The tragedy of a culture that chooses ‘fru-fru’ over substance


Google - OpenAI  displayed on screen with ChatGPT on mobile seen in this photo illustration. On 17 February 2023 in Brussels, Belgium.

Photo credit: Jonathan Raa| AFP

My wife has an interesting word she uses to describe many aspects of life: “fru-fru.” Today’s column is written not with the help of my new friend ChatGPT, but a longstanding one, Mrs B.

Fru-fru is a superficially frilly, misleading appearance. It can be used to describe people or offerings that emphasise sweet, empty talk over actual substance or achievement.

Fru-fru refers to silver-tongued folks who can speed-talk their way through anything —but can never walk the actual walk. It describes those who promise the earth and deliver not even a clod of soil.

Once you are aware of it, you will see fru-fru everywhere.

The phenomenon is these days quite pronounced in higher corporate echelons. The sharp-dressers and smooth-talkers seem to take the upper positions, leaving those with a more stolid approach in their dust.

These illusionists dazzle interview panels and board members with an orchestra of high-sounding words while the actual artisans, those who build things and deliver them, are left backstage. In this corporate pageantry, what is lost is the product of real quality; the solution that actually works.

The problem then percolates lower down. Many businesses seem to have invested in a cadre of smartly dressed, well-spoken, smooth-talking customer representatives who express exaggerated concern when you complain, promising you rapid remedies and reparations. But nothing happens. Things keep going wrong – customers remain inconvenienced.

But that’s OK, because we talk nicely to them when it happens. The hard work of building things that don’t break down, of doing the painstaking training, is avoided. They invest in fru-fru instead.

Modern media, mainstream as well as social, has become a fru-fru playground. To become a celebrity, you need nothing by way of craft or contribution; you just need to have the ability to stay in the limelight for whatever reason. As long as you dress in eye-catching ways and churn out controversies and platitudes, the adoring legions will follow.

Sensationalism wins over real stories; virality must be pursued relentlessly. We worship fru-fru idols with feet of clay.

Illusory hope

Politicians are the masters of fru-fru. It plays loudest in politics, where grandiloquent promises are dime-a-dozen, but actual delivery is thin on the ground. Elections these days are reduced to performance art; all special effects and dance moves, with nothing of substance taking place.

And sadly, it works. Those with actual substantiated plans and genuine intentions to deliver find themselves way behind when the results roll in. Those who play and prey on popular sentiment, who offer illusory hope and exaggerate imaginary fears, win big. Fru-fru rules.

Sadly, in our personal lives too, superficiality finds many havens. Those good at self-promotion attract more friends; those who are eloquent and funny and verbally dexterous are popular. It is apparently better to live in a landscape of relationships that are as numerous as they are shallow. The idea of deeper friendship has taken a back seat.

Those who are quieter and less voluble tend to be ignored or overlooked, no matter how steadfast or dependable they might be. Glitter wins, even when there is no gold to back it.

What is to be done about this global fru-fru outbreak? Nothing much for now, I am afraid. It will still grow rapidly, like most viral surges. But here’s the thing: fru-fru eventually eats itself. There is only so far you can go with shaky foundations; the hollow edifice you build will eventually crumble on itself. This is why things built on too much fru-fru – relationships, businesses, even nations – eventually come tumbling down.

Popularity may well come from the worship of the superficial, but genuine human achievement has never emerged from mere appearances or fancy talk. At the end of the day we must build real things and record real accomplishments. Products must meet needs. Solutions must solve problems. Leaders must deliver sustained results. Friends must be there when needed.

So when the froth of fru-fru has finally fizzled out, consumed by its own vacuity, perhaps more of us can come to our senses and look for the real substance in our lives – the experts who actually know what to do; the leaders who have studied a situation deeply and can craft a credible, costed plan to tackle it; the workers who get joy from a job well done, not a soundbite well delivered; the friends and life partners who actually care and help us shoulder our manifold challenges.

More of us – shareholders, voters, citizens, customers – need to look away from fru-fru performers. If something is too immediately attractive, it’s probably just a hologram, a mere projection. Our senses are being fooled. When the light changes, the mirage will disappear.

We need to finally open our eyes and appreciate genuine achievement, even if quiet and untrumpeted.