How many times a day do you encounter someone being rude, mean, aggressive, or telling you that you did something wrong because it wasn’t what they wanted? How often is that person you (acting that way toward someone else)? I deal with a lot of negativity in my job — with a community of tens of million users, thousands of professionals, and hundreds of contributors, there are always people who are dissatisfied. Now that I’m also running a cafe, it’s a dozen times worse (if you can imagine). Every day I encounter mostly wonderful people, and it sucks that even one negative encounter can throw off your whole day. Even worse, it sucks that being treated negatively can cause you to act in a similar manner, thus spreading the nastiness. I know I’ve been guilty of falling into this more than once.
Years ago (decades ago?) there was a Dykes To Watch Out For strip titled “Horizontal Hostility” that hit me like a bus and has never left me. Sadly I can’t find the strip online, but the basic plot was that each panel showed a different character in an interaction gone wrong. An old man yells at a kid for knocking over the trash cans (or something — it was 20 years ago, cut me some slack) in one panel. In the next, the kid throws a tantrum or breaks a window. In the next, the person on the receiving end of the kid’s hostility in turn gets snippy with a friend. Then the friend yells at… you get the picture. In the last panel, the hostility has gone full circle, and the old man is on the receiving end of someone’s else’s hostility, hostility that started with him.
There was a lot of meanness 20 years ago — it inspired that comic strip! But that was all in-person interactions. Today, it’s so much easier to be mean. People type things about other people on the internet that they would never say to your face, whether it’s on a forum, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, or any of a dozen other social media sites. But why? If they really feel that way, why don’t they have the guts to stand behind those feelings/opinions and say it to your face?
In some cases, people don’t have the opportunity to be mean in person, because they are geographically distant. This is often the case around sniping in the WordPress community. Meeting at a WordCamp and sharing a drink or two can usually resolve even the meanest snipefests. In person it’s a lot harder to lob fireballs at someone, because you can see the expression on their face when it hits, and you don’t feel clever or smart then, you feel mean. Most decent people do not like being mean when they realize they are hurting someone’s feelings. But what other outcome is there? That being mean will make someone feel good?
I think most people consider themselves to be decent people. And yet, there’s another social construct that reinforces the mean behavior, in that telling someone they’ve hurt your feelings is seen as weak and/or manipulative. Why has it evolved this way?
I had a roommate once upon a time who worked for United Cerebral Palsy. She came home every day upset because her client/patient had been mean to her. He was a dick! A dick with cerebral palsy, so she didn’t feel comfortable being mean back. One day when he bitched at her while she was helping him onto the bus, she replied, “You know, that really hurts my feelings. I’ll be upset for at least 2 days because of what you just said about me.” He shut up. I remember thinking (when she told me the story that night) that it was a bummer that she had to be manipulative to get him to be nice. A decade later I thought what a bummer it was that my reaction to someone expressing their feelings was that it was manipulative, when in reality it was honest, and kind of seriously brave, given the potential for retaliatory mocking. And you know what? The next day the guy went back to being a dick, and she told him every day that he was hurting her feelings. He didn’t care. He wasn’t a decent person.
I had an illustrative experience at a WordCamp with someone who’d said some nasty things about me (mostly on Twitter). I made sure to meet this person at the afterparty — in truth, I’d gone to this particular WC expressly to meet this person and see if we could work out a more constructive way to communicate when he didn’t like my/core decisions. We ordered a round of drinks and were being friendly when I took a deep breath and asked him why he was so mean to me. He tried to laugh it off, but I kept going, and said he’d hurt my feelings. I could tell by his face that he didn’t like hearing that, but he kept up the cheerful demeanor, said he was sorry if I took it that way but that he hadn’t actually been mean. Then I opened my laptop and showed him my browser, where I’d pulled up the meanest dozen or so tweets. I read them out loud. Immediately, I could see that this decent guy didn’t like/was embarrassed the words he’d posted. The next couple of minutes were awkward and uncomfortable as we had to face the things we’d said online, and how much we were or weren’t willing to stand behind them. We’re friends now. But if we hadn’t met in person, if we hadn’t had that awkward and uncomfortable experience of having to be honest about who we were and how we felt, could we have gotten past the online sniping to talk seriously about WordPress and the issues that were causing a problem in the first place?
I’ll say it again: Most decent people do not like being mean when they realize they are hurting someone’s feelings.
The next time you’re about to be snarky, or snipey, or just plain mean, think about that. Are you a non-decent person? Do you enjoy hurting people’s feelings? Do you want to have a negative effect on the person you attack for days to come? If the answer to these questions is no, then think before you tweet or post to facebook or leave a comment, and make sure your words and tone are the same ones you would use to the other person’s face. I’m going to try harder to make sure my words match my feelings. A smiley face after an insult doesn’t make things right. If you consider yourself a decent person, then be one.