This post contain learnings from over twenty years working as a programmer and close to half a century living on this planet.
I met my partner over a decade ago, not long into our relationship we had a conversation: “why do you say things as if you know them, when you don’t?” I would usually reply “Of course I don’t know these things. I’m obviously guessing, you should know this”. When I first was confronted by this I felt misunderstood and even a little attacked. Why would anyone assume I’d speak as if I know it all? I do not feel like I know better than most people, I am just very good at having opinions. My partner said that the way I sometimes say things makes other feel silly or make them loose confidence on their own beliefs. It’s not a good feeling. Again I try to defend myself saying “why would you assume I’m that kind of person? I’m not a know it all besserwisser!”.
We’ve had this conversations many times since, as this is something which is hard to shake for me even if I try to. This thing of speaking with authority, even if you’re just guessing. I used to say it was “because of my days as a consultant, when this was a requirement”. This was a very convenient and comfortable story to tell. It was circumstances beyond me which made me behave this way, it was not my fault.
Years have passed since this first conversation. During that time I have taken the opportunity to learn from and talk to many people. I have learned about privilege, I have learned about empathy and many other subjects I’ve never encountered in school or college.
I have come to understand that it wasn’t the “consultant in me” which made me speak a certain way. It’s the legacy or centuries of white male privilege echoed by me. The way I can casually say any statement without having to think twice. Not having to think it will have consequences for my job. That it will make others think less of me, or that there will be repercussions.
I still revert to talking about things as fact which are hunches / ideas. It takes a long time to correct this behaviour. Luckily I have people in my life who help correct me. I’m able to see when I do this and sometimes I manage to add “I think” at the end. However there is another thing which is also started to happen while leaning this, it’s that I see so many of my peer do this as well.
This way of behaving can have serious consequences, affecting peoples mental health. Especially in scenarios were there the balance of power is unequal. The person on the receiving end will moderate themselves or just not say anything. They start to doubt themselves or simply accept what is said as truth without any further considerations. If this continues over time, the person with the power will slowly grind down others around then. Their belief in their abilities will deteriorate when in the presence of the person. They feel as if there’s not enough “air in the room” for them to contribute. The person with the power seldom see this and they start to feel that no one else can take their place because nobody speaks up, so they speak even louder. This is a self enforcing dynamic which slowly makes all collaboration and dialogue grind to a halt. As the person with the power gets more frustrated with “nobody says anything”, the situation ends up in a miserable deadlock.
Being on the receiving end of this behaviour over longer periods can cause serious problems that will take a long time to work out. The symptoms can be similar to that of people being bullied or having been in abusive relationships. Their personalities can change completely and it can lead to them not being able to work. How do I know? It happened to me and I’m still dealing with the aftermath, years after it happened.
The consequences for a company with individuals who has this behaviour can be severe. Important questions will not be asked and discussions will not be had. Because of the fear and dread of being belittled and made feel silly. These fears are the consequence caused by this behaviour. In the end people will end up leaving and there will be a bad atmosphere in the company until the matter is addressed or resolved in other ways. These sort of dynamics leads too many people leaving our industry through no will of their own, just to escape.
If you feel that this might be you. Or you maybe recognize some of the reactions from others, then here is what I suggest: work on yourself and find someone you trust who will give honest feedback to guide you. It will take you a long time to shed this behaviour, but it can be done. All it takes is for you to want to change. Add “I think”, “this is my opinion” or “I’m just guessing now” to certain statements.
It opens up the space for others, it shows vulnerability and empathy. In other words it make a world of difference just add these simple things to statements you make.
It’s takes some effort and introspection. It’s more hassle than just blurting things out. It might even be less efficient. However it is 100% the right thing to do towards your fellow humans.