What is the difference between how we view ourselves as community members and how we treat each other? What are the gaps between our sense of self and our behaviors? Perhaps most importantly, am I the asshole? This talk explores those questions and provides recommendations for how we can all be better community members by being better human beings.
So I’m Rachel Stephens, I have worked at RedMonk for 6 and a half years and I’ve been an Monktoberfest attendee and organizer for far longer than that, so if you’ve been here before or you’ve seen me kind of running around the scenes, that’s usually where I am. This is my first time on this side of the lectern.
And I’m kind of terrified, which is going to thematically tie into this talk, so everyone needs to like laugh along with my jokes, OK? That is our collective goal here.
So I work as an analyst at RedMonk, so besides throwing this conference for you fun folks, our job it to help our clients ind and contextualize technology and we do this entirely remotely which is irrelevant in this talk for a couple of reasons. The first is that in order to do our jobs well and kind of have a pulse on technologies and communities, we tend to be very online. Like, we have to understand what’s happening in these various communities.
And the second part is that I left two beautiful and very funny children home in Denver, and so this talk is like an o de to being online and watching these same interpersonal conflict patterns occur again and again and again, and it is also an ode to my children’s favorite jokes. My youngest is a year and a half he loves Sesame Street and in particular he loves that old skit of BERT and Ernie, where Ernie keeps saying, I can’t hear you, Bert, I’ve got a banana in my ear and he thinks that’s so funny and he’s just told his first joke, he puts his finger in his ear and he goes nana and it’s so funny. And my oldest turns five next we are and she’s at the age right now where it’s really funny to fool people and she likes to fool people with this setup, which is I don’t like ice cream, I LOVE it. Which is all to say that my talk today does not have a title, it has four titles.
So this talk is a reflection on like how we view ourselves as community members and how we treat each other, and how those things aren’t always aligned. And kind of thinking about these gaps between like our sense of self and then also behaviors. The alternate titles are like a little bit less formal, but I think they get the point across more vividly. So we’re going to dive into those ones.
The first Title I comes from the Mitchell and Web comedy sketch where we portray two soldiers who are questioning the side that they’re fighting for. So at Monktoberfest we kind of ask ourselves, are we the baddies? Let’s think about it.
Option two comes to us from RuPaul’s drag race.
Am is it me? Am I the drama? I don’t think I’m the drama. Maybe I am. Am I the villain.
Getting that audio to, would was my big coup. So yay.
And the final title comes from the classic subreddit and it kind of cuts to the point. Am I the asshole. I am white cishet, I’m mostly able bodied, I’m not 80 percent able bodied and that’s the part that matters. Who needs the other 20, right? And I think relevant to this talk in particular is that I am classified as neurotypical and the reason this matters is I absolutely recognize of going into a talk where we talk about one, how we interact with the world and how we see the world and how the world sees us, it’s going to hit us differently depending from where we started from. And especially my friends out here who are on the autism spectrum, I’ve really tried hard to make sure this is inclusive. But if I’ve missed the mark in any way, please come see me and tell me afterwards because your experiences matter and if I am the asshole in this talk, feel free to call me out as one because that’s how we all learn, that’s how we get better and you are wonderful people, so I wanted to make sure we start with that.
All right, so now we’re going to start with like the story of the rant that created this talk.
Which is like it goes back to very specific moment and is also like somehow a tale as old as time.
So like once upon a time, there were two people on the internet. Person A was like this well established person in their career, they’d created a lot of developer content, they had a good reputation, considered like important in the community. Person B also had a Sterling reputation, their own sizable following but was much earlier in their career. And person A sent person B a DM and this is going to be shocking but it turns out that the contents of that DM were not of a professional nature, and it turns out that Person B was not super into that and let them know. The next shocking thing is that Person A did not stop. Person A doubled down and then person B was put in a position of figuring out what they had to do. If person A is harassing them, and a reasonable following. What are the odds they are doing to other people in the community? Does Person B have person B made the DMs public and called out the behavior on Twitter. And being shoeing thing No. 3, a small portion of Twitter absolutely exploded. There was a large audience that was supporting Person B and condemning the DMs, this was this Casablanca portion of the internet that was shocked! Shocked! That that was harassment happening on the internet and there had to be some logical explanation that Person A would do thatment and there was fans and stuff defenders of Person A that made their own counter attack. Up to this point I deliberately left the gender of the parties out of this because I didn’t think we needed to start with that. I also feel fairly confident that you have all seen this play out on the internet enough and you know the archetype of this story enough that you have filled out. Who thinks Person A identifies as a man? Yeah. Who thinks Person B identifies as a woman?
Yeah. So anyways, you’re all right. But anyways, the group of people who charged to the defense of Person A, like we had a crusader, and it was someone out there who tweeted something along the lines of like these girls have years of practice being offended for attention. That was a paraphrase, but it was close to that and it was the worst. It made me so grumpy and generally speaking I try not to get involved when Twitter explodes, but like, this tweet and like the way it was victim-blamey and the belittling use of the word girls instead of women and its clear disregard of Person B and also what that implied toward women in the industry overall, like, it got under my skin. I could have logged off. It was a weekend, I could have ignored this. I could have blocked the most egregious people saying the most hurtful things. Could have blocked all this out en masse. But I was feeling a particular flavor of petty that day. And so I didn’t do the healthy thing, I didn’t do the rational thing, and like what I did is I went through one by one and I manually blocked every single person that liked that tweet about girls wanting attention, just — just so that I could glare at them through the computer screen, because I was — I was feeling a lot of petty. Just a lot of petty.
As an aside, I was really struggling to find a way to depict the concept of pettiness, so I — also, Steve, I don’t have any other rights to those Tom Petty images so we’re going to have to figure that out in post. But it was like in the process of manually blocking everyone that this talk was formed, because I noticed a rift and there was this frequent inconsistenty between the people that went out of their way they’d chosen the side of pro H. pro-harassment, you’ve chosen the side that diminishes and demeans their fellow women colleagues in the industry, via supporting this tweet and at the same time, these people were telling really different stories about themselves in their profile bios and their pinged tweets and their recent tweets.
People who had things in their bio like working towards the betterment of society. People tweeted about the importance of emotional intelligence is something that was not a taught skill. All right! This was the one that concerned me, several people who were actively working to build better developer communities and bringing outsiders in. What does that mean that these are the people that are actually building communities. That’s kind of terrifying, right? This one I was baffled, someone who recently retweeted an internship opportunity. How are you diminishing and building up women at the same time. I don’t get it. Being a good colleague to who? What are you doing? Like a disconnect, right? And so I know there’s a disconnect between behind the keyboard and real life. I know that there are trolls and I know that there are differences between social media platforms. Like people show their best selves on Instagram and — this was an internal disconnect between how these people perceived themselves and positioned themselves when they were filling out the About Me versus how their behavior worked when they didn’t realize that people were watching.
So one of our former Monk’s is called Donny Berkholz, it’s totally worth your time to go back into the RedMonk archives and watch this talk. As we take it as a given that assholes can hurt our project, they can hurt our community, they can hurt our workplace, what if we take that one step deeper and ask ourselves, like how do you tell when you’re being that asshole because clearly there are people out there that aren’t making that connection, there’s a bunch of us running around with bananas in our fucking ears, we gotta figure this out.
I’m not sure Salt-N-Pepa actually originated this quote but they’re the ones I learned it from so they’re going to be attributed in my slides.
And we’re going to every single one of us is an asshole sometimes. But the reason this feels uncomfortable to say sometimes is because our language is wrong. Like we use the phrases you’re an asshole or, like, don’t be an asshole and when we use the language that way and we use assholes and we’re treat it as if it’s a mutable characteristic that’s tied to a person and that person is it an asshole, and I think the point of view can really limit our ability to assess our own behavior and hold ourselves accountable.
Because like being an asshole becomes this yes/no identity proposition. We it’s much more comfortable to call someone else an asshole, like that person’s an asshole, I’m just having a bad day, I’m not an asshole. Like, that’s not how this works. But like what if we shift that mentality, where asshole stops being a noun and installman stead becomes a descriptor of behavior and instead of you are an asshole, that was like an asshole thing to do. It’s a descriptor of what you have done and not who you are, and I think thoughts an important first first step in reflecting so we can get to the place where we can disconnect our sense of self so we can examine our behaviors without threatening our sense of self and our sense of self-worth.
And I think the other thing that’s really important is when we get to that point, I think a lot of the times, like in Donnie’s talk, assholes are ruining your project and yes, you you have those asshole jerks who are going to have an outsized impact in what’s happening in your community, absolutely that’s true. But it’s the small acts of all of us that can create and define that culture, too. All of us are part of the culture, all of us can be part of the problem and part of the solution and we have to be able to actually reconcile with that, in order to actually make that decision. Good people can have bad days, good people can respond to stressful situations in unhealthy ways. Good people can have one person that just rubs them the wrong way and never brings out their best side. Good people can make mistakes, good people can hurt other people and that’s what it means to be human. We’re fallible and we have asshole moments, but we’re responsible — this is my James Governor callout to responsive liberty.
We are responsible to our own assholeness. So in that he is sense it’s important to consider our behaviors and importantly knowing the situation that can trigger our worst impulses, and there are an infinite number of situations where we can be an asshole, but we’re going to focus on a few common ones today that can make us be a jerk when we don’t intend to be. And that’s moments of conflict, times when we’re stressed and misapplied humor.
All right, so conflict in and of itself is not assholery though sometimes it can feel that way and conflict can I think a lot of times conflict and fighting get conflated in our minds. Conflict is it disagreement about how something should be done, what needs to be done. Disagreement exists in the world, like, we can’t have our board hive mind, everybody gets to have their own opinion, their own it processes, their own ways of doing things. That’s important. But when we escalate that to fighting usually that’s when things have taken a turn for the worse.
So the first step is making sure you have actually understood what’s in contention. Like, do you really understand what the other person that you’re in conflict with is saying? Do you have a good grasp on like where the specific points of disagreement are?
Can you state their position back to me? In like, what I’m hearing you say is … like, can you actually do that and this one is it from Joe Hildebrand which I love, can you actually make a good case for what saying, and does it make sense and can you find a places where you might have overlap?
And the other thing that I have found is if you’re struggling to find consensus, sometimes it can be helpful to break it up in that classic elementary school of who, what, when, where, why. Start figuring out where there’s consensus on each of those things, what do we need to do? Who’s responsible? When does it need to be done? Sometimes you can find bits and pieces and usually if you’re trying to make headway, usually if you can start with the why, that usually gets you rolling faster. That’s usually the most important thing you can get alignment on, and the rest of the details might still be a struggle but you can build from there.
And just like the dose makes the poison, having conflict and having conflict turn to fighting, it’s often about that tone that will escalate things from disagreement to a fight and sometimes that escalation happens unintentionally, because we’re human. And so sometimes like our humanity gets the better of us. And if we’re trying to limit the blast radius of our asshole behavior and we’re responsible for paying particular attention to our bodies, so that we can make sure that our assholery are not overriding our good intentions, we need to know when we need to be particularly careful about having conflict, so these are courtesy of my therapist, is when not to fight: So when you are hungry or drunk, don’t pick a fight, like, when you’re tired, don’t pick a fight.
If you’re already angry about something else, don’t pick a fight. If you’re feeling stressed about something, don’t pick a fight.
Doing it in writing. This one is not a sack of meat problem it’s just a beware problem so it’s asterisked. You can’t avoid conflict in writing entirely, you just can’t. But I want to point out that writing in particular carries risks. For me in particular, like I can wield a sword so much better than in written word — like I’m one of those people who thinks of the come-back like 36 hours later that I wish I had used but if I’m doing it in writing, I can absolutely, like, I can stab you right where I want to get you, but your impact in writing can be so much more devastating, it lacks context, it lacks tone, it lacks the ability for somebody to respond in the moment and writing is forever. If you say something devastating in writing, the recipient can go back and read and reread that forever. So the power of writing and the fact that it is forever means that you need to be really careful about conflict, especially conflict that might escalate into fighting in writing. So my recommendation for conflict in writing is like sit on it, like, wait a night, send that email after you’ve cooled off. Get other eyes on it, maybe soften the message. Add some extraneous exclamation points in kind ways, ask your women colleagues, we all do that all the time.
So — yes. But yeah, like think about the moments when you might be misunderstood and try really hard to mitigate them.
So situation 2 that we’re going to talk about, and this is going to make my partner and my colleagues super laugh, but we’re going to talk about managing our stress.
My team is going to — so I should not be — like I’m 100% I’m not in a place where I should tell anybody how to manage their stress. Like, I went into our RedMonk internal Slack as I was preparing for this talk and it turns out that I’ve used variations of everybody panic — nobody panic, but … 79 times.
I’ve worked at RedMonk for 77 months, it turns out, that’s more than one panic per month!
All of which is to say that I’m not super-qualified on giving like sound advice on stress management, but as a fellow panicker, I’m here to tell you about how to get through Panic Life. Being busy, running late, accidentally messing up a client recording three times in a row. God bless you RedHat, you guys are so nice. All of these are legitimate reasons, having challenging situations in your personal life that spill over into other areas, we can run out of spoons really fast and it’s easy in those situations to to lash out or be grumpy with the people around us. Being short and having a hard time figuring out what to do and what I have found is being curious about our feelings can pay long-term dividends. So I don’t know if your elementary school nurse had that chart of like cartoon faces of I’m feeling blah, blah, blah and this is the adult version of it. The way it works is you identify the core feeling. So an example for me is when I’m feeling angry, usually that is a trigger to examine my feelings more deeply, because anger is rarely a root cause feeling for me, usually I am feeling fear, injustice, pain, vulnerable, and the anger is a manifestation of those feelings that are uncomfortable, and I think stress is one of those ones that is similar. I don’t think stress is one of the ones that are in this feeling wheel, but when I think about when I am stressed what I am actually almost always feeling at the root is fear, and somehow we’ve created as a society this way where it is more acceptable to tell other adults that we’re feeling stressed rather than that we’re feeling afraid, we’re feeling scared, like, I’m scared that I’m not going to get this done, I’m scared that they’re going to react poorly, I’m scared that this is happening — like, I think there are some of those primal feelings that we don’t like to acknowledge, but can actually be really powerful to acknowledge, if we’re willing to go there. Like, get curious about your own feelings. Take a minute to explore if things actually can go one level deeper than where you’re at now, because sometimes naming and identifying those underlying feelings can really help you not necessarily conquer it, but at least have a sense of what it is that you’re actually grappling with.
The other thing that helps me is kind of those timeline checks, like are you from the past, present or future? A lot of the times when I am stressed I’m in the future. I’m stressed about what’s to come, not stressed about the moment. So if you can pull yourself back to in-the-moment feelings sometimes you have better control. Doesn’t always work as my 79 are Slack hits will taste.
Love this quote from Bo Burnham from his recent comedy special, self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything. Naming the problem is just the first step and being stress or having anger, fear, whatever it is, it’s not a pass to treat other people poorly, so when you do break, it is on you to make it right and we’re going to get to that later.
This last exception is going to be short, and I think Corey captures is if you miss the mark trying to be — the likelihood of hurting someone, even if you do hit the mark, the likelihood is still there, make sure your aim is good, because with humor, especially biting humor, you are headed into asshole territory and you need to know that going in. So misapplied humor is an easy way to be a jerk and I want to let all of you know that you are absolutely not allowed to follow it up with “I was only kidding” or “it was only a joke.” not allowed. You are responsible for fixing that even if it was a joke.
So you messed up. We all do it, we’re all human. What do you do? Step one is you stop digging, that’s the most important thing, that’s how you start your path to recovery. Step 2 is that you need to reflect and the part that I want to focus on here in the reflection stage is focusing on the fact that your intention is irrelevant.
And I’m going to say that again, because I think it’s really important. When you’re reflecting about how you have wronged someone, your intention is irrelevant.
Your intention may have been great, but you still hurt somebody and so it’s your job to focus not on what you meant to have happened but what actually happened and your job is to think about your impact. If you find yourself using phrases of “but I didn’t mean to” and I’m totally guilty of this one,” I’m doing my best” you are focusing on yourself and those are the phrases that should signal you that you are shutting out feedback and how you’re focusing on your own intention and your own behavior instead of somebody else.
As a quick aside if you flip this when you receive an apology, it’s also really helpful. So you’re receiving an apology, if you look for the other person’s good intentions instead of focusing on how you’ve been wronged, it just makes your life better. Like, if you focus on how you’ve hurt people, like, if you focus on your impact on others and you focus on other people’s intentions on you, it’s a happier life and it’s a place where you can get to a place where you can live with more grace and more understanding of how you can exist in the world.
OK, Step 3 is apologize. I think all of us think we know how to apologize, but the important part of apology is explicitly saying what happened. Saying why it was wrong, and then what you’re going to do differently in the future.
For example: I am sorry that I sent you unwelcome messages. I’ve done some reflection and listened to the experiences of other women in the industry, and I’ve realized that what I thought was shooting my shot resulted in feelings of discomfort for you.
I’m sorry my messages made you feel objectified, professionally undermined and maybe even physically threatened. I was wrong to send those messages at and in the future I will stay the fuck out of your DMs and limit our conversations to acceptable subjects in public forums.
And then Step 4 is to actually do better. Do what you said you were going to do at the end of your apology.
Be a better human.
And so that’s where — today we’ve covered it’s important to focus on identifying our own asshole behavior and separating behavior from identity. We’re going to look for those common triggers that might cause us not to be our best selves, and then we’re going to do the steps when we inevitably do mess up.
But that’s not all! I don’t like when talks have a bonus round. I love it!
All right, so these are some tactics. Text-specific pitfalls, don’t read the fucking doc guys, sorry, folks, that was my bad. We talked about in previous talks in this conference, it’s essential to have boundaries, especially when we’re working in open source, the way you can protect your time and your sanity is to point people towards documentation. Like, absolutely that is a fair and valid approach, but please do it more kindly than “read the docs,” it’s not what we want in the industry, so please don’t use this phrase.
Next one is strong opinions weakly held.
In the best-case scenario, this is like a way where you can, like, form an initial opinion and then, like, actively work to prove your assumptions wrong. In the worst-case scenario. You’re this guy, and then there’s a lot of middle ground and that middle ground is probably more problematic than you think. Because what’s happening in the middle ground is you have staked a claim and then you’re asking your colleagues to expend their time and energy and capital to refute your claim and the capital question I think is particularly interesting and relevant, because there are people in different demographics, junior engineer people of color, and where positions of capital. What do they and not have capital for? Is this a fight that I am willing to fight? More than often you are asking your colleagues to disprove your own assumptions, it’s creating emotional work for them that you might not be aware of.
And the last one is exclusionary nerdery. And Ann’s talk yesterday was lovely will because it was this amazing reminder. Sometimes front and backend, it’s language. It’s frameworks, sometimes they have the first machine you ever coded on and everyone gets all excited on Commodores, and you’ve never seen a Commodore and you’re like, I must not be as valid as these people, because they’ve worked on this machine I’ve never heard of, where my computer was the computer lab in school. So it’s one of those ones where sometimes we’re totally allowed to be passionate, we’re allowed to geek out about the things that we love, but we also need to make sure when we’re doing that that we’re making space for everybody so that everybody can see themselves in our industry and that that is there not some kind of contest for who is nerdier than somebody else, who has the ability to be in this space than somebody else by the merits of their nerdery. And our last slide is Rachel’s tips of general kindness. So I have to hobby in my life where I can have singular phrases in my back pocket for when I don’t know when anybody asks what I think about a white wine I say, oh, it’s very bright. Nobody ever fights with you, nobody knows what it means, but it’s generally correct.
The so you’re welcome to use that one.
The other one is cool, thanks for letting me know? Somebody tells you they need time off for a medical procedure, are you going to ask them specifics about their bodies? No you’re not. Somebody tells you about their pronouns, cool, thanks for letting me know. Is an absolutely wonderful way to navigate the world as somebody who’s approachable.
Other phrases? How can I help? More importantly ask if somebody wants their help rather than diving in and sometimes people just want to vent, sometimes they need in specific ways, but asking before you dive?
Please and thank you get you far. That’s just kindergarten. And that’s my personal soapbox, don’t be assholes to the people who serve you, your servers at restaurants, your Uber and Lyft drivers, are all of these people, we need to be gracious and kind to the people we meet, because everybody around us is a human and we need to be kind, not because we’re trying to, like, get any points, but because we believe in the humanity and the dignity of others.
So let’s get those bananas out of our ears and go be excellent to each other.
[cheering and applause]