Got Gut? (Try Not to Spill It.)

3 Minute Read

When someone tells you it’s not personal but only business, do they believe their own rhetoric? Or merely hide behind an unreliable cliché?

Not counting waiving some required high school courses, I had never negotiated in anger before moving to France when I was 19. I needed a gym bag for basketball, and while biking around the old town section of Nîmes one Saturday afternoon, I came across a timeless Algerian bazaar specializing in camel leather. Knowing enough not to jump at the posted price, I began with a heavily slashed offer for a hand-stitched satchel. The back-and-forth that followed was so fun and frictionless that sensing the whole thing had ended too soon, I tried to extend my winning streak even after agreeing to a final price. For my greed (and naïveté), the buyer extended his winning streak by keeping my change for a 20% markup we did not shake on.

“For me. For beers.”

Thus served my just desserts, it took months of good use for me not to resent that beautiful, if ultimately over-valued, gym bag.

By the time I was a father, my negotiation bone was only slightly more developed.

“Dad, let’s read these ten books tonight.”

“Sarah, we only have time for one.”

“Five then.”




“OK, four.”

And when a knowing supervisor brought that mother-of-all-mobster-clichés into my mid-year assessment, I began to see human negotiation not for the community ritual it once was but a game of swords masquerading as words.

“These things are not personal, Scott. They’re just business.”


The year before, I had negotiated what I thought was a gargantuan discount on an industrial software license. But when the true-up arrived, citing two dozen more instances than the three I knew we had purchased, I was, to paraphrase Orwell, ‘double-plus-unpleased.’ My engineers had approved the vendor’s installation without factoring in the hidden multiplier that turned out to be so outrageous that after settling for five cents on the dollar, the entire vendor team had been banished to outer darkness.

“Congrats on making this right, Scott. $20 million would have been a lot to pay to settle a million-dollar purchase. But these things are not personal. They’re just business.”


My boys recently reminded me that according to the cosmic philosophy of They Might Be Giants ‘there is only one everything‘. To which I will extend the scientific method to explain:

If the moment of ‘thingness’ is the instant human senses first acknowledge something, how can anything not be personal?

Jason Vey

Just ask the French, whose language invented this wonderful, albeit unscientific, carryall.

Je ne sais quoi.

Literally translated as “I don’t know what,” in common usage, je ne sais quoi is an attempt to convey that the speaker cannot quite put her finger on the thing her mind is conjuring.

“Oh, I don’ know. It just has a certain je ne sais quoi about it.”

There’s no English equivalent for the French phrase that I can put my own finger on. (Unless you count the translation of the Algerian taunt: “For Me! For Beers!”)

As a rule, the French are too rational to suggest that just because a thing is not knowable, it cannot be said not to exist. The key to their philosophical heritage is their language’s ability to wink at the unknowable hovering beyond the mind. And if a certain je ne sais quoi happens also to be handy, to what tangibility shall we attach it?

Try the following pop quiz. The examples come from my own experience, but maybe you’ll find the correlation.

  • You worked the weekend to polish an executive presentation. Was your sacrifice Business or Personal?
  • Your supervisor rewards you for something you did not do and then blames you for something you could not possibly have done. Business as usual? Or a Personal vendetta?
  • A colleague cites your original but unpromoted solution as her own. Personal? Or just good Business?

What does your gut tell you about the personal or business je ne sais quoi in, well, everything?

This post is from a LinkedIn Newsletter called Human Changing. You can access the entire series here.

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