Banished from the English language: “flip-flopper”

Every once in awhile a new term/catchphrase/buzzword/meme catches fire here in the US. Sometimes it’s a function of the fact that our incredibly plastic language, with its myriad dynamic influences (everything from media to subcultural to ethnic to technological) sort of inherently generates new words. Other times the term is a result of political or PR craftiness, as was the case with “Japan-bashing” (and subsequently, any more generalized iteration of “______-bashing”). The lobbyist who made the phrase up later famously said “Those people who use (the term) have the distinction of being my intellectual dupes.”

This wasn’t the first time that language was used to make people look stupid and it certainly wasn’t the last, as various political engines these days seem to exist for no reason other than to crank out vocabulary for dummies.

Perhaps the best case in recent memory came during the 2004 election, when then-president George W. Bush stapled “flip-flopper” to John Kerry’s face and made him wear it like a dunce cap. It was bad enough that the Future of the Free World® had to hinge on such cynical and empty manipulation, but now it’s clear that the term is like a bad case of herpes – it ain’t never going away.

Just the other day, for instance, I was reading a story at PR Daily on the wise, if belated decision by Netflix to 86 their Quikster service, which had managed to alienate seemingly all of their customers even before it got launched. Right in the middle, I encounter this:

Twitter lit up on Monday morning after the blog post went live. Many PR and marketing professionals expressed confusion over the company’s “flip-flopping.”

“Oh this makes my head hurt,” Gini Dietrich, the CEO of a PR shop in Chicago, tweeted.

“What a mess,” tweeted GolinHarris’s Len Kendall.

“I’m frequently thrilled I’m not in PR for Netflix,” tweeted PR pro Natalie Ebig Scott.

There it is. The company flip-flopped. And people were confused by it. Well, stupid people, anyway (which, I’m sad to say, aren’t hard to find in the PR industry). Because clearly it would have been better had Netflix stuck with the bad decision, right?

Any time I hear somebody using any form of “flip-flop,” I know that I’m listening to one of two things. Either a) the speaker is an idiot, or b) the speaker is using the phrase ironically and is making fun of the idiots who use it seriously.* Let’s face it. You have three options in life (and business):

  1. Get it right the first time, every time.
  2. Get it wrong and leave it that way once you realize you made a mistake.
  3. Be a flip-flopper.

My experience is that there aren’t many folks in category #1. Maybe you know people who are perfect, who never make mistakes and therefore never have cause to worry about what to do in the event of a screw up, but I don’t.

Category #2 represents the philosophy epitomized by Mr. Bush. In a nutshell, no matter how badly you fuck up, it’s better to “stay the course” than to admit you were wrong and make the changes required to get it right. You may be on the highway to hell, but by god you’re making good time, so put the hammer down.

Category #3? These are people who, like everybody else, make mistakes. And when they do, they realize it and they take action to fix those mistakes. I’ll probably be back soon with a demand that we banish “accountability” from the language, too, but in the meantime, this is what true accountability is and ought to be: a commitment to recognizing and acknowledging mistakes and correcting them, because it’s not how you start but how you finish. I mean, seriously – what are you supposed to do when new evidence comes to light that proves you were wrong? (Or, once you make a decision, are you to conclude that you’re now omniscient and should therefore avoid accidentally learning anything new on the subject? Let’s call that approach “strategic ignorance.”)

In other words, when you hang the “flip-flopper” label on someone, you’re staying they should stay the course instead, that it is better to devote yourself to maximizing an initial failure than it is to getting it right. Either that or you think nobody should ever make a mistake in the first place. In any event, this makes you an idiot.

If you’re looking at the Netflix debacle and thinking “wait a second, no, what I meant is that this was obviously a mistake to start with and that there was plenty of opportunity for it to have been avoided,” then I probably agree with you. But say that, because that is a very different argument from “their flip-flopping gives me the vapors.”

So there. You’re on notice. “Flip-flop” and all its corrosive, idiot-bolstering forms are hereby banished from the vocabularies of all intelligent people everywhere.

Then again, intelligent people weren’t the ones abusing the term in the first place, were they?

* Unless you’re talking about those cheap sandal thingies. And they should probably be banned, too, but that’s another argument.


  • Nice choice of art, Bonesparkle.

  • Can we eliminate the non-word “Guesstimate,” too?

  • One of my favorite quotes, from Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir? “

  • “If you’re afraid to be wrong you’ll never have an original idea.” – Sir Ken Robinson

  • Winston Churchill, when taken to task for changing positions, reportedly said, in rough paraphrase: “I would rather be right than consistent”

  • Eric Arthur Blair

    Next on the banishment list: the phrase “at the end of the day”.

  • The whole Netflix debacle still hurts my head. I don’t mind them changing positions. What I mind is there clearly is no strategy and it seems as though they’re making decisions in a vacuum.

    Last year Gap changed their logo. The blogosphere hated it. Gap said they didn’t care because the blogosphere represents less than one percent of their customer. When customers were asked about the new logo, more than 90 percent new nothing of it. Yet Gap gave in to the blogosphere pressure and changed it back.

    THAT drives me nuts. We’re all going to have critics. If you don’t have a strategy/vision you can stand behind, don’t do it.

    P.S. I love wearing flip-flops.

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