Style Over Substance: Five Ways That Culture Writers Snow Us In

Usually, I ignore culture writers.

I skim plenty of articles (I’m a voracious reader) but every now and then I pause on a piece that hearkens back to a mythological time when “romance still existed” or “men were real” and have a good chuckle.

Do you remember the era when nothing bad ever happened and everyone was great? Me neither.

This sort of thing shows up often in the standard semi-intellectual and/or culture oriented magazine, so it’s no surprise that an article titled “The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men” would be published by the Atlantic.

The headline alone suggests the editorial staff knows they are being ironic (readers with experience in journalism or publishing already know that editors, not writers, are responsible for headline & sub-head).

Of course, when it comes to oversimplification and rhetoric/style over substance, even the NYTimes culture / style section is guilty.

Here are five ways that the Atlantic piece employs standard tactics:

Golden Age

Common in public speaking / debate, my personal term for this is “goldenizing” but basically it means referring to a time when things weren’t complicated.

An example for Americans would be the 1950s, which are often used as an example of prosperous / ideal culture, when in fact the military industrial complex, women’s rights post-WWII, involvement in Korea, and marginalization of minority groups made for anything but simple times.

Fancy Language

It’s notable that you can tell what you’re dealing with pretty quickly if you do a quick re-write in your own words of the first couple paragraphs of a piece. If you can quickly cut the length down while still communicating the main points, it’s probably more style than substance.

Another tip is to look at the pattern of description. The culture writer making unsubstantiated generalizations typically throws in one or two adjectives that don’t need to be there. In the Atlantic piece Schwarz refers to Cary Grant’s “knowing but inconspicuously generous style.” Let me know when you figure out what that means.


One of the tricks employed by culture writers is to find an easy strawman (e.g. the “30 something man boy living in mom’s basement / expecting to date models”) and then use it to represent a wide range of experiences.

In the Atlantic piece, for example, Benjamin Schwarz throws in a clever phrase for the “manboy” concept when he describes charm as “an attribute foreign to many men because most are, for better and for worse, childlike.”

Of course there are childish men, but I’ve seen no evidence that it’s a majority and certainly not “most,” plus if you think about your own environment, aren’t there women that could be accused of the same thing?

Everyone Knows, (or, All Women / All Men Are X)

See above. Everyone knows that all men are childish brutes, right?

The culture writer who uses Everyone Knows rarely backs up a claim with data, probably because you won’t find 100% of people agreeing on anything. Tangent: this statistic about 42% of Americans having an unfavorable opinion of hipsters is notably hilarious because basically it means that no one thinks they are a hipster but everyone dislikes them.

Un-tangent: no, everyone does not know. Now if Schwarz had said “everyone like me, with my upbringing and experience, knows” well that would be different.

Referencing Other Writers Who Practice “Everyone Knows”

A corollary to the above. One of the unspoken truths about the internet is that if you provide enough references and/or your piece sounds like it could be accurate, the vast majority of readers aren’t going to check up on it.

Most of the mis-information spread on the internet is so close to the truth that it leads people to mistakenly pass it on (see what I did there?).

Ultimately, culture writers do serve a purpose

I’m actually a fan of culture writers. I think they do great work. Sarah Jane Glynn, for example, wrote a thoughtful and question filled piece for the Atlantic back in December about Hannah Rosin’s “End of Men.”

But they sometimes write in broad strokes, and it’s easy to say things like “HBO’s series Girls represents the millennial generation” when in fact it quite obviously doesn’t.

It’s up to all of us to correct them.


3 thoughts on “Style Over Substance: Five Ways That Culture Writers Snow Us In”

  1. I wish people would use that phrase even in casual convo: “everyone like me, with my upbringing and experience, knows” not “everyone knows”. Or worse, “it’s 2013!” er, fill-in-the-year.

    Ugh, and the “mis-information” age is annoying, I may do a post on that.

    I love analyzing culture, but I feel like there is no choice but to leave things very open-ended and broad, because people-groups are so diverse, and trends can really just be short-term fads. Most cultural observations are a bit inconclusive, and are always painted by personal perspective.

    I’ll have to check out the “End of Men” piece, if it’s a well done piece like you say. Oh, and don’t get me started on HBO Girls “voice of a generation” thing, I did a few posts on that. “A voice of people like me (Lena Dunham), with my upbringing and experience” is more like it.

    1. I’m definitely in your camp on the “voice of a generation” thing. You’ve read that NYT piece too, no?

      When that first published I just shook my head and thought “I’ll have to criticize this later, too frustrating right off the bat.”

      The “End of Men” is sort of in the same place for me. Such a huge statement, and so silly. Given what we know about life in test tubes you could argue that men don’t need women either, and be just as wrong.

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