your enron shares are outperforming his 90’s internet startup.

        Outside directed posturetalk? That’s just about how we are better than them, or how they need us. It’s posturing that everyone present can get involved with.

        Anyway, I love the powertalk stuff, reminds me of why I like watching/reading crime fiction; the conversation is complex in a layered heuristic manner. It’s packed with feel.

        • The fictional data here is of course the Michael-Dwight interactions. Prima facie, your take on inter-clueless interactions seems reasonable, but I haven’t yet sat down and analyzed this significantly.

          Outside-directed posturetalk… that’s Part III.

    • Amen – helps to look at life through this lense

  4. Wo-ow. I suspect the flu somehow adds to the depth and intensity of your ongoing analysis :-)

    Some thoughts that got triggered:

    -Powertalkers are not only able to wield silence as a tool for longer, they are more open to possibilities even as they furiously update their mental models and calculations of what is happening and its implications. They do not encash any advantage in a hurry.

    -Powertalkers often cultivate an unpredictability (at least in the eyes of the lesser mortals) that they are then able to use consciously–to win or to cut losses.

    -The use of and understanding of humor by the different groups could be interesting ground to cover. For instance, extremely clever jokes are rare in Powertalkers–it’s as though they do not waste their mental CPU cycles on it.

    -PostureTalk is probably an intermediate grade for many before ascending into Powertalk expertise.

    • PostureTalk as an intermediate — I think you are right, but only the subset of PostureTalk that is good Powertalk, but without the money backing it. I think all future sociopaths must practice their game without betting money to get started. OTOH, truly clueless Posturetalk, if you ever speak it on the way up, probably means you aren’t going up.

      Unpredictability — there I’d disagree. Unpredictability for the sake of unpredictability is a Posturetalk move. Powertalkers in fact try to be predictable when they can, to avoid grandstanding. Any unpredictability comes from the genuine private knowledge they have that the other party doesn’t know.

      Yes on silence and humor. I agree esp. strongly on clever jokes. Remember that Brad Pitt to Edward Norton line in “Fight Club”? “Clever. How’s that working out for you, being clever?”


      • Gotta disagree here. The most successful, wealthy, and active entrepreneurs-turned-angel investors that I know have & often utilize a sharp sense of humor. This is one reason, admittedly a lesser one, that the losers and clueless admire them.

        • Humor is too general a category to be of much use. I think it key here to remember that real wit is of real utility, particularly in building or tearing down egos. Powertalkers wield wit well as weapon or reward, or even mere threat. It is a creative effort, which, as with most creative powers, can be easily turned to pathological purposes.

          I would argue that the presence of true wit in a loser is among the clearest markers of sociopath potential.

          The clueless often see the power of wit to reward and punish, but lacking that skill, confuse knowledge of “clever” jokes with actual creative wit. Michael’s constant attempts to be seen as funny are a perfect example of the clueless’ inability to wield wit as either reward or threat.

          Sharp wit may not be necessary for powertalk, but it is at least a common correlative trait. I would say the same for “clever jokes” and the posturetalk of the clueless.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Most enlightening, and a novel approach to management theory. It resonantes with my own experiences with corporate culture. Your series does not make the games people play easier to swallow, but I find some comfort in understanding. Hope you get well soon and find the strength to follow up.

    -Loser, and quite happy with it.

  6. Scott Werner says

    I really enjoyed your treatment of PowerTalk as a game of cards, as I definitely saw some parallels from back when I was heavily into playing.

    -Knowing moves but not knowing when and where to apply them. This happens in poker a lot with everyone just starting out by bluffing at the absolute worst time.

    -Sociopaths making the deals out in the open and the clueless not understanding is the foundation of poker I would say. I remember plenty of times when one players hand was completely obvious to one of the talented players I played with, and seeing a clueless person more or less handing their chips away.

    There are probably a lot more examples but you get the point. One thing that I wonder about is if there are echelons of PowerTalk. As in a layer of people who are able to play the game comfortably with eachother, but with them being the clueless in a SCL pyramid within the original sociopath point.

    You mentioned strategies from books that fail if the competing sociopath has also read that book. That would imply that the sociopaths read the PowerTalk ‘guides’ as well, to keep up with current trends and stay ahead of the game. Besides that paper and your book, what other books would you or anyone else recommend for someone interested in exploring this language further?

    • I think a lot of Powertalk learning is merely by imitation and post-hoc explanation (“ah, I see the structure of your move, I’ll add it to my library”). Even a move that is new to you, if used against you by a clueless person at the wrong time and in empty form (i.e. without stakes backing the move), is easy to instantly read and adapt to.

      I wouldn’t say any material I offer here or in the book constitute Powertalk “how to”… that would be contradicting myself :). At best they help you learn faster if you’ve got the stakes, attitude and real-conversation learning abilities.

      Other books — can’t say I’ve seen a lot of analysis at the level of conversations. Since you like gambling as the root metaphor, you should definitely read Geertz’ classic Deep Play article, a seminal anthropology paper which started a whole subfield of ethnography based on “thick description.” It describes how power dynamics work out in Balinese society around the ritual of cockfighting (with betting…).

      • I was wondering when Geertz and thick description would come up…

        In seriousness, this is truly excellent material Venkat, and I’m very much enjoying the chance to follow your thinking. I will definitely buy you a cup of coffee along the way, as this is indeed worth far more. I appreciate the amount of effort it takes to produce quality work, and my hat is off to you for doing so consistently.

  7. I’ve been reading your articles with great interest ever since I stumbled upon the original Gervais Principle, and I’m commenting mostly to encourage you to continue. (Please continue!) However, I’d also be interested in hearing how this all intersects with game theory, another topic in which I have a layman’s interest. Does its (more rigorous?) analysis shed any light on these dynamics?

    • Just saw this game theory question. I was rather enamored of the field for a few years, but then my taste for the stuff waned.

      Game theory (and its cousins, team theory and coordination theory) are useful if they serve as scaffolding to set up philosophically interesting thought experiments (prisoner’s dilemma is a great example). They are not useful as a computational tool to analyze actual situations IMO.

      The works of David Lewis and Richard Stalnaker are good examples of how to segue from game theory into interesting philosophy. Axelrod is more narrowly technical, but interesting if approached with the right mindset.

      There is a line of research I really like, based on the notions of “information state” in control theory (related to “sufficient statistic” in statistics/probability), as well as dynamic semantics in AI/philosophy of language. All these are descendants of game-theoretic approaches.

      So yeah, there’s a lot here. But a blog is not the right place to explore this stuff…

  8. I’d love to see the next installment. I don’t watch The Office, so am not getting as much out of this as I could, but you do a great job of explaining what I really need to know. I learned most of my relationship skills the hard way in adolesence and afterwards so anything that advances my understanding of what comes naturally to others is appreciated.

  9. Powertalk == Insecurity

    Innocence > Powertalk

    There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty.

  10. This is absolutely engrossing stuff. This whole SCL-pyramid post series is some of the most fascinating analysis I’ve run into on the internet, and have subsequently subscribed to your feed in anticipation of more. I’m completely new to this whole topic, so I unfortunately have little to add to the conversation right now but just wanted to chime in to add my appreciation for your hard work. I thoroughly enjoyed the explanation of the mechanics of PowerTalk and I am very interested in reading analysis of the other types.

    Chipped in some coffee money to help with the incentive. Keep up the good work!

  11. What interests me is that everyone who Michael likes (other than Holly) is someone who’s learned Babytalk. Beyond the fact that Toby plays the role of the adult, telling Michael that he can’t simply do and have whatever he wants, Toby only reluctantly humours Michael, and in turn becomes the Antichrist to him. Darryl, on the other hand, is someone Michael loves to talk to, even though Darryl makes fun of him nearly every time they engage- either having him on or simply making things up.

  12. This is absolutely fascinating.

    I see this play out in my corporate structure all the time, and have now been given the tools to identify it (also relating back to the prequel article).

    There is a bit of cynicism in this, and I’d like to think that there a more optimal solution for a more well balanced identity (maybe not in the corporate structure).

    I see this person as the leader of the sociopath to get things done and make executive decisions, the “loser” value creator that actually brings the dough in, and the happiness and peace that is brought by the clueless person. Some sort of sub-type grid and personalities would be useful here.

    I would hang myself with a belt from a rafter if you didn’t finish this series.

    If you could be so kind, can you send me a list of books I should buy that cover this sort of stuff?

  13. When I finished reading this article (and GP 1), I didn’t know whether to cry or let out a cruel chuckle. I was especially relieved to read in this essay about the existence of “good sociopaths”. I never would have thought of myself that way but according to your definitions, I’m clearly a sociopath. I never realized why I didn’t fit in with the losers or why I was so suspicious of the clueless. I knew I wasn’t really one of either of those groups. Knowing that there is a third group that has a powerful spin on it has made many things clearer for me. It all fits into place so beautifully that the Posturetalk, Powertalk and Babytalk made perfect sense to me before even reading your definitions.

    I really hope you continue to write these essays. These are the most eye opening words I’ve read since I first discovered Paul Graham. It’s been a personally fulfilling journey for me to read them.

  14. Reading these posts is depressing, because it puts into words pretty much everything I hate about living within large organizations. I do it because I have to, when I have to, but it’s just such a profoundly unpleasant dynamic. I don’t have any trouble treating every conversation as a power-exchange poker game…but I don’t like doing it.

    I really need to get back into small-company land again.

    • I wouldn’t say small companies are immune. This stuff just shows up in somewhat different forms…


      • I know, I know. But the dynamic in small companies is much more palatable to me, for whatever reason. I think it’s the “results matter more than anything else” attitude I’ve experienced running the technical parts of small companies, and the fact that being demonstrably able to produce results gives you a lot of bargaining power…

    • As a loser, I left a big organization to work for a small company, and then discovered that small companies have small talk, too.

      • I spent much of my career in either small or mid-sized companies, or government work, but have been in a very big company for the last few years. The big company at its worst has been like all of the bad things about working with the government combined with everything bad about academia and everything bad about other private sector companies, all rolled up in one…

  15. Scott McMillin says

    Really great stuff. I did a lot of playwriting and theater in my younger days, followed by a five year stint in management and organizational development at a huge corporation, so these essays push so many of my buttons. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  16. Loving the series! Really opened my eyes. Please keep up the awesome!

  17. These two pieces (and hopefully more) have been truly insightful to me, a late-twenties self-aware loser. Your perspectives on the social dynamics in the workplace have really helped me understand what I see in front of me on a daily basis, and have, to an extent, helped me navigate some awkward waters from time to time.

    The best lesson I have taken from these, from the perspective of a loser (who is constantly trying to better his bargain, but hopefully not at the extent of cluelessness), is to be able to quickly identify the people in a room by their relative classes. I have started to treat meetings like poker games. As soon as a meeting starts, I have learned to quickly classify the attendees by their class, and begin to tailor my interactions with them accordingly. This one act alone has reduced my stress level so much by placing a framework around the behaviors of others at my office that allows me to understand their place in the ecosystem of the workplace. Before, the actions of others, the clueless in particular, were so bizarre they merely served to cause havoc in my day.

    That in mind, I anxiously look forward to your discussion of the communication between the clueless and the other classes, as clueless communication is a mystery to me…mostly because I find it senseless, mind-numbing and above all, pointless.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  18. Venkat, have you watched the AMC TV series “Mad Men”? There is sooo much more William Whyte played out there. Also the movie “Revolutionary Road” (DiCaprio et al) also has a click-by-click play out of the William Whyte dream and more fodder for this framework.

    Also, regarding Veblen (my prior comment), and the notion of the “small company” (which may readers have referenced), I think this sociopath, clueless, loser hierarchy is actually societywide. Its expression is just “intensely observable” within the clear-cut, boxes/lines world of a corporation. Small corporations have the same issue, with the senior management being largely clueless and subject to the chain-yanking powers of external investors. Society at large itself sees “pan social” sociopaths (that span all corporations and every other institution) like senators and evangelists.

    It all boils down to 3 “coping/fitness” adaptations which are “equilibrium points” within our cognitive structure. Each of us is governed by a balance between hierarchy and reciprocal altruism (see Robert Wright). Those who can exercise power more “effectively” and be more calculated in exercising and enforcing reciprocal altruism rise to the top of the hierarchy (ANY hierarchy, small company, big company, government office, non-profit, whatever).

    Those who are capable (skilled functionally, or endowed with discipline and knowledge) but overly “normal” in their reciprocal altruism become clueless – They float around in middle management, trying to rise, but unable to either take enough credit for minion products, or lock in enough patronage from sociopath daimyos, to be lost. They constantly posture, to reinforce their capability, pedigree and motivation (both upwards and downwards and to each other), but fail to “motor” their way up. The more sociopath-able clueless eventually rise, and then harden through years of sociopath practice.

    People in the “loser’ bucket generally seem both disinterested in rebelling against their hierarchical low-status (and the consequent subjugation, loss of control, etc.), but they also fail to modulate their reciprocal altruism to gain favors and cash them in to rise through cluelessness.

    Of course, all this is dynamic – but I think, perhaps Robert Wright’s paradigms for the “behavior of an individual” have a lot of roots for how this sociopath-clueless-loser hierarchy emerges.

    • Yup, “Revolutionary Road” was really good, and I cited it in my OM series somewhere. “Mad Men” … people keep recommending this to me, and I guess I might get to it sometime, but I honestly have no time to add another TV show to my schedule right now.

      On the other evolutionary stuff… we’ve talked about this before. There’s almost too much there, but I think the nice thing is that you can do this level of analysis without getting into the evolutionary underpinnings at all. Kinda self-contained proximal causality.

      • You will not regret watching Mad Men one bit. You may find far more inspiration in it than The Office… It is precisely up your alley! I recommend the Blu-Ray version.

        I cannot compliment you enough on this series of posts, and all of your other posts that I’ve read since finding you on Slashdot. Please keep them coming!

        • Another vote for an analysis of “Mad Men.” It’s a motherlode of material, perfect for this topic. Delete something else from your schedule, make room for “Mad Men,” because you’re not going to find a TV series more relevant to this subject.

  19. I will be honest. I don’t have much experience in the business world. In fact I have only recently considered refocusing my efforts from that of a starving, struggling artist to that of a businessman. Obviously, I have a lot to learn and a long journey ahead of me. But a lot of your writing has helped me to confirm some of the theories I have developed, one such being that you must know how to play the game in order to have any influence. I think for so long I rejected the game (to put it bluntly) and have thus failed to move ahead, or to move at all really.

    I just wanted to say thank you for your insights. There is a lot that I don’t quite understand (many books and papers that I need to read and skills I need to practice), but I feel that I have a good grasp on the basic concepts and, maybe more importantly, an eagerness to learn more. This series, in particular, caught my attention and awakened my interest. I look forward to more writing, be it on this topic or any other.

  20. “Good sociopaths operate by what they personally choose as a higher morality, in reaction to what they see as the dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality.Evil sociopaths are merely looking for a quick, safe buck”

    “criminal worlds have the one advantage that they do not need to maintain the fiction that the organization is not pathological”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but is your good vs. bad sociopath duality part of that fiction? One of the controversial features of the corproate-capitalist model that some people are necessarily exploited and others exploiters, no matter how ‘good’ the sociopath perceives himself/herself to be, there is no getting around this because it is built into the framework of the institution.

    • No, I would say good/bad is not part of the fiction. I have not yet really touched upon morality and the sociopath. I’ll do that soon, but the short answer is: whether they are good/bad, sociopaths recognize that the {\em scope} of human action within which morality actually applies is smaller than the clueless/losers think.

      I have to think this stuff through more before I can share.

  21. forkandwait says

    I don’t know if you have read Bourdieu or Giddens, but you really should (if not). They talk about how much skill being a successful person requires, and how that skill goes far beyond anything you can do by consciously following rules, anymore than you play a piano well by going over the rules in your head. Skillfulness in various life games determines your success and failure in trying to be dominant. And skillfulness is generally taught in intimate and mentoring situations — at home or boarding school; this means if you aren’t lucky enough to learn good sociopath skills from your parents, you probably aren’t going to be able learn them at all (and you are basically screwed in the fight and game of dominance).

    Also virtuosity in behavior is an indicator of belonging — if you are too obviously trying to be a sociopath everyone will know you aren’t one really — and not take you seriously.

    Anyway — I like your posts. Someday I will buy you a coffee.

  22. Alexander Alluvion says

    “They never lower their masks. In fact they are their masks. There is nothing beneath”

    I think this is the most telling line in your entire writeup. Phyllis and Michael fail because, like a poor stage actor or a bad liar, they believe all that is necessary is to say a specific series of words. Successful stage actors take great time and care to understand the role they are portraying, which is reflected in their vocabulary, such as when they say they “become” a character. Likewise, a good liar suppresses any notion that the lie is untrue while telling the lie, so much so that you could say for a moment they actually believe their own lie. Powertalk is much more than a technique, and it’s not for everyone.

    All of this reminds me of my personal transition from high school math to university mathematics. I will try to keep this short, but the point is that the two show the same parallel. High school math (in North America) can be done off a script. You are shown a way to solve a particular type of problem and then asked to solve the same problem with different values or equations. Because the values change you can’t just memorize the answer, you have to understand the script, but you don’t need anything else to be very successful. In higher level mathematics you have to actually solve problems. You have to take commonly understood theory and use it in a original non-obvious way to calculate or prove something. If you ever walk in on a 1st/2nd year mathematics help-session where a TA is explaining solutions you will often hear the question “But how did you know to do that?”.

    The only reason I bring up mathematics is that it divides students into three distinct groups. The first group are students that have natural mathematics talent, they can continue studying The second group are students who will never master the transition, they quickly realize they need to leave. The third group is the most interesting, they have the capacity to learn mathematics but for them it will take a large amount of intensive work. Some stay, some go.

    I believe the same applies to Powertalk. Some are natural Powertaklers, others will never be Powertalkers, and a third group could be but only with hard work. This topic asks the question “how to learn Powertalk?”, but the question I am really interested in is “should you learn Powertalk?”.

    I have been reading things on this site including “The Coming Triumph of the Strengths Movement”, which made an excellent argument for playing to your strengths. If we can be most successful by focusing on our strengths, should those without natural Powertalk talent ignore Powertalk? Or is Powertalk so influential that you should learn it, assuming you can, at all costs?

    Also I am fascinated by the idea of a good sociopath. Assuming that a good sociopath is not a paradox, you could argue that it is a moral duty to learn Powertalk so that you can combat the “dangers, insanities and stupidities of mob morality”. Of course if you are driven by moral duty you will never be a true sociopath.

    I hope this post is not too long-winded, I was just trying to collect my thoughts on this topic.

    • The math TA analogy is apt. I have experienced it myself, and experienced the frustration of the “how did you know to do that?” question from students in my 3.5 years of TAing various engineering courses.

      The leap from plug-and-chug math to understand-and-apply math is one a lot of people seem incapable of making. There seems to be a similar, if fuzzier, line in many skills, including interpersonal relationships.

      Other stuff… yeah, all interesting themes. I hope to touch on a couple of them before I am done with this series.

  23. Thank you!
    I’m not ready for the next article. I still need to digest this one, and maybe look over a few things you pointed out. All the same, I’m sure you’ll write the next post, plenty of people are interested.

  24. this scares me. only because i really started to feel like michael scott in the past year or so. the fact is that according to this Gervais Principle i am a Loser. that doesnt bother me in the slightest. the problem is that when a loser who doesnt get the game starts to play the Powertalk game, they are instantly outed as Clueless. that is what i have become. Clueless. not clueless of everything, not completely naive. but a classic Clueless in the sense that i want to play the game, but i dont know the rules. i dont care to learn them either. really, i dont want to become a sociopath, but i want the power that comes with it. i want power without the manipulation involved in Powertalk. I play the game without the murderous intent. I mirror those above me to try and succeed like they have, but i dont have the cutthroat sensibilities.
    My question is how far this pans out. I feel like i have been in a Michael and Jan relationship, where i was clueless of the manipulation involved, that the powertalk was really baby and game talk. that is when things get disastrous. when the loser tries to initiate the sociopath on anything but straight talk. instant Clueless.

  25. I have to add my thoughts to the chorus of people who are enjoying your posts. I too found you through the Gervais principle, and am happy to have lots of new books and posts to read. Like many, my reaction has been like learning the formal names for grammatic rules I’ve been using, but never looked at in a structured way – ‘oh, that’s the pluperfect tense’.

    It seems that you are fundamentally describing a common dysfunction found in many organizations… You could easily go on to describe how bureaucracies, through petty power grabbing and corruption, manage to thwart their own purposes (a perfect example being how the Chicago based futures trading regulators and the NY based stock exchange regulators will never become one, in spite of all sense and logic). I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a number of situations where a small group can truly cooperate for the greater good, where a more Buddhisty approach actually yields the desired results.

    One example is MMORPGs, like world of warcraft. Gamers who’ve never met sacrifice their time/items/etc to their guild, knowing that the others do as well, leading to success that far outweighs what any individual could accomplish. I’d love to hear your thoughts on:

    1. Why does it seem that this can only work in smallish groups?
    2. Is there any way to translate this kind of success to larger organizations, or reform large bureaucracies?
    3. A broader discussion of the incentives that drive the sociopaths to create these structures, and how they could be reshaped to reward behavior that is better for the larger organism.

  26. Hi Venkat,

    Have you read
    “What Would Machiavelli Do?: The Ends Justify the Meanness”

  27. venkat,
    this is great. it’s nice to see a well thought out and articulate explanation of interpersonal dynamics like this. i think your articles resonate so easily with people because it is consistent with most people’s empirical life experiences.
    btw this particular chunk of prose is beautiful.

    The first is that you have to decide what tactics to use and when, based on a real sense of the relative power and alignment of interests with the other party, which the losers and clueless typically lack. This real-world information is what makes for tactical surprise. Otherwise your application of even the most subtle textbook tactics can be predicted and easily countered by any sociopath who has also read the same book. Null information advantage.

    The second reason is that tactics make sense only in the context of an entire narrative (including mutual assessments of personality, strengths, weaknesses and history) of a given interpersonal relationship. The clueless have no sense of narrative rationality, and the losers are too trapped in their own stories to play to other scripts. Both the clueless and losers are too self-absorbed to put in much work developing accurate and usable mental models of others. The result is one-size-fits-all-situations tactical choices which are easily anticipated and deflected.

    thanks for being awesome

  28. Thank you for another excellent post.

    I identify myself in an early-career Clueless role (lower middle management) with Sociopathic aspirations, your theory illuminates the underlying power play in a recent work exchange. I’ve proposed a project to senior management which would increase my organisation’s profitability plus my influence and salary, I received an interested reply which cc’d in colleagues and indirectly pushed me to reveal my salary by asking for details of costs.

    My Clueless mistake was to reveal – I was swayed by the promise of the project going ahead and failed to properly consider the value of keeping my assets hidden. I see now that I’ve lost ground to my colleagues, and worse, hampered my rise in the company by showing that I am an unsophisticated Powertalk player, willing to trade a bird in the hand for two in the bush. With hindsight, I would have asked senior about time scales etc. for the project, pushing them to reveal how much interest they have in my idea and giving me a position from which I could couch the costs in their terms (“If you want it by next quarter then I’ll need…”), thus both demonstrating Powertalking ability and hiding valuable information from colleagues.

    Ouch, it hurts to see my error. I’m thankful for your post though, it gives an antiseptic to clean the wound. Would like to hear others’ applications of these ideas or thoughts on my situation.

  29. Picked this up through Slashdot and just finished reading the second installment. It is compelling for sure and when put in this context, it is amazing and how eye opening this is as to how these interactions occur in all aspects of one’s life. Simple interactions with family to the typical flame war on the Internet, it’s not just limited to the office environment and organization behavior studies in business environments.

    It also makes one wonder if those who claim they are sociopaths really grasp what they are saying and actually are or are they just performing posturetalk?

    Please, do continue with this series! It’s good exercise for my brain! I’ll send some coffee your way!

  30. Thank you for giving me something to think about. This is a subject that I find fascinating on a personal level.

    This discussion covers one very important determinant of social position, being able to read others and use the information. From my own experience, the other major factor is courage. I think that the fear factor explains the difference between “good” and “evil” psychopaths. Unfortunately, the same can be true of the clueless and losers.

    I could tell horror stories of the “evil” clueless. They are like movie zombies, mindlessly striking out at anything that catches their attention, and therefore frightens them.

    All of my working life I have moved my work life back and forth between psychopath and loser, depending on my current interests and career needs. I am currently in an ambiguous situation where I want to be a loser but am being forced to be a psycho.

    Life can get very interesting.

  31. Sorry about the low availability of the site today folks. Mix of choking and site caching not being optimized properly for the load.

  32. This is a fun and interesting series of posts but it has one flaw: You don’t seem to get “The Office” on a couple of points.

    The main thing that you’re missing is that the Michael Scott character is written with much more subtlety than you credit it. You keep describing Michael as “clueless” when, really, the shoes deepest hook is that he is transcendent above the sociopath/loser/clueless triad *and* that he helps develop his employees towards similar transcendence. The shows deepest hooks is that Michael is all three of the a super genius, the world’s best manager, and a loving guy who cares deeply about those around him. The recurring gag – *almost* every episode – is that he bypasses the social dynamics you are writing about and (for his value system) wins.

    The Michael character represents a rare but extant kind of successful manager: the wise old clown. The wise old clown type is perpetually self-deprecating and is kind of a method actor in that regard – perfectly willing to wear self-doubt and ridiculous impulses on his sleeve. He is, as clowns go, a kind of tramp, in the Chaplin sense. Note that Chaplin movies usually had happy endings where the tramp at worst breaks even but walks away clean – or else outright wins. Same with Michael Scott.

    The wise old clown / tramp is generally the most empathic, socially skilled, and egoless in any crowd. He understands things like “power talk” perfectly well. In the scene where Michael and Jan haggle over salary, with Toby present, Michael is not ignorant of Jan’s “power talk” – he’s (deniably) feigning ignorance of it. In that episode, in spite his romantic involvement with her, he winds up taking her down a notch using the gun (Toby) that she handed to him.

    If you don’t believe that Michael is actually the smartest guy at Dunder-Mifflin (not just the branch, the whole operation) you need only carefully watch the pair of episodes where Michael is fired and starts the Michael Scott paper company. A few key points to note: his “rolodex trap” – encoding his rolodex so that rivals trying to use it will offend customers because they don’t know the code; his knowledge that he can sneak through the D-M office to steal a customer contact list without the employees immediately screwing him; his success in constructing a plausible threat to kill the D-M branch; his power-talk to his then-fired replacement as he shows that replacement the door; his reward to Pam.

    Indeed, in that couple of episodes we got to see a lot about Michael Scott as mentor, watching him show Pam and Ryan the ropes and take them out of loser mode.

    Throughout the series, it becomes increasingly clear that most of the people who work in his branch denigrate and talk smack to him not because they regard him as clueless, but because they are in on his joke. They are all empowered by knowing that it’s very, very hard for any one of them to do any serious, lasting wrong towards Michael. He encourages them to be surly and aggressive, but also to not take the office dynamics any more seriously than as a way to blow off steam and have (ultimately) friendly rivalries.

    Another way you can see M. Scott’s brilliance is in the small detail that his branch is probably the most important revenue generator for Dunder Mifflin generally. He has huge leverage. That’s why corporate first tried to test him by promoting Ryan over him and then briefly fired him – and why he now has a “one off – do whatever you want” title. Michael has played it as “I want to run this corp. from right where I am. Period.” Corporate is intimidated by him. His employees are ultimately, deep down, fiercely loyal and some of the corps best producers.

    There are guys like Michael Scott in real life. They are rare but they exist. They perceive exactly the loser/clueless/sociopath dynamic you talk about and they joke / piss-themselves / and sometimes startlingly fight their way past it, taking every opportunity to raise those around them.

    Really, that’s the main hook of the show. M. Scott is a true genius and truly nice guy. (There’s a little bit of a sub-plot, mostly played out by now, where Dwight was his most promising mentoree – until Jim came along. A difference between those two characters and their managerial aspirations is that Dwight is more of a “Ok, I get it. I can do that, too,” guy where-as Jim is more of a natural “Oh, that’s all there is to it? Jeeze, I’ll just be myself then,” kinda guy.


    • LOL!

      By far the best comment on this series :)

    • The wisdom of the clown in the circus of knowledge – at last, we’re back on track…

      re just a thought on Michael Scott as the ‘nice guy’:

      There’s definitely a mystical benevolance, or at least a complete lack of malice, that permeates Michael’s every misguided action, however, it’s interesting to note that the origins of this ‘nice guy’ aspect did not exist in David Brent’s persona in the initial UK series until the two Christmas Special episodes at the very end.

      Until then, David Brent was more lonely, depressed and insecure than his US counterpart, Michael Scott. In short, David Brent was disturbingly pathatic whereas Michael Scott is just whimsically cringeworthy.

      It seems as though Michael Scott took off from the tweaked character at the end of the UK series. Apparently this was done to make the character more accessable to a public conditioned to plot resolutions and happy endings. But as a result now, the US version lacks the depth of the UK series (making this blog a suitable adjunct to the show).

      The genius of Ricky Gervais in creating David Brent is that the character walks that tightrope between tragedy and comedy with so much skill that it is hard to tell which is which. In the US series this tightrope has been lowered to near ground level, to the extent that it’s comedy outwieghs it’s tragedy by 2:1, as part of this lowering of the rope we get Michael Scott the ‘nice guy’ and lose the poignent tragedy that is David Brent the UK office.

      Thanks to Venkat and this blog, this tightrope is again being raised to create for many, hopefully, the same poetic tragedy that made the UK series so special.

      Balance is the key… and scrambled eggs always a possible outcome.

    • I think your description of him as a genius is a bit overdrawn, but while reading the original posts I did think that Michael does not completely fit the mold of clueless. There are specific moments when he snaps to and displays clarity and an understanding of what is going on. The negotiation where he gets three jobs from David Wallace is one great example.

      • I disagree that Michael isn’t clueless. He may understand he is clueless, but he certainly doesn’t out sociopath the sociopaths.


        When people cite the Michael Scott Paper Company buy out and how MS leverages a win over Wallace using the share holder meeting. The camera cuts to Ryan smiling and nodding, which indicated to me Michael was playing Ryan’s script at Wallace – i.e. Ryan gave Michael a little bit of sociopath powertalk to use if he needed it.

        He does show some glimmer, when he bluffs the value of his company is nothing, because he is using the only table stakes he has – his salesman skills as a competitive threat that woudl reoccur if he were not part of Dunder Miflin.

        Finally, even though Scranton is the best branch, Michael fails to leverage that position in any meaningful way – e.g. when Wallace asks him what he is doing right. You may read that as Michael feigning stupidity to protect himself, but if he really wanted to run the company or do things better for the company, he would have leveraged that (i.e. wagered his table stakes) to his advantage. Instead it results in Wallace viewing him as a clueless child and a little bit of babytalk “ok you finish up [the pasta].”

  33. turkeydance says

    in order to “repay the effort”, this is offered:
    “all the world’s a stage”…and we are Playahs.
    we are not actors, we are Performers.
    the organization doesn’t matter…
    Church/IBM/Shakespeare Club/whatever.

    now the “keeping up” part:
    table stakes involves Knowing You Have Them.
    you (Loser) might think everyone already knows or should
    know , but your sociopath “mark” might not. for example:
    Jane and John are having an office affair. both are
    married to others. everybody knows about the affair.
    YOU know that Jane’s husband and John’s wife are
    “in on it”. in unadorned socio-to-loser BabyTalk:
    S: “you think that J&J get it on in the parking lot?”
    L: “i wouldn’t know.”
    next, let the Loser know that Socio is clueless.
    S: “….parking lot?”
    L: “i’m surprised there’s not a video.”
    now S knows L has table stakes.
    what Does L Know? how can it benefit S?
    what can S trade for L’s info?
    tenths of a second, indeed.

  34. Wow, that was one of the most insightful exploration of real-world pragmatics I have ever read, and rings true for my own experiences in organizational settings. I can actually only remember one time that I had anything at stake, but the negotiations were all in PowerTalk, because I was negotiating with another clueless. As a result, it was kind of a muddle, and I think I even remarked at the time that I felt like we were just playing grown-up. I had no idea what I was doing, and the guy on the other side of the table–a friend–also didn’t know, although I think only I knew that both of us had no idea what we were doing. My buddy, I think, truly is clueless, and tries to play PowerTalk, but it’s really a bunch of PostureTalk, and he has the crappy deal to prove it–and is likely to stay there, having irritated the sociopaths to the point that they have basically dismissed him.

    Brilliant stuff, and I’m subscribing to the RSS right now. I really hope you have the time to follow up on this.

  35. Daemeon Reiydelle says

    Why leave a message?
    Free food, well fed. More food tomorrow?
    Free thoughts, well thought, feel smarter. More thoughts tomorrow?

    (tail 1) In organizations that insulate its population from change whether due to job stability (Government or social employment stabilization) or to low renumeration (low margin industries) I would predict a flattening of the hierarchy with more clueless, fewer true losers, and less polished sociopaths.

    (tail 2) If powertalk is the communications between two manipulators, I would predict a preponderance of powertalk in organizations where there is more money or more demand to respond to outside unknows (both situations that would attract the self-aggrandizers). I would therefore expect more powertalk/sociopath organizations in Silicon Valley, in Financial industries, and in Consulting.

    It is my empirical observation that both of the above are consistently observed, therefore I may have devised a two tailed test that may anectdotally affirm the hypothesis.

    As a second order hypothesis I would correlate primitive power talk capabilities of the organization as symptomatic of an organization unable to change, and vice versa.

    I also would consider different nexii of supremacy prioritization in which powertalk is expressed; also the clueless/loser/sp tricotomy within the specific nexus of supremacy. Perhaps some specific nexii might be engineer primacy, financier primacy, intellectual primacy within a given organization. Perhaps for example triples of (Sun Microsystems, Visa International, UC Berkeley School of Law) or (IBM/HP, WellsFargo/BofA, SF Medical/Stanford Medical). I suddenly realize as I write this that those companies with the most distorted Powertalk are the ones I have watched fail: Xerox, HP (yes, the HP we know is not the one we knew), Sun, Polariod, Solomon Brothers, many others.

    In conclusion I realize that well rounded and well expressed “sociopathy” and extensive displays of powertalk may well be the dimension in which one can predict an organizations likelyhood of success over time.


  36. For some reason reading these posts kept making me think of Orwell’s 1984. I’m not entirely sure why, but I have two related guesses:

    1 – All outer-party members fit perfectly into your 3 categories. For example: L:Winston; SP:Julia; C:Parsons .
    2- It seems like Orwell was completely unaware of these three categories. He instead constructs 3 classes.

    The entire story could be contained within the outer-party. Super-Sociopath characters such as Obrien or Charrington (inner party), or the nameless super-clueless prols seem to be unnecessary crutches. Orwell’s equivalents of golf courses and restaurants are unnecessary plot devices. These characters are not real people in the same way that inner party members are. Orwell is essentially relying on

    Without the inner party & the prols, Orwell wouldn’t have needed to rely on flaky concepts like the evil enlightenment of ‘the party’.

    2 things:
    (1)Still on Orwell, I would love to hear what the writer has to say about posturetalk & doublethink.
    (2)Moving away, I’d like to challenge the writers ideas about sociopath-loser relations. Are you saying it is impossible for a sociopath to manipulate or coerce a loser?

  37. Thanks Venkat,
    Your article has explained to me why I (loser) am having trouble writting a business plan, it needs to be in Powertalk not posture or gametalk or straight speech which I was using and did feel all wrong.

    Looking forward to babytalk and game talk, bound to be humours, though not as Ah ha! Now I understand as powertalk.

    Ps. Glad your over the flu

  38. Assuming we’re agreed on your ontology (which we’re not really), I’m sure you realize that you’re giving away information on how to become a “sociopath” (seeing as how you’re talking about multiple levels of meaning being conveyed in an average utterance – if you’re not familiar with Derrida and Foucault, you might like to read some). I’m not sure what your motivation for that is, but does the world really need more people in your “sociopath” category (or “sociopath”-wannabe even – guess you’d call them “clueless”)?

    I guess you should ask yourself the question people who expose security flaws ask: if I make the exploit public, is that good because the software producer will be motivated to plug the hole quicker, or is that bad because innocent people who have deployed the software already might get attacked before they manage to patch it?

    I see your series as good insofar as it is an alarm signal for the “losers” (the “clueless” might deserve what’s coming to them). But I see it as harmful in that many will probably read it differently: as guidelines for becoming a “sociopath”.

    Your call.

    • Some good points there RC. A sound reminder that we must retain our rigidity in the face of ambiguity.

      If you’re finding Venkat distasteful then be sure to stick to Derrida and Foucoult because Machiavelle and Nietzsche will ruin your appetite for the entire day.

      • Not sure exactly what you meant by that, but you’ve managed to misspell both “Foucault” and “Machiavelli”. I’m assuming you’re a Nietzsche fan since he’s the only one who’s name you’ve managed to write properly. You’re of course entitled to your opinion, whatever you’ll eventually figure out it was.

        Have a nice evening eating tender babies.

  39. Just a quick story. I work for a large, large corporation, and am transferring laterally, out from under a really terrible manager. In the process, my VP called me into his office because I am, apparently, perceived as valuable. He wanted me to stay. This article is haunting because of the barrage of (friendly) powertalk he subjected me to. It was all extremely cordial and friendly, but afterwards I panicked and followed up with a “thank you” note filled with straight talk ;) hehe I am a Loser.

    This article rings so true. I am really grateful! I get way too much posturetalk every day ;) so I’d like to hear your analysis on GameTalk.

    (ouch is that more straight talk? dammit)

  40. I can’t help but see a similarity between the Sociopaths, Clueless and Losers with 1984’s High, Middle and Low.

    If you want a picture of the future, imagine a ‘Downsized’ stamp stamping on a human face . . . for ever.

  41. Great post, but you could at least have summarized what Gametalk is instead of just posting links to books in which I can read about the subject.

  42. Stranger On Calm says

    I’m wondering how the Michael/Daryl meeting (regarding Daryl’s payraise request) might have played out if Michael were a sociopath.

    I imagine it playing out like this (in individual steps, with Michael’s underlying message(s) to Daryl following in parentheses):

    Step A: Daryl comes up to the 2nd floor to meet with Michael at a scheduled time.

    (Michael’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Michael’s time is important…meetings with him must be set up in advance. (2) This is to be a formal interaction…any buddy-buddy, personal dynamics that exist between Michael and Daryl at other times will not be in play during this meeting.)

    Step B: Michael makes Daryl wait 5/10/15 minutes (past the scheduled time) outside Michael’s office.

    (Michael’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Daryl’s issue, while important to Daryl, is just one of many (important) things that Michael has to attend to during a typical, busy day. (2) (following 1) Daryl’s issue is not the most important issue of the day for Michael, and this meeting can be interrupted at any time.)

    Step C: Once Daryl is invited into Michael’s office, Michael says “Daryl, I’m extremely busy today. I’ve only got a few minutes. What’s on your mind?”

    (Micheal’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) re-iterates message(s) communicated in Step B (that Daryl’s issue is not very important to Michael). (2) By giving Daryl a time constraint, it forces Daryl to “talk first,” which is one of Michael’s goals (based on the wikipedia tactics list [Technically, Michael is speaking first; however, I am interpreting the “refuse to speak first” tactic to mean “refuse to speak first about the topic at hand,” in which case, Michael is playing legally since his words are simply setting boundary conditions on the discussion. In fact, now that I think about it, Michael would have his secretary (is it still Pam at this time?) say to Daryl (as she, at last, leads him into Micheal’s office) “I’m sorry, Daryl, Michael is extremely busy today, he only has a few minutes.” In this way, Michael does not have to speak first…Daryl knows there is a time limit and that he must get his arguments out in the open quickly.]).)

    Step D: Once Daryl has outlined his case, Michael says “Daryl, those are valid points and I understand where you’re coming from…but things are tight right now…I can’t promise anything. But, I’ll talk with Accounting/HR/Corporate and we’ll see if there’s anything we can do for you. Thank you for coming in today.” Michael then buzzes his secretary on the intercom and asks her to go ahead and put that call through that she’s had on hold during the meeting. Daryl stands up and leaves Michael’s office.

    (Micheal’s message(s) to Daryl: (1) Michael is taking the time to listen to Daryl…He hears Daryl and he validates Daryl. (2) There is a much bigger picture involved here than just Daryl’s world. While Daryl’s arguments for a raise make sense from Daryl’s point of view, the company is a large organization, and all matters of pay must go through a standard process. (3) Michael is very busy, and now that Daryl has communicated his wishes, Michael needs to get back to important matters.

  43. If I may ask a personal question: Do you consider yourself a sociopath (in context of this article)? It seems their position is the only one capable of complete understanding. You express a great deal of knowledge and apparent research so I would credit you with that honor.

    However, as a sociopath you should be de-motivated to convey your wisdom in an honest way. No need to bring more players to a hot table, right?

    • “Sociopath” in this context describes a set of skills. Assuming you have the skills, how you apply them depends on what you want, and that depends on both the circumstances and your underlying personality.

      In the above scenario, I hear the message as: you are important enough to listen to briefly, but don’t bother me with this again.

      • Very true: “…how you apply them depends on what you want, …the circumstances and your underlying personality.” – Conrad

        However, I intended my message as, ‘Prove your intentions.’ This analysis of communication styles and accompanying anecdotes – however fictional – carry significant value if true. But my “underlying personality” necessitates a degree of skepticism.

        • I’m not certain what you mean by intentions. To me it would be almost synonymous with the “result” you want to achieve. I don’t see how that would be provable, especially in the case of an expert sociopath whose short term goals might have nothing to do with his long term goals. In chess, sacrificing a pawn doesn’t mean your goal is to destroy your organization.

          In this context, propping up a loser until you have a better option does not make you a humanitarian.

  44. Néant Humain says

    These articles on social stratification and interaction in the workplace are interesting, but I think a more accurate term for what you call ‘sociopath’ here would be ‘Machiavellian.’ Within psychology and sociology, the term sociopathy refers to more flagrant criminal or antisocial behavior. As described in diagnostic books, antisocial personality disorder or dissocial personality disorder include more than lying and manipulation; they also include impulsivity and aggressiveness, recklessness, and an inability to feel guilt or remorse. If these kinds of people are in a corporation and have enough self-control to avoid any easily detected criminal behavior, they are not keeping the business going despite itself; they will suck it dry for their own gain.

    Even a sub-clinical psychopath is unlikely to match what you’ve been describing. Being that they are temperamentally disinclined towards the slow but steady progress and bureaucracy of the traditional corporation, they are unlikely to be working there in great numbers. Sub-clinical psychopaths would gravitate towards occupations that give them a feeling of danger or risk (which is exciting to them), chaos or variety, and power or prestige (probably not of the office middle manager sort).

  45. A funny thing occurred to me. I am in the middle of a lateral transfer off my current team over to another. My new manager really wants me over there. My old manager is an overbearing jerk.

    So rather than satisfying the impulse to be a complete jerk back to him, like a true Loser, this is like a wonderful little laboratory where I can experiment with powertalk on him while I’m waiting for the cut-over. With no risk. I can *pretend* to be a sociopath, when in reality I am way too neurotic for that in real life.

    Your analysis is really wonderful, and as I think about it, it just keeps unfolding in front of me. Thank you!

  46. I have been doing my best to keep up, and to help me, I made a list of the Gervais characters on my blog:

    I worked for 20 years as a technical writer, so I volunteered to edit your new book too.

    Count me as one of your fans.

  47. hello again,
    same office fan loser. Same amazement.

    Once again you’ve put words on what I’ve seen. (specially since the office is kind of hot these days, the slow tempo of hirings&firings just had a beat). I just had my first office power talks.
    The thing is I’m a happy loser, corporate newbie, really wondering whether I want to/can be a sociopath.
    I guess I’ve been power talking with girls my all life. It never got me far, for that matter, but trained the listening.

    and, as far as I now understand it, posturetalk and babytalk seem like a lot of fun. I can’t wait for your next piece.

    And by the way, I think I made a mistake, I was talking with a colleague about your first piece, explaining the pyramid, and it suddenly felt awkward, when we both realized he was clueless and not the loser I thought he was. I feel a little bad, because it looks like he’s been cutting slack ever since.

    I’m forwarding this, and I think he wants the next piece too.

  48. I find myself wondering what you would makenof the BBC’s classics Yes Minister and Yes Priminister. Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey and Bernard form a nice little trio but, I think, a slghtly different dynamic to The Office.

    • I’ve watched the entire Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister series as well. You are absolutely right; the dynamic is very different. The entire pyramid is inverted — the “people” and their reps (legislature) are the losers, the political leaders (Jim Hacker) are the clueless, and the bureaucrats (Sir Humphrey in particular) are the sociopaths.

      But that would be another long story, and since the series is rather old, not many would get it. It is also not as general, since the power structure is somewhat uniquely British. Equations are different in American and other political systems.

  49. This stuff right here… is gold.

    For the losers and clueless reading the remark above, I have just offered Venkat my youngest sister’s virginity in exchange for the continuation of this series.

    I have no doubt that he will be able to decipher the other 5 significant messages being conveyed. ;)

  50. Nice theoretical structure so far, Venkat, and I like the way you bring in different sources. I was expecting to see a reference to Richard Ritti’s The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know, but I’m going to take a look at Whyte and Morgan.

    I particularly appreciate the vivid portrayal of the pathology of the US corporation. This harmonized with my personal experience in the belly of the beast, as I’m sure is true for most Dilbert fans, which is presumably why you immediately acknowledged the Dilbert Principle and then properly dismissed it.

    Your provocative labels, taken from a one-off cartoon of uncertain theoretical provenance, seem to be causing problems for some of your readers. Despite your clear descriptions of their roles and abilities, I think some people are confused by them.

    For example, the “loser” role is probably the common experience for 90% of people who work for other people or companies. If you generalize it further it may turn out to be the typical human experience of life, which most people are satisfied with, or at least reconciled to. That may be why TA’s pop psychology seems to map all Loser communication: because it is normal.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how you develop this framework, including how you account for deviations. However, Thomas Lord seems to have shown that the connection with “The Office” is contrived and perhaps merely a hook for your readers; I can’t say so with certainty because I’ve never watched “The Office.”

    • Your comment about how the loser role fits most people is apt. I am reading They thought they were free, about the Nazi era in Germany. The author, an American Jew, interviewed ten ex-Nazis in depth, all of them self-styled Little Men, who thought the Nazi era was the best part of their lives. They had no idea what was going on, and didn’t want to know. The Nazis took care of unemployment, and that was all they were interested in.

      • Yes–by their own metric, they were “winners.”

        Likewise, anyone who participates in a system and only minimally benefits from it, without any true emotional commitment to it, might get classified as a Loser.

        I think it’s a great term, but the clueless will not get it. ;-)

    • Watch the show… Thomas Lord’s comment isn’t quite what it seems :)


      • Perhaps he’s channeling the Clueless POV?

        • Perhaps, but I doubt it.

          Re the show: notice that Michael Scott always looks like he’s at some point in a downward spiral and yet always comes out ahead. (He may be angstful about his current position in relation to Jim but on the other hand his job description is basically “do whatever the f— you want”.)

          Re real life: Once, maybe twice I’ve known just such guys as managers. There are those angling for power cut-throat style, there are those who always lose that game, there are those who don’t even clearly understand that that’s the game — that’s the sociopath / loser / clueless triangle — but then there are some other ones. The other ones I would dub “the winners”.

          The first “winner” I knew was a veritable Dilbert clone, by appearance. Engineering firm. Short sleeve shirt. Tie – frequently flapping Oliver-style (as in “Hardy and…”). Loved by every single person in the firm, top to bottom. Nobody would dare make a move against him outside of private “top-level” meetings and any move against him in those meetings, as in “The Office”, flopped to the detriment of the person making it. Always cheerful. Always goofy and self-depricating. Always, as the relentless subtext, with the eye on the ball of getting useful stuff done.

          This was the guy who *didn’t* sacrifice family to be in management. Who, in fact, coached the local soccer team and did other charitable works. A guy easy to make fun of and easy to feel briefly annoyed at but hard as heck to dislike. A guy who if you worked for him, he made you a better person before you even knew he was doing anything other than joking around, with very corny jokes.

          The worst thing a firm can do to such an employee is to “promote” them into a corner office and out of touch. These are the “management by walking around” types. The ombudsmen. The long term survivors who wind up with the most richly rewarding personal experiences, when summed over a career. The true “very few regrets” guys.

          “Send in the clowns…. don’t worry, they’re here.”

  51. Hello, Venkat! I’ve enjoyed these articles very much, and I add my voice to the others to say I hope you continue with them! It’s been a while since I felt enlightened after reading something on the internet!

    I have two questions/observations.

    First, have you looked into the similarities between Powertalk and flirting? With flirting, the “money” is amorous interest rather than information, but it still impacts the power relationship between the two parties. Flirting could be a way for the losers and clueless to practice many of the same dynamics as Powertalk with less risky stakes.

    Secondly, what roles would contractors & consultants play in the organizational hierarchy? I haven’t watched The Office (though I just added Season 1 to my NetFlix queue!), so I don’t know whether some dreaded consultant figures into any of the story lines. The consultants in Office Space seemed like another variety of clueless, but their position as outsiders offers more options than the usual organizational member.


  52. As a contractor, I can tell you that there are several types of contractors, from temporary workers to high level troubleshooters.

    I am somewhere near the top of this hierarchy, and I often discover that the technical consultant (me) is being used in intra-office conflicts. It is common consultant wisdom that you are often called in to fix a problem that someone in the organization is technically qualified to deal with, but can’t for reasons of organizational politics.

    You can imagine how the person who could have fixed the problem, or imagines he/she could, feels about the consultant. The hardest part of the job is getting this person on your side, especially if they are clueless.

    The person bringing in the consultant could be anyone who has the budget or can pull strings. Normally it is a clueless who has run out of options, or a sociopath who wants to put pressure on someone.

  53. More, please!

  54. Venkat, I really look forward to your posts. Thank you. Please keep em coming.
    Two threads came together when I read about PowerTalk. I remember a particular socio who was my manager, once telling me “you talk like a sales person, not like a marketing person.” Seems like there may be domain-specific dialects of PowerTalk. Or perhaps he just meant I was clueless and trying to let me in on his observation.
    I’ve also noticed how words that seem oddly out of context take on remarkable speed through the socio network. Once I remarked about the need to “sunset” more programs that have outlived their usefulness, in a roundtable with the Senior Sociopath at our company. The next day, a Junior Sociopath made a comment in different meeting how we need to “sunset” things. May be just a coincidence, but I remember thinking “wow, that word got around fast and it makes no sense in this conversation”. Seems to be part of the code of PowerTalk, which I formerly referred to as execubuzz…..Demonstrates you are in the loop, at least for a split second.

    As a so-called mentor, I will be connecting everyone I know with your work. They may not realize yet how incredibly helpful it will be, but I’m sure that someday it will make sense and explain alot of heretofore unexplained situations in everyday work life.

  55. As I see it, the Sociopaths create and destroy companies – more often the later. The Clueless are the geniuses in the middle that help with the creation part, and try to resist the destruction part – as the sociopaths try to make a quick buck off of what they already have, instead of trying to make it better.

    The Clueless were once over-achieving nobodies, who got promoted, because they were so useful. They are called clueless because they have no understanding of power politics, which the Sociopaths excel at.

    I haven’t spent much time around the Sociopaths, but my limited exposure to them certainly convinced me of the aptness of their title. You want to say out of the way of these guys.

    I have had more exposure to the Clueless, and have worked for several. The companies I worked for owed much of their success to these guys, who were brilliant and hard-working – but they always fucked them over – if you will excuse my French. The Clueless never realized, or never admitted, that they had been had. That is why they are Clueless.

  56. Just found your site. Brill. You could not have described the department I work in better than if you had been here at the formation 9 months ago and worked in the room every day. Mad props.

  57. Very interesting & entertaining post, and a nice view of what I might have studied if I’d gone the discourse analysis route in my program instead of computational ling.

    One question on the tripartite paradigm presented though– Where do the merely competent folks fit, those who aren’t clueless and merely refrain from having powertalk conversations due to a lack of table stakes? They’re not clueless, so it seems like loser would be the only other place, but they’re competent and confident employees, and don’t degrade to gametalk, so loser seems somewhat inappropriate. Take Oscar from The Office as an example. Not a loser, not clueless, but not much in the way of stakes for powertalk. Would you say he’s just a very mild sociopath? A high-level loser? Or is there room for fourth area of non-players?

  58. Excellent stuff. I hope you continue with the series and, if you do, I hope you write more about the need for the clueless layer.

    Hyper rational people (like me) have always struggled to see the need for middle management and I’m not sold on the need for having a huge group of people (drawing huge resources) just to create a buffer between losers and sociopaths. Why can those two layers not communicate directly and frankly?

    Also, I’d be curious about your thoughts on how the layers evolve at organizations that cannot go out of business — universities, government agencies, etc. In my experience they are not very heavy on clueless people, as their age should make them under your theory. They are heavy on non-productive losers.

    (That said, the loser level worker in government may not be an actual loser. Many of them doubtless get paid far beyond any value they create. Does that make the winners?)

  59. Fantastic! More please.

  60. I’d like to encourage you to keep writing. In these days information overload (or perhaps “communication overload” is more appropriate; the quantity and quality of related information is often low), it’s the rare lengthy piece that keeps me reading all the way through. You’ve accomplished this with the first two entries in this series.

  61. “Bottomline in this sidebar: you can’t learn Powertalk from books. The question obviously thus begged: is there any way to learn it at all?”

    To beg the question is not what you think it is…

  62. lol! Thanks for spotting that. Will fix the usage.

  63. Thanks for the series, I’m especially looking forward to a clarification of some of the language forms not clarified yet, Babytalk, Gametalk etc.

    I’m sure you’ve already encountered plenty of grief about specifically choosing overloaded terms (clueless, loser, and sociopaths) with apparently all negative connotations.

    Very clever in that the reader can only chose one of three insulting groups for himself, and then has to read quite a ways before getting to redefine himself as a sociopath. Embedded commands or something like that. Lots of fun, and I’ve enjoyed the ride for over an hour, eternity in the blogosphere.

  64. Fictional movie scenes seem to be a rich source for such analysis, probably because they lie between books (too much left to individual imagery) and documentaries that have to offer more thorough and balanced views.

    Some favourites come to mind:

    -The Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men. Though the denouement is typical Hollywood simplification, there are moments where the dialogue sizzles. Can’t think of anybody delivering this better than Nicholson: “You will get (what you ask) but you have to ask me nicely” and other dialogues interestingly analyzed at

    -John Travolta’s advice to Gene Hackman in Get Shorty about where to seat visitors, how to not introduce him and so on.

    -Clive Owen in Closer revealing facts to Jude Law in a sequence designed to demolish the latter’s morale and to achieve the former’s intended outcome in the love (?) quadrangle.

  65. Paul Renault says

    Perhaps Scott Adams has been reading your discussion, or at least your cited sources:

    I’ve just read the two blog posts, I’ll be reading the comments so I can contribute. So far, it’s all very fascinating and appreciated, Venkat.

  66. Great discussion- more please. I think Thomas Lord hits the nail on the head. Michael Scott is a prime example of “The Fool Triumphant,” in author/screenwriter Blake Synder’s scheme of genres (see his book and website “Save the Cat”). Snyder (recently deceased) uses Steve Carell’s performance in “The Forty Year Old Virgin” as a model example of the sub-genre “The Sex Fool,” confirming Carell’s particular genius for this kind of role. Ricky Gervais, of course, plays almost exclusively these kinds of roles.

    Other examples Snyder includes are Peter Sellers as Chance in “Being There” (The Political Fool), Dustin Hoffman as “Tootsie” (The Undercover Fool), Tom Hanks as “Forrest Gump” (The Society Fool), and Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” (The Fool Out of Water).

    Michael Scott’s character arc, over and over, consists of him screwing things up in every possible way, but being redeemed by his essential goodness and insight into humanity. Others have mentioned the episode where The Michael Scott Paper Company is bought out, but I would also cite the episode where Stanley shouts “Did I stutter?” at Michael. Paraphrasing, Michael resolves thing by using the straightest of straight talk, saying “You don’t have to like me, or respect me, but I’m the boss, and you can’t talk to me that way.” It’s heart-breaking, and paradoxically, it probably is the only time Stanley really does respect Michael.

    • I haven’t yet replied to Thomas Lord, but since your comment is in the same vein, I’ll respond briefly here and defer a fuller answer to the next post.

      I don’t think the show supports the “lovable fool who always comes out on top” interpretation. There are plenty of examples where he does NOT come out on top, and barely saves face. A very good instance is the one where there is a budget surplus and there is a battle for new chairs vs. new copier. In the middle Michael finds out that if he just returns the surplus, he gets a bonus, and tries to take that route, but Oscar outs him. Michael’s hand is forced and he saves face by letting the group pick democratically, hoping they won’t get to a consensus. They pick they chairs in 5 minutes.

      I would put the “Did I stutter” episode in that class as well. Stanley does NOT end up respecting him, and Michael doesn’t speak the quote in straight-talk. He is practically crying. Stanley lets him off out of sheer pity.

      That’s how Michael “wins” in most episodes: others taking pity on him and giving him just enough room to maneuver a face-saving out. A clean, simple example is when he buys his condo and tries a hardball “walk away” move when Dwight points out the thin walls etc. His realtor informs him that he’d lose $7000, and he chickens out, buys, and then rationalizes the whole thing to himself.

      There is almost never a moment of genuine redemption; he never “wins” in the eyes of others, and even in his own eyes, his narrative is propped up just enough so he is not forced to face harsh truths.

      Even the example you both use, of the “win” when he goes rogue and comes back, he really just gets his old job back. Yes, he does show some compassion, and as a result, Pam gets promoted to sales and Ryan gets a job again, but personally, he is at best back to square one.

      • Hmm…. Well, drama is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but my parse of the episodes to which you (Venkat) refer is different:

        In the episode about “new chairs vs. new copier” Michael Scott faces a managerial challenge. If by fiat he declared any of “new chairs” or “new copier” or “screw it, bonus for me” he would have disgruntled and polarized staff. He basically *gets* Oscar to out him about the “bonus for me” option so that his staff *unites* around the better choice. He hacks the reaching of a unanimous decision! Brilliant.

        Similarly, Stanley’s “pity” in the “Did I stutter?” episode is ambiguous. Is that Stanley saving Michael’s face? Or Michael saving Stanley’s? The latter makes more sense. Michael doesn’t care what he “looks like.” He doesn’t mind being the centralized object of ridicule and annoyance among the staff just so long as the office continues to win on sales. Michael is ego-less that way – right in keeping with the “triumphant fool” paradigm.

        The condo episode: Dwight points out the thin walls and Michael makes a seemingly failed attempt to get out of the deal — that solves a problem. The condo was all that Michael could afford (remember, his salary at one point was below the supervisor of the warehouse, even). Dwight’s observation could lead to the conclusion that Michael is a total loser but Michael’s game play with the false attempt to back out of the contract restores his face.

        You say he never “wins” in the eyes of others but — watch Jim and watch Dwight. And Pam. Well, really all of them. He “wins” constantly and he retains respect by doing the very opposite of hectoring, with every win.

        Finally, Michael is not “back to square one”. The whole “co-manager” thing is basically Jim’s promotion to manager, and Michael’s promotion to “executive at large without portfolio” – corporate is scared of him and gives him free reign. Michael is having some existential issues trying to figure out his new role but that’s entirely self-driven.

        • Definitely a case of “drama in the eye of the behavior” and speculating about the unseen intentions of fictional characters. We are on tricky grounds here. Did Michael intend Oscar to out the bonus angle? We’ll never know obviously, since that is an unfalsifiable proposition within the fictional universe.

          But is there a reason to prefer the explanation that Michael simply hoped he wouldn’t be “found out” and that people would buy his “we are getting neither” attempt at appearing to occupy the high-moral/parental ground?

          Yes. Ockam’s razor. Overall, the “desperate and constantly face-saving” reading involves less speculation.

          The promotion of Jim and moving of Michael to a “strategy” role: again, you can read it as “power without responsibility” or “kicked sideways/upstairs.” Interestingly, throughout the show, there has been foreshadowing that Jim is headed the Michael route, and in recent episodes it is becoming clear that he is falling prey to the forces that shaped Michael’s destiny. But he is struggling and self-aware of it a lot more.

          But I’ll leave off for now. Need to present this in a more organized way later. Jim’s character arc is a lot more straight-tragic (Narcissus) than Michael… and it will interesting to see if the writers can break new ground with him.


          • I agree that the writers have a real challenge, re Jim. I predict – watch for him to really cut loose and pull some Michael-like stunts in coming episodes. Otherwise, the character is a dead-in-the-water paper pusher.

          • Hmm… I think the show would get boring if Jim’s character went the same route as Michael’s. His history is different (he was never a sales star) and he has shown signs of sociopathy that Michael did not.

            His defining trait to date has been his good looks and resultant narcissism, which in turn leads to him valuing poise and “looking cool” above all else. While he has had Michael-like failurees, the first promising sign that he is being worked differently than Michael is in the “Michael falls into the fish pond” episode, where the show ends with Jim being the butt of the joke, in a way Michael never is (he is shown instinctively backing away, hands in pockets, on the video footage, rather than helping Michael not fall).

            There are cracks in Jim’s poise. Let’s see if we get a compelling a “Fall of Narcissus” character arc with him.

          • Interesting take. So, refining my prediction – it is, as you say, a bit of a “fall of Narcissus” line for Jim, but with the comedic outcome that he lands as Michael. It’s about then the series is over.

          • If Michael is considered as a rational, economic maximizer, then yes, he often fails. But in drama, the question is always, “What does the protagonist really want, even if he doesn’t realize it, and what seemingly insurmountable obstacles stand in his way?”

            The answer to what Michael wants is often stated baldly on the show. He wants to be liked, have fun, and have the office function like a family. He wants to be the “fun dad,” especially since his dreams of being a real dad have not come true (e.g. Astrid- another heartbreaking storyline). Cafe-disco anyone? The obstacle is that he is so socially awkward and intellectually limited. The economic success of the Scranton branch is only a means to that end. The comedy comes from the variance between this goal and that of virtually everyone else.

            Since The Office is a ensemble series, his arc has to be long, with many ups and downs. Stanley’s genuine dislike for him (most of the time), and Michael’s hatred of Toby are obstacles, but they are not the whole story. And surplus bonuses and condos are simply comic fodder, since they don’t relate to Michael’s true goal.

          • Marc: we are in agreement about Michael’s goals (popularity, having friends etc.). Where we differ is in whether we believe him to be successful in others and his own estimation.

            I believe he is not, and knows it. Watch the “lake cruise” episode and its sequel (when Jim in a moment of weakness offers Michael a moment of real friendship), and contrast it with any of a variety of episodes where he must be content with fake social success (gatecrashing Jim’s party, making it impossible for Jim to refuse his own invite, getting Ryan’s cell number ostensibly for work, and then realizing that Ryan is screening him…, his unsuccessful party at the trade show, which Jim rescues somewhat at the last minute…).

            The contrast reveals that Michael knows that most of the time, he is surviving on fake social validation. He yearns for the real thing and is overwhelmed on the rare occasion that he gets it.

            Of course, there is a limit to how much you can argue for a given ground truth when analyzing a piece of fiction that you hope has narrative coherence and internal logic…


          • I think Jim started the show as the checked out loser, where he viewed his employment as just a paycheck and invested all his activities in the pursuit of love (Pam). Once that story arc had come together, the writers started taking his character into the sociopath direction starting with calling his job his “career” for the first time, and in recent episodes as co-manager saying he cared.

            The co-manager debacle shows that Jim is the good natured sociopath, as he didn’t want Michael replaced, but rather bumped up with him. Every sociopath move Jim makes is good natured, though there is one sence of flare up when he leaves Ryan the voice mail before Ryan is arrested – where Jim declares he will do what it takes to get rid of Ryan. Of course, Jim had just started his journey to become a sociopath at that point, so it wasn’t really an option and turned out to be not necessary.

            At the end of season 5 when Charles says “look who woke up” to Jim, I think it means he is calling him a sociopath, followed by “I’ve been awake for a while” – telling Jim directly that he can’t best Charles in the sociopath department.

            In season 6 when Jim steps down as co-manager back to salesman, people hail this as a “return to regular Jim” (e.g. pre-sociopath perhaps), but I view this as highly sociopath. The Sabre playbook has a clear quick-path up and that is salesman without caps. Jim has never really tried at sales, and I think we all know why now – there was never a reason to. The overperforming salesman at Dunder Miflin was a loser because they didn’t get anymore money – not true at Sabre.

            I’m hoping the Sabre arc will show us an interesting sociopath battle – good sociopath vs evil sociopath vis a vis Jim vs Ryan. Now that senior management is gone, Ryan can make another play back up to the top. Meanwhile Jim has already made the first move to the rapid-upward funnel in terms of cranking out sales.

  67. Venkat, thanks for letting me natter on about this. I’ll try to leave it alone after this. I do think, though, that Michael’s story is the central issue of the series. There are many B stories, most notably Pam and Jim, but Michael is the protagonist.

    Is Michael successful in reaching his goal? By your definition, no. He is not popular in the traditional sense, nor does he have normal friendships. And yes, he knows this. He lives for glimpses of true friendship, intimacy and comraderie.

    From a dramatic point of view, this is absolutely necessary. To sustain the comic tension, every attempt he makes at connection must be frustrated by his awkwardness and dimness. Narrative theory demands that conflict drive every scene. When the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist truly triumphs over his obstacles, the story is over. There is nothing more to say.

    Since The Office is ongoing, the writers must keep Michael on a tightrope. He is a clown figure, so every sweet moment where he gives the girl a flower must be followed up with a metaphorical pie in the face.

    I think there is no doubt, though, that Michael is a huge success in a meta-sense. The audience loves him, and is fascinated by him. We want him to find happiness, even if in real life, we run the other way when we meet people like him. Secretly, we all fear that we might be Michael. A blithering idiot that inspires this kind of affection and identification is a successful comic creation, by anyone’s measure.

    • P.S.: If Michael is the Wise Fool, what are the other characters, as stock dramatic figures? The following is off the top of my head. As in commedia dell-arte, mixing and matching these types gives an almost unlimited number of plots/scenarios.

      Michael- Wise Fool (cf. Forrest Gump)
      Dwight- Arrogant bumbler (Basil Fawlty)
      Pam- Ingénue (generic)
      Jim- Romantic lead (generic)
      Angela-Controlling shrew (Sybil Fawlty)
      Kelly- Conceited ditz (Miss Piggy)
      Kevin- Fat lothario (Falstaff)
      Daryl- Put-upon servant (Jeeves in P.G. Wodehouse)
      Creed- Creepy old man ( Jack Nicholson in “Something’s Gotta Give”)
      Toby- Sad-sack loser (Eeyore)
      Andy- Goofy milquetoast (Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse)
      Ryan- Conniving striver (Iago)
      Stanley- Hen-pecked husband (Richard in “Keeping Up Appearances”)
      Oscar- Well-adjusted normal guy (ironic)

      • Marc —

        Now you’ve done it. Broken the 4th wall I mean. The ‘truth in the art’ aspect for me only concerns the reactions of in-script characters of course.

        But as to the audience… you are generalizing quite a bit as to our reaction. Are you American btw? I suspect you are. Americans do like their identifiable heroes who win in the end :).

        In fact, I think the audience reaction to Michael will depend on their own personality type. Back when I had more of the loser-mentality, my reaction was the most common one: cringing and fascinated horror. Now, I have to admit, I take a certain vicious pleasure in seeing Michael fail. In the last episode (the stockholders meeting), they almost let him win, and I was prepared to be disappointed in the show, but they take him down in the end.

        I have never in my watching of the show rooted for or deeply identified with Michael (or David Brent). The show has a stark anti-romanticism that discourages that (the UK version is starker…).

        He is NOT a particularly identifiable character. We all feel a certain identified-embarrassment based on our own Michael moments, but he is that way 100% of the time, where ordinary real-world people only have a few.

        Re: your other dramatic archetypes. Not sure I agree with your mapping. Jim is certainly not generic though. As I noted elsewhere, he is probably a Narcissus if the writers follow through on their own logic. Still, a fun exercise.

        • I am American :) Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I was going to return to lurking for a while, but my neurotic need to be right asserted itself, and I found the following in an interview with BJ Novak from the Onion AV Club. Doesn’t invalidate your reactions, but at least it lets me know mine are not unreasonable. As for David Brent, I can’t say, as I’ve only seen snippets of the original.

          AVC: What character do you like writing for the most?
          BJN: Michael, although I really love so many other characters, for different reasons. But there is such an elegance to the comedy of Michael. It’s really, to me, what was so delightful to me about comedy as a kid. It’s the wise fool, or someone who sees logic in such a specific way that makes so much sense, and yet is so different from the way you would have pictured it. I think he’s just such a delightful, classic comedy character.
          AVC: The Michael of “Diversity Day” seems much meaner than he would become over time. Were you worried about making him too unlikeable?
          BJN: Um, yeah. I think it was a bit conscious and a bit unconscious. I think the unconscious factor is that you often gravitate toward what makes you smile. And as simple as it sounds, what makes you smile is sometimes just people being nice. But there was also a conscious decision to brighten the show, and to find a way into this character that was dominating the show. During “Diversity Day,” I realized that stuff was funnier and hitting harder when it was the kind of mistake that you’re afraid of making yourself. So over time, especially as we moved into the second season, we had a few months off to think, “All right, what do we want to be different about the show?” I think we wanted to brighten the characters so people could identify with his mistakes a little bit, and his loneliness, and where he’s coming from, rather than just identify with the collective person in The Office.

  68. LOL, this has been a good discussion. Now we have to consider whether the “conscious/unconscious” creative process of writers (partly intentional, partly channeling the zeitgeist, and partly projecting their own personalities…) changes much. After all, characters do run away from their authors (Christie reportedly hated Poirot and only the money kept her from doing so).

    But yes, I would take this as supporting the ‘wise fool’ archetype to a certain extent (though honestly, I don’t “get” it in a literary sense. It is not the play-the-fool Yoda when Luke first meets him, or the comic Kung-Fu masters in Hong Kong B-movies. It is not Forrest Gump, and it is not the Trickster in the Campbell-monomyth sense).

    We also have to figure in the consistency with the David Brent character, which was enforced on the American team. Gervais/Merchant are clearly a lot darker than BJN and company. You can see Gervais’ creative logic work itself out through “Extras”, “Ghostworld” and most recently, “The Invention of Lying.” Gervais has gotten more “American” over time. The Office was bleak. Extras was much bleaker, but ended with a near-American feel-good redemption. The 2 movies have been almost disappointingly redemption-driven.

    Incidentally, I read somewhere else that BJN was somewhat inspired by David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” which I’ve just started reading. Way more complex to parse than more standard theater stuff.

    But peace. I’ll allow that the ‘Wise Fool’ is at least a legitimate alternate reading.


  69. Stacy McKenna Seip says

    I’m a Loser who left the corporate world when they tried to stuff me into a Clueless position. I don’t WANT power (especially not the facade of it “managing” people I didn’t hire/select performing tasks I didn’t sign on to fulfill), I’d much rather trade that for a reliable paycheck, thanks, for which I’ll happily be incredibly productive in order to help keep profit margins high. That said, I’m with Scoop on wondering WHY there must be such a buffer of Clueless and why we productive Losers can’t engage in more Straight Talk with the Sociopaths. Why, exactly, do companies explode under such circumstances? Wouldn’t they be more effective without all the Cluelessness? I have some traits of the Sociopath – heaven knows I’ve eschewed established structures now and again out of frustration over their ineffectiveness and done as I saw fit in order to achieve those goals I felt were worth it. But in a corporate environment, I can not be bothered to engage in PowerTalk all the time. It’s tedious.

    • Under my understanding of the article, the Clueless exist so that you don’t have to hear Straight Talk from the Sociopaths so often, because it’s INTENSELY unpleasant for the Loser on the receiving end of it.

      For example, there was the episode where Holly was supposed to talk about business ethics, and when a really important situation came to light in that meeting, she had an interesting discussion with Corporate:

      “I thought we made it clear to you that your job was to go to Scranton and get signatures from everyone. Now, if you can’t handle that, …”

      “No, no… I can handle it.”

      “Good.” *click*

      The function of the Clueless is to obfuscate those kinds of interactions until the Losers find them palatable. For instance, a Clueless manager might say “I know it’s stupid, but we have to do x to make Corporate happy…” and the Loser in question will be much happier to follow that order than if it came from someone at the top in the form of “Do this or we’ll fire you and get someone else to do it.”

      • I mustbe weird. I prefer blunt. I want to know EXACTLY what my job expectations are so I can decide whether I should be taking the job in the first place, and later on, whether I should be looking for a new job or not. I’d much rather know Corporate’s objectives clearly spelled out than have some form of obfuscation that serves only to make me feel like I’m working for IDIOTS. Misanthropes I can handle – they’re usually at least logical. Feeling like I’m working for idiots drives me crazy.

        • Thanks for jumping in and responding Tony.

          Stacy — to build on what Tony said, two points.

          1. You are right about you being an exception. You’d be surprised at the number of people who prefer to be insulated from reality. I’ve had blunt talk backfire on me several times from people who didn’t like hearing it :)

          2. There are other functions of the sociopath layer that have nothing to do with this obfuscation. Will cover those in a future piece.

          I also want to emphasize that it is NOT a useless layer. It is essential for organizations. They are ‘clueless’ in the sense that they are not adding value in the ways they THINK they are.

          • Oh, I absolutely think that the Clueless layer can be useful, especially if your Sociopaths want their productive Losers effectively managed wihtout having to do it themselves. I just also think that if you find the right gorup of Losers (like me) the layer can be significantly smaller than usual, especially in smaller organiztions. The trick isfinding the right kinds of losers who can effectively communicate with the Sociopath(s) without needing “translation”…

        • LOL me too, Stacy. I actually get a bit frustrated because, like Holly, I think if I’m here to do a certain job, I should do that job to the best of my ability, and it annoys me to no end if I’m suddenly expected to do something else. Thus, I’m too aware for cluelessness, but so far I either haven’t been good enough at the game or willing enough to manipulate in order to get anywhere.

          I like to think that this is because I’m not cut out for this, and will start my own company once I have the capital together. :)

  70. Please continue.

    This is truly awakening.

  71. I’m one of the readers who would have never found this place were it not for Slashdot – and it is perhaps the best thing I ever got from Slashdot! (And I get a lot of good from there.)

    Fascinating, well-presented stuff. I’m spreading the word (and hopefully getting coffee bought) as much as I am able.

    Thank you so much for your efforts.

  72. I have not heard anyone suggest that the clueless exist largely to insulate the sociopaths from the losers. It is painful and frustrating for sociopaths to communicate with losers, and they avoid it whenever possible.

  73. This characterization of “Clueless” as a kind of damping layer between Sociopaths and Losers makes a lot of sense.

    Picking up on how Conrad characterizes it, I think this “damping” is a function of their relative perceptions of time.

    Sociopaths who are usually pretty far along in the human race for socioeconomic status-seeking place a high opportunity cost on their time, and find interactions with Losers both both pointless and painful. Sociopaths cannot actually count on a self-professed loser to assist their own future status-seeking endeavours through favors and trades. Losers are also not schooled in (or perhaps even open to) the kind of pragmatism and powertalk that a Sociopath finds to be the most profitable investment of time.

    Clueless layers (also called “middle management”?) not only break spans in organizations (allowing a small number of sociopaths to orchestrate a vast pool of losers) but also provide this kind of cushioning and translation. Perhaps the fundamental difference between a sociopath and a clueless is the relative self-estimated opportunity cost of time.

    The clueless are more willing to take harsh soundbites and rapid-fire powertalk from the Sociopaths, and then have enough empathy to translate this for losers and spend time motivating them to accomplish the bidding of the sociopath. It’d be interesting to see a sociological dissection of how the Clueless layer is generated. If
    (a) Harvard Business School (and the MBA education programs in general) are a sort of “leadership factory” evolved within industrial society to supplement the ranks of the children of ubercapitalists in helping bring scientific management to their enterprises, and
    (b) This leadership factory primarily feeds on the status-anxiety of upper-bourgeoise (doctor, lawyer etc.) families’ kids that want to climb up into being captains of industry (but may not uniformly be blessed genetically with the rapacity and sagacity of a sociopath, required to truly break through, not to mention luck), then the clueless layers of middle management will largely be such upper-bourgeoise – empathetic, and striving, but too soft to actually engage in powertalk.

    I find the comments from TonyS, and Stacy very interesting in this regard. Most Sociopaths have a couple of “effective, specific role losers” assigned to their private entourage (whom they engage with one-on-one for requests of staff work not necessarily cascaded down via clueless minions).

    • Regarding the last paragraph above. In the medium to small organizations I am familiar with, there is a very sharp line between director/president/vice-president and department heads. Sociopaths above, relatively socially talented and loyal clueless immediately below.

      I think the most interesting interactions are at interfaces like this. How are department heads different? Obviously they are not as hard for sociopaths to communicate with, though I often see considerable friction when political reality collides with the practical realities.

      I have been trying to figure out where I am in this scheme, and the only role that seems to fit is tourist. I need to give this more thought.

  74. Brilliant stuff.

    I am a loser who is in danger of becoming a clueless and this has been a real eye-opener.

    I wonder who works the longest hours? Surely the clueless?

    Keep it coming!

  75. Did you notice that this week’s episode of the Office started was explicitly about babytalk? I think the writers are reading your blog.

    • I’d like to believe that, but is far more likely to be a coincidence. The writers have an obvious baby theme going with Michael (the word “babysitter” has been used, and once Michael acted like a baby upon encountering another baby…).

  76. I read this a few weeks ago, and since then I’ve found that it has changed my vocabulary, my frame of reference for analyzing work issues, and perhaps my life. This theory is a great kick-in-the-butt for dropping clueless charades that make me palatable to the sociopaths, embracing my inner (hopefully moral :) ) sociopath, and actually striking out on my own projects.

    It’s not often you find something like that, so thank you and definitely keep theorizing!

  77. Please keep doing these. Not only are they fascinating and insightful, they’re brilliantly communicated. I’m a big fan of The Office, and you’re teaching me why. You’re also teaching me why my interactions with other people work like they do.

    Thank you!

  78. Devastating. A great read.

    Your analysis fits nicely a scene from the UK Office that I have longed to understand: Clear sociopath Neil and loser Tim share a moment of straight talk when Neil offers Tim the interim branch manager job and Tim straightforwardly turns him down, but then delivers a stream of powertalk nominating clueless Gareth for the job, displaying his facility with the language while also rubbing Neil’s face in the fact that Tim chooses not to be a sociopath in the Wernam Hogg organizational structure, but rather a minimum-effort loser.

    Thanks for that.

  79. Connected this to some theorisations in Autonomist theory here_

  80. You guys aren’t even close.


  81. Fascinating. Disturbing.

    Since I am clearly in the Losers group within my organization (I’m intelligent, but socially inept), I’m struggling to see how I can force myself to remember some of these principles in order to improve my lot. This makes me consider the hierarchies within each group and whether it’s possible to move from Losers to Clueless (and vice versa). I can’t really see how a Clueless or a Loser could truly become a Sociopath.

  82. clueless? says

    I don’t normally go for this sort of cheap shot, but you are such a guy. Only a guy would go this far to portray all of human interaction as a struggle for dominance where the only individuals who aren’t playing the game are either too stupid or too indifferent. I mean, by definition that includes the entire human race, but do you think that maybe there’s more to the story than that?

    I know, I’m name calling (and really oversimplifying), that’s awful. I really do enjoy these posts, your writing is quite sophisticated and very engrossing. But still. Guy.

  83. The best description I’ve heard of a true sociopath is that they see others as video game characters. While there are a lot more true sociopaths in the world than people realize, I don’t think there are enough to make up the powertalking sociopath class described here. I think it’s largely made up of people who have empathatic attachments in their personal life, but are able to treat business as a completely virtual world.

  84. This series of posts is absolutely brilliant and has put my entire working career in perspective. Four different jobs at four different companies now all make a lot more sense. I already had a much better grasp at what was happening at those jobs than the clueless people around me, but you’ve described everything I’ve learned and a lot more so lucidly and eloquently. I need to finish watching all The Office episodes in light of this new information.

    The weird part is that I identify myself as both sociopath and loser in the MacLeod hierarchy.

    I would love to see a post describing a hypothetical organization devoid of pathological problems would work.

  85. I wonder if sex can be considered another stake in the working environment, not strictyle related to business but certainly with power. At least some people know how to trade one for the other. And maybe sexual harassment complaints are issued mostly against the clueless who aren’t skilled with subtlety.
    I’m just guessing here, since I never worked in an organization. But I’m very intrigued.

  86. Sex I think, is considered a little too dangerous to routinely use as table stakes (by either sex) these days, as the anatomy of many scandals shows. I think most sociopaths treat other stakes vs. sex as dynamite (safe explosive) vs. nitroglycerine (too temperamental). But this is a whole huge topic, and The Office is not a particularly good source of insights into this topic (it’s the one area where the show is romantic rather than dyspeptic… Pam is much cuter than her counterpart in the UK version, and the romantic/sex subplots are treated in basic feel-good/chick-flick ways rather than cynically… clearly the producers thought making that part of the show dark would make the show indigestible for American audiences.)

  87. Finally read this post today while taking a break from Robert Coram’s well-researched biography of USAF Col. John Boyd (Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War). So when I came across talk of “tactics” and “information advantage” here, it was perhaps inevitable that I be reminded of Boyd’s OODA Loop, his codification of the tactical decision-making process that takes place repeatedly in combat: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. He argued that whichever party could iterate through this loop in the shortest time would inevitably command the advantage in combat. In air-to-air combat, his main area of interest, this might play out by means of, for example, a small and quick-turning aircraft being able to shoot down a less maneuverable one.

    The OODA Loop idea turns out to be applicable over a broad range of tactical situations and has been adopted throughout all the armed services. I would expect it to come in very handy in a Powertalk conversation too, since I think every Powertalk conversation is essentially a subtle instance of combat among Sociopaths (I favor capitalizing the MacLeod-context-specific organizational Sociopaths to distinguish from ordinary sociopaths). The least you can say is that Powertalk is always a negotiation, analogous to combat — though I would argue the distinction isn’t needed. The two are one; negotiation is combat; combat is negotiation; the goal in both cases is to determine/decide or allocate something of real value or consequence among self-interested individuals. The use of flashy physicality as a method in this process distracts us and makes us want to apply a separate term (“combat”) but it’s still the same game.

    In the context of OODA loops, Michael’s Powertalk attempts fail so spectacularly (and therefore succeed just as spectacularly as comedy) because he usually doesn’t do the Observe or Orient steps to size up the situation or his opponent before Deciding on a course of Action. (This fact constitutes his very cluelessness.) So his “clever” tactics end up poorly placed and hilariously ineffective. And then even more hilariously, he doesn’t loop back and iterate the process; he breaks the OODA loop, and persists steadfastly in the same pattern — wrong to begin with, and growing steadily wronger the longer he persists after we can all see it’s not working. Michael’s OODA loops aren’t just broken, they’re twice-broken and stomped-on. We’re all in on this joke because, while “OODA loop” is a term few people recognize, it’s a process most people nonetheless seem to grasp and be able to do on a daily basis almost instinctively/intuitively.

  88. Reading through this series, all quite interesting. It makes me glad I’ve never worked for a big organization, or had to deal much with office dynamics. I see a bit of myself in all three types, so reality is a bit more confusing than theory – but there was mention of an exile type that might fit me.

  89. I’ve recently made use of the ideas of posturetalk and cluelessness as a way to describe the use of snark and its forms outside of an organizational structure.

  90. I found this very nice guide to Posturetalk on Forbes:

    The author doesn’t refer to them as such, but he describes the Clueless perfectly:

    “We all laugh at how the managers in Dilbert or on the The Office constantly spew cliches that don’t seem to mean anything. But those parodies shed light on a basic truth: some tired management cliches will impress enough people that they’ll probably help you get promoted to middle management.

    Of course, if you really become a samurai master of using all 89 of these cliches, you probably have no hope of moving up to upper management, because your mind and vocabulary will be filled with complete and utter nonsense.”

  91. It sounds like grit (see the Calculus of Grit post) could be used to characterize sociopaths. As you mention above, acquiring the skill of powertalk usually requires getting burned initially. Those seeking to become conversant in the language, but lacking sufficient grit, get discouraged, and give up their quest. Depending on how badly burnt and discouraged the experience leaves them, they will either wind up clueless or losers.

    On the other hand, the hopeful sociopaths with true grit are navigating according to an internal coordinate system, and thus do not get put off by early lashings from experienced powertalkers. This encourages me to think that the loser, clueless, sociopath classifications could correspond to: not enough grit (but a little), no grit, and really gritty.

  92. After most people interact with someone else, they usually wonder if the person likes them. When a sociopath interacts with someone, he/she wonders if they can get a profit or favor out of that person. If not, interaction is over. That could mean that a sociopath will continue a relationship based on perceived chance of gaining a profit or favor, even if there is no social reinforcement.

    I suppose that means we all show some sociopathic tendencies, they are just more pronounced in some people.

  93. Hi Venkat,
    Brilliant writing from you. I started watching the office again and have a new found appreciation for the show.
    A couple of questions for you – You mentioned the impro book by Keith Johnstone and how it improved your understanding of intercation and status flow during communcation. How do you feel status affects powertalk.
    Second question – how quickly do you think people at the sociopath level are able to classify others they communicate with as fellow sociopaths or the clyeless or the losers. I remember a scene from the movie up in the air where george clooney is at the airport and he quickly decides which queye to go to based on pre formed stereotypes in his head.