Ambiguity is the mood coming from California, especially Silicon Valley

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Blurred lines. Ambiguous commands. Awkward social engineering.

Modern startup culture is, to a small degree, being defined in a number of dynamic centers, such as Stockholm and Berlin and New York City and Austin. But the current culture of startups, and the jargon around them, is disproportionately being influenced by the culture of California, especially Silicon Valley. A number of influential books have come out of California business culture, and certainly all the main innovations of VC finance.

One thing that strikes me about the culture is how many different ways the leaders of startups seek to establish a culture whose indirect consequence is ambiguity. Not just in business, but even in romance.

A few examples:

1.) Many startup leaders insist the organization must be flat and non-hierarchical. The indirect consequence is ambiguity about who has to take responsibility when an initiative fails.

2.) Many startup leaders insist the organization offers unlimited vacation days. The indirect consequence is ambiguity about whether one is allowed to take a vacation.

3.) Many startup leaders pursue romance outside of monogamy. The indirect consequence is ambiguity about whether two people are in a relationship, and whether either of them is allowed to place on the other the normal obligations of romance.

4.) Many startup leaders seek to constantly update their definition of an employee. This is obvious when talking about “gig economy” startups such as Uber, but the larger phenomena is outsourcing, pushing work to other companies, though sometimes those other companies are merely shells that exist to create a legal space between the startup and the people doing the work. The indirect consequence is ambiguity about whether a given worker can make moral and legal claims against a particular business.

5.) Many startup leaders celebrate a culture of workaholism. The indirect consequence is ambiguity about when a worker is allowed to relax.

6.) Many startup leaders dress in a manner that can appear casual, and sometimes is, though the casual dress often contains symbols that have meanings for very specific demographics, for instance, a bracelet that came from Burning Man, or an alumni ring from a particular university, or a t-shirt with a quote that has special meaning for a group that attended a particular weekend event (Est, Landmark, SXSW) or proof of membership in some organization known for producing leaders (MIT, Harvard, the Marines, the IDF). The indirect consequence is ambiguity about what it means to “dress for success.” There is no longer any universal language of business attire, but rather, business attire is now a casual attire full of symbols that send messages to particular groups.

7.) Repeat #6, but with the focus on curse words. Some words are now allowed in business meetings, while other words remain taboo. Knowing what is allowed helps to reveal who is an insider and who is an outsider. Ambiguity about allowed language is cultivated in a way that gives many people the chance to sabotage themselves, and thus reveal themselves as outsiders.

Two conclusions:

1.) I’m left with the impression that the current leadership has an urgent desire to avoid taking responsibility for any of the relationships, both personal and professional, that they are part of. While they might enjoy some of the prestige of leadership, they are also willing to sacrifice some of that prestige so as to avoid being bound by obligations.

2.) There is clearly a search going on for new tools that can help distinguish insiders from outsiders. A hundred years ago clothing was expensive and a good suit cost more than a year’s salary for a working class man, therefore clothing could be used to distinguish between the insiders and the outsiders. But nowadays clothing is cheap so there is a seeking of new kinds of symbols, a new language for specific sub-groups to identify each other. There is also the irony that at a time when there is a serious effort being made to make business culture more inclusive of women and racial minorities, there is also a new effort going on to establish new forms of exclusivity.