Uncomfortable

This is not a post about sexism or misogyny. It's not a post about diversity or how to get more women in tech. It's a post about being uncomfortable.

Most people who know me would say I'm a friendly person. I like to meet new people, I like to hear about what cool project they're working on. I like to talk about geeky movies, and music, and books, and all the other things that come up in friendly conversation. And I high-five, a lot. I also watch Archer and adore Louis CK, and I don't mind a good that's-what-she-said joke.

Sometimes, when people figure out I'm friendly, they assume they can talk to me as if I was an old friend of theirs. And sometimes, jokes get told to me that flat out make me uncomfortable. I can hear an off-color, suggestive joke from a close friend and think it's hilarious. I can also hear the same thing from someone I met 5 minutes ago, and feel like I want to run the hell away (in fight or flight, I'm definitely a flight). When I mention that, and I get an "it's just a joke, relax" reply, it makes me feel invalidated, insecure, and even more uncomfortable. So am I defective for feeling like that? Do I not have a sense of humor? Am I overreacting? Am I a prude? What is wrong with me? Everybody else seemed to be fine with it, so it *must* be me, right? What if I don't even really know why it made me feel uncomfortable, just that it did?

Fortunately for me, I am not the only one who struggles with this. I'll get back to this in a minute.

We all know that everything humans do revolves around context, but let me say it again. Context is everything. Sometimes, here in the Land of Open Source, we forget that. We hang out in our jeans and t-shirts, and chat on IRC, and go to conferences to meet up with old friends and have a beer. We recruit our friends to work on our projects with us, and we bitch about stuff on Twitter, or Hacker News, or Reddit. Lost in our own bubble of protection from mainstream society and grownups, *we* make the rules. This is Open Source! We value freedom, and openness, and we defy the status quo! We keep the context of the LoOS nice and tidy and all wrapped up with a little bow, same as it ever was.

And then come new additions to the LoOS. We dub them Newbies and drop them in the middle of it; a sort of trial-by-fire. Sink or swim. Either you fit in as one of Our People, or you don't. This is the way we behave; either you like it or you don't. These are the expectations; either you agree with them and fit in, or you don't. Chances are if you aren't comfortable with anything in this LoOS society, and you want to change it, then you have a long road ahead of you. Because we are free to do as we want, and this is what we've chosen, it will be difficult to convince us otherwise. We're not giving up that freedom to behave the way we want just to placate *you* of all people. And we've always been fine with it, so it must just be you. You should get over it, or you know, there's the door. Some of us have been here a long time, and you just got here.

Hmm, you just got here. Unfortunately for you, history creates context, so any new people coming in essentially have none. Inside jokes, social norms, insider information: these things are all taken at face value by a new person entering any group, without any context whatsoever. This is another piece that I will get back to in a moment.

There's a grocery store near my house that I don't like. It's small, dark, and dirty, and it just makes me uncomfortable. So I never go there. It doesn't make me angry, it doesn't offend me, it doesn't push me down and take my lunch money or call me fat. It's just not a place I want to be; there are other grocery stores around that I like better. It's not worth my energy to try and change the place.

I also joined a gym once. It was full of bodybuilders and supermodels who were all very interested in each other. It made me uncomfortable, so I never went back. I paid the money and I never went back. You may think that's a very silly thing, and they certainly weren't offending me or making me angry. It just was not a place I wanted to be, at all. I've since found a gym that is more open and welcoming and has people of all ages and shapes and sizes, and I feel comfortable there. They send me emails to see how I'm doing. It's nice.

The same is true for our personal relationships. When we say and do things that make the people around us uncomfortable, they are less likely to want to keep hanging around us. They may not be angry or offended, they just make other choices. And they may not even say anything about it because of the internal struggle I mentioned before. Sometimes it's easier to walk away than to spend the energy defending or explaining the way something makes you feel, especially if you know the other party is not particularly receptive to your point of view. I'll get back to this in a minute, too.

Yesterday, I posted this picture on Twitter and asked people to simply tell me if it made them uncomfortable. My goal was just to get honest answers, and not to judge anybody for their reaction (and I hope you can do the same). The results were fascinating.

102 of you replied with a reaction.
3 said no it didn't make you uncomfortable, and gave a lol.
14 said no
42 said no, but thought it was poor taste/didn't want to see it at a conference/made them judge the wearer poorly
37 yes it made them uncomfortable/wow I can't believe that
3 said it made them angry
3 made jokes about the code itself (I love you guys)

The most interesting thing about it was that the results were also quite mixed with regard to gender and location (best I could tell from Twitter). Men and women said it made them angry, men and women said the joke made them laugh. There was a wide array of people expressing widely different opinions. I think the only exception to that is that 4 of you also mentioned a concern with personal safety in being around that person, and you were all women. The majority of you would likely agree that something like that was not appropriate for a professional conference.

Hmm, professional conference. What do those words mean in the LoOS? It seems like an oxymoron in a sense. I mean, we're rebels! We do what we want! We wear jeans to our conferences! We have beer and stuff! And we act just like we always have because we're among Our People.

But look at Your People. Your People have a wide array of widely different opinions about how something makes them feel, and for some, those feelings are pretty strong. Your People do not agree. What's happening here?! And for those who say we should all just act based on "common sense," well, you can see that our sense is not entirely common.

Oh, and remember that thing about context I talked about earlier? Several of you pointed out that the code on the shirt is a very old Linux joke that has been around for years. Those of you with context were not upset at all by the shirt. UPDATE: I did have one more person say that even though they knew of the joke's origin, it still made them feel uncomfortable.

And wait, some of Your People may not mind acting like a professional. They may not mind treating this LoOS as more than just a Google hangout IRL. In fact, for some of you, this is a career and an industry just like any other, and settings where we all come together for this purpose should have different expectations.

So let's get back to what's really important here: me. So I'm feeling uncomfortable because I'm in a weird social situation, and expressing myself makes the weird social situation even weirder. Maybe I'm one of those 36 people who are uncomfortable with the shirt. What do I do? What if there were 10 people with that shirt on? What if there were 300? Do I say anything? Or do I just shut up and sit down?

Elizabeth, it sounds like you're telling me I can't wear what I want or say what I want because "somebody somewhere might be made to feel uncomfortable." No, I'm not saying that at all. Do whatever you want that is authentic to you. That is your right. If you're a company, you absolutely have the right to market yourselves any way that you choose. What I will ask is that you consider the possibility that everything you do and say has a direct effect on those around you. And I will ask you to consider the possibility that if others around you *are* being made uncomfortable in some way, that you ask yourself if that's ok. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then maybe having a discussion about it is a worthwhile venture. And I will ask that you keep in mind that how you make people feel directly ties into their perceptions about you.

We can talk all day and night about whether something is sexist, or offensive, or inappropriate. What I'm concerned about is that we're judging each other based on where our lines of appropriateness are drawn, and we're not considering the fact that somebody else's lines might not match up with our own. We just get angry at the other side because they can't see our point of view. Worse still, we trivialize and discount serious concerns of others because we don't feel like changing.

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to how something makes you feel, deep down in your gut. As I said before, what is hurtful for someone isn't for another. What's a huge deal to some is trivial to others. That doesn't make it any less of a big deal.

If we don't respect Our People, and the new people coming in to our community enough to afford them the freedom to express what they feel without penalty, then this community will be lost. If we don't afford them the common courtesy of compromise and understanding, then this community will be lost. And lastly, if we don't learn to change with a changing tide, and remember that the face of Our People looks very different than it did 10 years ago, then this community will be lost.

For a person to leave our community, or at the very least be much less a part of it, they don't even need to be offended, angry, afraid, or upset. All they need to be is uncomfortable.


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