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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Tips for Having Positive Interactions Online

I enjoy conversing with random netizens about the topics that interest me — power dynamics, ethics, etc. Unfortunately, seeking out productive discourse is an activity fraught with peril, since every second person online is MAD about whatever issue preoccupies them. (I don’t object to the anger, but I often object to how it’s expressed.)

I’m not an expert at avoiding pointless arguments full of hostility, but I’ve developed some useful heuristics. They started as coping mechanisms inspired by political flamewars on Facebook. I’ll give you the tl;dr first:

Above all else, be kind.

I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
I love these dorky yellow humanoids. Image by Kate Ter Haar.
  1. Assume that people are speaking in good faith until they demonstrate otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
    • Train yourself to choose the friendliest interpretation of someone’s statement. I’ve found that expecting the best from people has a much better failure state than the alternative.
    • Ask lots of questions about what people mean. It’s easy for someone’s comment to be confusing or misleading by accident.
    • Reign in your snark; amp up your earnestness.
  2. Different people have different communication modes.
    • On the internet you will bump into many people who don’t share your cultural assumptions — and remember, culture is not just an ethnic thing — or who naturally have different defaults. Keep an eye out for this.
    • When someone’s interjection seems socially insensitive or rude, remember that their version of normal may be very different from yours.
  3. It’s fine to disengage if the conversation is distressing.
    • Remember the golden rule of self-care! Like they tell you on the airplane, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. Prioritize your mental health and wellbeing — burnout helps no one.
    • Being upset is okay. It’s one of the many natural reactions to conflict that humans can experience. Anyone who says “it’s just the internet” or something along those lines is trying to minimize your feelings.

Obviously I am not 100% perfect at any of this — I’m a jerk online way too often — but I’m striving to communicate with people respectfully. Keeping these heuristics in mind helps me do that.

I may or may not update this list if more tips occur to me. Let me know in the comments or on social media (Twitter + Facebook) if you have feedback! Suggested additions are also welcome.

Short Book Review: Scott Adams’ Success Secrets

Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, is a weird dude. No surprise to anyone familiar with the comic strip. I just finished reading Adams’ autobiographical self-help book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I don’t agree with all of his advice — do I really need to state that caveat? — but some of Adams’ concepts are interesting and even spot-on.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

For instance, Adams asserts that systems are superior to goals. What he means is that it’s smarter, for example, to always be looking for a better job instead of following a five-year plan to attain a certain position. He lays out a bunch of principles along these lines that in his view should lead to success. His through-line is the idea that you should optimize yourself to take advantage of luck when it strikes.

The book is certainly interesting, and I think particularly useful to people starting their professional lives. Here are the two quotes I liked enough to write down:

“Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. [After realizing that] I concentrated on ideas I could execute.”

“Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.”

I particularly agree with the second suggestion, that you should shape your paradigm to be productive rather than accurate. (This is basically what my therapist wants me to do.) If I dwell on the rottenness and chaos of the world, my realistic perception harms me; I become miserable and can’t get anything done. Far more effective to be an optimist without justification than a pessimist with plenty of proof.

(I like to call myself a cynical optimist. Is that annoying? It’s such a good phrase, and a decent representation of my personality.)

Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].

Kindness Makes Communication Work Better

Niceness is pragmatism.

Tech-culture podcast Exponent came back from its summer hiatus on the 6th. In the most recent episode, hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth discussed Amazon’s work culture in reaction to that now-infamous New York Times article. Their conversation touched on the necessity of soft skills even in creative environments where solid ideas take precedence over everything else.

Successful companies set high standards and enforce them. They must! There is no other way to ensure excellence. Trade-offs are inherent to this arrangement — you can’t care profoundly about your professional results, work devastatingly hard to build something amazing, and still spend plenty of quality time with your wife and kids. The laws of physics forbid it — you can only be in one place at a time. If you’re at the office, then you’re not tossing a frisbee around in the backyard.

office drone lyfe
Illustration by Yue Wu.

More crucially, competitive companies develop and cherish workplace cultures that demand people to identify and demolish subpar ideas. When you prop up bad suggestions to make their progenitors feel good, you guarantee a future of low-quality initiatives. Next stop, loss of market share! It makes sense that brilliant executives want to stamp out the impulse to be nice. Except wait, no, it only makes sense superficially.

Allworth called this attitude “the primacy of ideas”. He pointed out that brutal honesty about the merit of any proposition favors “thinkers” over “feelers”. We INTJs and the like are able to maintain some emotional distance, to take a step back and rationally examine feedback. (Which doesn’t mean we aren’t hurt by criticism — Thompson added that this type of person also views their work as their source of human value. If the output is deemed inferior, we judge ourselves very harshly.)

Allworth explained that a workplace culture hostile to people who prioritize relationships will end up being a monoculture, alienating the voices of potentially useful employees and limiting diversity of thought. Well… yeah. It will.

be well at work :)
Illustration by RSO.

I’m probably reacting emotionally (ha) and not being fair to either Thompson or Allworth, but it was frustrating to listen while they grudgingly came to the conclusion that there’s value in being nice. I can’t help but think that only men would hash this out at length before tentatively agreeing that maintaining relationships is important. I even felt bitter while listening. It seemed like a classic example of “feminine” strengths being devalued, left invisible by default. Of course, the conversation’s outcome was better than if they had decided soft skills weren’t worth anything at all — but did it really need to be debated?

I’m an intellect-first, analytical kind of person. I’m also a woman, socialized to be nice and put up with a lot of nonsense from other people. Maybe the combination of those contradictory tendencies makes it easy to realize that you need to present information in a way that people find acceptable. Intellectual merit isn’t everything — in fact, it isn’t anything without soft skills. Smart people who can’t work with other people aren’t going to get anything done. (To be clear, this is something the Exponent hosts mentioned and agreed on.)

illustration of a good idea taking off
Illustration by Senya Pixelev.

Of course, I went through the same personal-growth phase that Allworth and Thompson also discussed, aggressively wanting to be right and constantly believing that I knew best, before I realized that a good idea you can’t get anyone to buy into has the same results as a bad idea. That’s really my whole point here:

A good idea that you can’t persuade people to believe in is functionally the same as a bad idea.

Even famously brutal tech founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos had to figure out people-friendly ways to present their plans. We know this happened in part because otherwise Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon wouldn’t be iconic companies.

Luckily, collaborators can give each other straightforward feedback without being cruel. Thompson and Allworth do it on the podcast all the time! (More on this in an upcoming review of Ask a Manager blogger Alison Green’s book Managing to Save the World.) I think that’s why I was so frustrated — the necessity of niceness, or at least courtesy, seems utterly obvious, even if only based on their own dynamic. I don’t think the topic shouldn’t have been mentioned — here I am mentioning it at length — but I wonder why the conclusion surprised them.

Efforts Toward Peace of Mind

"Constant vigilance!" Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series.

I try very hard to be patient and I try very hard to be positive. Succeeding — well, even attempting to succeed — requires constant vigilance. The world is naturally aggravating! Therefore it’s hard to stay levelheaded, compassionate, and cheerful. (Oops, I’m being negative again. Sorry, world, maybe I shouldn’t have criticized you…) Luckily, I am motivated to be easygoing and smiley. The reasons to keep striving are twofold:

  1. When I resist irritation and the impulse to complain, my life is calmer and more pleasant.
  2. The people I interact with are more likely to perceive me as calm and pleasant.

Both of these things are good. I want to feel better, and I don’t want to annoy my colleagues, friends, or family. Of course, my therapist would disapprove if I flat-out ignored my feelings, but I can acknowledge emotional reactions without letting them be in charge.

"The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by." Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.
“The sink is experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by.” Photo by Keith. Sometimes I am this sink.

Stomping on anger and frustration, pretending that they don’t exist, is not an effective coping technique. And yet neither is griping. In 2014 Fast Company talked to Jeffrey Lohr, who coauthored a study called “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger”. Lohr and his fellow researchers found out that venting reinforces anger rather than relieving it.*

As Doctor Guy Winch writes on Psychology Today:

“[We] associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving. As a result, we complain simply to get things off our chest, not to resolve problems or to create change, rendering the vast majority of our complaints completely ineffective. Even when we do address our complaints to the people who can do something about them, we tend to be unsuccessful far more often than not.”

We’re not very good at talking to each other. According to Fast Company, “Instead of anger management skills, Lohr says people need to learn conflict resolution and communication skills.”

just listen to her
Listening is the most important part, yeah? Illustration by Rick and/or Brenda Beerhorst.

I’m no expert when it comes to communicating with the people who cause my frustration. But I’m pretty okay at communicating with my own brain. When I notice that I’m upset, this is what I tell myself:

“Everyone is doing the best they can despite their ignorance, weaknesses, and flaws. Respect that they’re trying. You have weaknesses and flaws too, Sonya, and you don’t know everything in the world, but you’re not a bad person. Neither is [whoever]. Respond with the kindness that all human beings deserve.”

My mantra isn’t always effective, depending on how annoyed I am and how preventable the problem seems, but at least it buoys the self I want to be. My knee-jerk reaction is, “Ugh, I hate these morons,” but my secondary reaction is, “This, too, shall pass away.” It helps when I remind myself that nursing anger doesn’t accomplish anything. I want to be forgiving. I want to be loving. Like I said in the beginning: patient and positive.

If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling "Happy Pill" by formatbrain.
If only I could be totally stoked all the time like this somewhat unsettling “Happy Pill” by formatbrain.

*Jeffrey Lohr’s paper “The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger” was published in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice in 2007. David McRaney also wrote a good article about this called “Catharsis”.

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