Billionaire Warren Buffett has a long history of telling dirty old man style stories to explain boring business stuff. Most people usually overlook the creepiness because the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has cultivated a folksy manner and it’s kind of refreshing when a CEO isn’t a jargon-spewing automaton.
But in an interview with CNBC earlier this week, the 86-year-old crossed a line. Buffett was trying to explain why he and his investors made a public $143 billion bid to buy Unilever, even though as it turned out the consumer-goods conglomerate was emphatically not interested.
When Buffett’s people initially reached out, he explained to anchor Becky Quick, Unilever’s executive was apparently too polite and noncommittal ― leading to some confusion.
Then, he tried to explain it all like this:
“Well, if a diplomat says yes, he means maybe. If he says maybe, he means no. And if he says no, he’s no diplomat. And if a lady says no, she means maybe. And if she says maybe, she means yes. And if she says yes, she’s no lady.”
This isn’t Buffett’s metaphor. It’s an old story, he said. And it’s one that’s clearly well past its expiration date. In 2017, it should be common knowledge that when it comes to courting a woman for romance or sex, no means no. And joking around about women giving mixed signals (they said no but meant yes) just helps perpetuate an illusion of consent that can lead to rape.
It’s pretty standard for Buffett to deploy dirty talk to explain dry and complex business concepts.
He offers a “quaint pattern of old jokes and creaky tropes,” is how a Bloomberg article describes him, while citing numerous examples of his quotes.
In a 2007 letter to investors, the billionaire likened bad business deals to women’s physical appearance, saying: “A line from Bobby Bare’s country song explains what too often happens with acquisitions: “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I’ve sure woke up with a few.”
The objectionable statement this time around comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment in the business realm. Ride-hailing giant Uber is facing charges that it cultivates a hostile atmosphere toward women; and on Monday night news broke of widespread sexual shenanigans at mall retailer Kay Jeweler.
A few people on Twitter were quick to take Buffett to task: