On Decency

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I have noticed a troubling tendency for programmers to put one another down. I’ve noticed it at work, and at conferences, and on the internet.



“Man, I hope tonight’s speaker isn’t as bad as that cluster**** of a keynote.”

“Yeah…Johnny doesn’t refactor. Trust me, I’ve talked to him.”

“That guy falls onto the train face-first every morning even crustier and sloppier than yesterday.”

These are all real things that programmers have said to me about other programmers.

Why does this happen so often?
In all of the examples above, I see language that indicates that the speaker was trying to be funny. Programmers want to elicit a laugh from their peers: it’s a social instinct that I can totally understand and empathize with.

I also understand that the desire to be accepted, liked, and respected might be particularly great among programmers. Programmers struggle against a stereotype of being unsociable, boring, not funny, or weird. Many programmers (myself included) spent their formative years outside of school cliques or struggling to earn the friendship or affection of the people they wanted it from.

And many programmers, it must be said, have failed to learn or practice conversational skills or humor skills. And so there is an overwhelming tendency to fall back on cleverly worded insults as an attempt at humor.

But here’s the problem:

Things we say that make someone feel worse about themselves or their colleagues are not funny. And we can benefit from making an effort to rid ourselves of the habit of saying these things.

Why is it harmful?
It hurts people, and it hurts teams.

If one of the above things were said about you, how would you feel?

You might feel sad or angry. You might feel rejected. You might feel like it’s not fair that someone joked about that to other people, but failed to ever bring the problem up to you. You are not going to like the person who said it, and you might even try to avoid them or get revenge. This effort causes you a lot of pain. Now imagine that you said one of the things above. Who would you hurt? Who would feel sad or angry because of you? Who might try to avoid you or get revenge on you? Would that be worth the momentary satisfaction of getting a resigned chuckle from your peers?

If one of the above things is said, not about you, but rather about your teammate, how are you going to feel about working with that teammate?

If you believe the sentiment behind the “joke,” your opinion of that teammate will become worse. You will not trust or support your teammate as much as you used to. That damages team morale and reduces the potential for your team to work together. It’s bad for your team. Now imagine that you said one of those things, and someone believed you. You would have damaged that team. If you’re maligning a coworker, then you’ve damaged your team. Is that worth the momentary satisfaction of getting a resigned chuckle from your peers?

If you hear someone insult someone else for lacking knowledge or skill at something, you’ll make sure not to express ignorance or weakness around the person who made the joke. After all, if you do, they might turn around and say embarrassing things about you to other people. When a team feels insecure going to one another for help, that damages the team. Now imagine that you said one of those things. You could make your peers more self-conscious around you, so people won’t come to you with questions when they need help. People might lie to you about issues they’re having because they are afraid you will abuse your knowledge of their insecurities. You could lose friends, and your reputation as an expert or authority on a topic could vanish. Would that be worth the momentary satisfaction of getting a resigned chuckle from your peers?

But what if we actually want to share feedback to help someone get better?
We can do that. We can even do it in a candid way. However, it is not funny. It is not a joke to be made to people other than the person at whom your “feedback” is directed. Instead, speak directly to the person you want to give feedback to. Do it in person, if possible. There should not be other people present, and that feedback should not leave a conversation between the two of you unless that person fails to act on that feedback after you provide it.

How do we stop?

The first step is noticing when we do it.

Try it: for just a week, try to take note each time that you malign someone else “as a joke.” You might be surprised. I certainly was—I once counted four times in one day, and I felt terrible about myself.

Why does it happen?

Is it because we’re bored and need a topic of conversation? It may be worth practicing conversation or humor skills. I took an improv comedy class at my local theater, and I found it immensely helpful for learning new techniques to generate positive humor. (A note on this: standup comedy did the opposite. I did standup comedy six nights a week for about six months, and I found an overwhelming amount of negative humor in the standup comedy world. I would not recommend it as a way to develop positive humor skills).

Is it because we’re overwhelmed with anger? It might be worthwhile to develop self-care practices that help manage anger: I like to take walks to help with this. Others practice yoga, meditate, draw, do laundry, take showers, or eat. All of these options are better than spouting off about our beefs with someone else.

It’s hard to change our habits: if we have a habit of making harmful comments, we will have to work hard to change it, and it won’t happen overnight.

But changing our own habits might not be the hardest part. How do we react when others do it?

How can we respond when another person makes a demeaning joke—without supporting the behavior, but also without ostracizing the person or making them feel awkward? We may not want to ostracize them because we like the person and don’t want them to be angry at us. Or we don’t want them to feel self-conscious during future informal conversations where we are involved. Or maybe the person is more powerful than us—maybe it’s our boss—and it would be a very bad idea for us to do something that would leave a bad taste in their mouths about us.

Possibilities, in ascending order of difficulty:
1. Chuckle in a halfhearted ‘that’s not actually funny’ way.

Ha ha ha. No.
Image courtesy of Know Your Meme.

2. Do not react at all. Act like the last 5 seconds of conversation were just pure silence.

3. Greet the comment with a conspicuously long silence. This has the advantage of making the speaker feel self-conscious without making you an attacker.

Number three up there tends to be all it takes if you’re in a one on one conversation. What if you’re in a group, though? Your unimpressed reaction could get drowned out by the appeasement reactions of other people in the conversation. To make it more conspicuous that someone in the conversation disagrees with the direction it’s going, I offer a few more reaction techniques:

4. Walk away from the conversation. This doesn’t necessarily convey your point, but it’s a step away from being a bystander without actually having to be that brave yet.

5. Change the subject conspicuously. This makes the insulter feel awkward without you having to directly address the issue.

6. Stand up for the person they’re insulting, or stand up in general for not insulting people. You can say a variety of things here, from the vague and non-confrontational (like ‘oh, I think we can come up with more interesting things to talk about than bashing each other’) to the combative (like ‘hey, that’s not cool’).

If you are in a position of power above other people in a conversation, I strongly recommend number six. Your position of power might be organizational rank (say, you’re their boss), it might be a position of notoriety or experience (you’re famous and they’re not, or you’re a teacher and they’re students), or it might be plain old privilege. You have the clout to get people not only to avoid insults, but also to stop insults when they hear them from others. Use your power for good.

I will also mention that, when you use techniques five or six, you might be surprised how many people follow. Other people often feel uncomfortable when someone puts someone else down, but they do not feel comfortable pointing out that it’s messed up. When you say something, they’ll be glad you did, and they will accept you, like you, and respect you.

And that feels pretty good.

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