Be Unkind

I have been a member of Stack Overflow for nearly six years. It is a truly great resource for solving IT technical problems.

Recently they announced a change in their Code of Conduct. Whenever I see a change in the rules, I always ask myself “Why?”. I checked it out, and the sub-heading grabbed my attention:

The word “Kindness” jumped off the page. This is a site for people with knowledge to share and solve technical problems. Let’s look at the examples that they gave:

Looking at the “correct” versions, they are far more wordy and verbose than their terse, brief versions. So why the obsession with Kindness? Then the answer hit me:

Girls

The “correct” answers on the right are the kind of flowery, fluffy, unnecessarily verbose replies that are written by girls. I have found that when it comes to writing assignments, women tend to write a lot more than men, and they concentrate a lot more on presentation, while men are generally more terse and concise.

Men are (or should be) raised to be as impervious as possible to insult; “sticks and stones”, and all that. We insult each other to motivate each other. We rag on each other to toughen each other up. No less than an authority than the bible says: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another“. In another place, it says: “The wounds of a friend are to be trusted“. We live in a harsh reality, but that’s just the way it is.

Girls, on the other hand, operate by a different set of rules. They are highly susceptible to shaming language, and as a result are often far more easily offended. Women say sexist things all the time, such as “All men are dogs“, and we are encouraged to suck it up – and we do. But try saying something like “All women are…” in today’s corporate culture, and you may very well find yourself both unemployed and unemployable. So much for “Equality”.

As a counterpoint, let me take you back to the last century, to an article written by one Eric S Raymond, called “How To Ask Questions The Smart Way“, which deals with precisely this subject:

What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks — they take without giving back, and they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer.

We’re (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we’re overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners.

If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check your assumptions. We’re not asking you to genuflect to us — in fact, most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to make that possible. But it’s simply not efficient for us to try to help people who are not willing to help themselves. It’s OK to be ignorant; it’s not OK to play stupid.

So, while it isn’t necessary to already be technically competent to get attention from us, it is necessary to demonstrate the kind of attitude that leads to competence — alert, thoughtful, observant, willing to be an active partner in developing a solution. If you can’t live with this sort of discrimination, we suggest you pay somebody for a commercial support contract instead of asking hackers to personally donate help to you.

Returning to StackOverflow, it is obvious to me that this rule change was put into place for one purpose and one purpose only: to make the site more “female friendly”. The unintended consequence of this change is that the vast majority of contributors to the site will now have to write far more than they need to in order to jump through linguistic hoops to make sure that those with frail constitutions are not offended. Faced with the extra effort, many will simply not bother to respond.This is not a call for unnecessary cruelty; I am all for courtesy, and there are some things that one simply does not say in public conversation. But mandating speech, requiring us to say certain things, is not the way to go about solving this problems.

Ladies, if you are that easily offended, perhaps the Internet is not the place for you.

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