Are We Smart Enough to Use Kind Words?

My title might seem oddly out of place on a tech blog, but a slashdot post today led me to an email thread for linux kernel developers, and the thread and its fallout leave me troubled.

Apparently, a veteran contributor is leaving the kernel dev community because she feels like the communication style there is too harsh. This is unfortunate, but what seems even more lamentable to me is the lack of sympathy in Linus Torvalds’ reaction. It seems to me that his attitude is: “That’s just the way us kernel devs are, and we aren’t going to change to accommodate anybody. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

This feels sad to me. Kind words can be such a joy.

Secret 3
[Image credit: Glen J. Photography (Flickr)]

Linus is a brilliant guy, and I’m grateful to him. I use linux and git every day; the tools he’s built do a lot of good in the world, and they replace earlier approaches that are clearly inferior. I also agree with his complaint that an explicit standard of “professionalism” in communication can, in some cases, lead to opacity, disingenuousness, and inefficiency. Sometimes we need to say things that are difficult for others to hear, and we need to say them quickly–and that may not jibe with the communication style of a slick politician.

However, I find it ironic that a profession so passionate about message passing and interfaces and producer/consumer contracts could lightly dismiss communication concerns when they involve humans. Do the messes created by DDoS, attackers probing vulnerabilities, and poorly behaved clients teach us nothing?

We certainly need clarity in our careers, and we may occasionally need bluntness as well, but we don’t need ridicule, sarcasm, or disdain. I applaud the sentiments of Marvin J. Ashton:

None of us need one more person bashing or pointing out where we have failed or fallen short. Most of us are already well aware of the areas in which we are weak. What each of us does need is family, friends, employers, and brothers and sisters who support us, who have the patience to teach us, who believe in us, and who believe we’re trying to do the best we can, in spite of our weaknesses. What ever happened to giving each other the benefit of the doubt? What ever happened to hoping that another person would succeed or achieve?

I may be sensitive to this issue because I have made lots of mistakes on this dimension over the years. I don’t think I’ve been deliberately mean, but I’ve been impatient or cranky more than I ought.

I’ve also been the beneficiary of many kind words. I’ve had mentors who corrected me with more tolerance than I deserved, peers who put up with my soapboxes, and junior developers who followed my advice or requests when I was a less-than-perfect leader. I am certain that I have accomplished more in my career because of the good will and gentleness of others than I could have in a pure technical meritocracy with survival-of-the-fittest ethics.

Perhaps Linus would argue that, although my career has been more rewarding because of patience and kind words, the tech world in general would be further along if we were merciless about eradicating incompetence.

I think that’s short-sighted.

Tech is hard. Things often fail to work; requirements change; incompatibilities in components and tools are endemic; we learn a lot by trial and error. Part of “tech progress” is raising the experience, confidence, and courage of those around us; in doing so, we learn more ourselves, and we are usually repaid in spades. Over time, the output of a healthy community will always exceed the contributions of a single “rock star”, if for no other reason than because the community has a longer lifespan. Humility and listening are worth keeping on our personal radar.

I say “thank you” to Sarah and to all the other developers who move in linux kernel circles–Linus included. I don’t want the exacting technical standards in that community to erode. But I suggest we ought to be smart enough to honor that imperative and still see that the developers who contribute there feel appreciated and respected.

“I have wept in the night
At my shortness of sight
That to others’ needs made me blind,
But I never have yet
Had a twinge of regret
For being a little too kind.”
—C. R. Gibson

5 thoughts on “Are We Smart Enough to Use Kind Words?

  1. David H says:

    I agree that a hostile and toxic environment is not necessary to technology development. People may communicate that way because they don’t know a better way, but that doesn’t make it effective nor right.

    In fact I would argue that in a technical environment the harshness of reality is sufficient stern feedback. If we don’t get our stuff right, planes don’t take off, ships sink, bridges collapse, rockets explode in flight, and code crashes. That’s harsh.

    Censorship, political correctness, “reverse” discrimination, etc. are also unnecessary and unhelpful. Just be decent human beings who neither try to dominate nor shame each other.

      • David H says:

        One of my Electrical Engineering professors at BYU put it to me this way: You can’t lie to the sea.

    • H.Trickler says:

      I agree that a friendlier tone would be much better.

      But this young lady on her blog does not publish all those comments that she does not like, and some even get edited without saying so!

      May she have a long happy life in her own world!

      • Hmm. I think it’s usually better to keep comments, even if they disagree with us–but I suppose it’s a blogger’s prerogative to eliminate comments they find offensive. She did say in her post that she reserved the right to change hateful comments to something innocuous… If she changed their meaning in another way, that seems unfortunate.

        Thanks for the thoughtful feedback!

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