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Compassion — An efficient alternative to rigid Code of Conducts

I suggest “compassion” and recurse.com’s “Social User’s Manual” as a viable alternative to rigid “code of conducts”.

“Modern” code of conducts (CoCs) are based on so called “speech codes” at Stanford ~30 years ago. These set of rules (CoCs or “code of conducts”) became a de facto standard at meetups and tech conferences. In 2017 grown-ups are publicly told “not to use sexualised language” and to avoid anything that “could be considered inappropriate in a professional setting” (Source: http://webzueri.ch/code-of-conduct.html). Taken literally, the only way to fulfil this rigid rules is to not speak at all because people might get upset about all kinds of things — hence meetups and conferences should be silent.

Ten years ago the tech community was less patronising. When I was nineteen I had to attend a math preparation course for my computer science studies. One morning when I got coffee before the course a female student approached me to ask where to get milk. I answered: “The milk comes from the same tube as the coffee”. She replied: “So it is a male coffee machine, then” and then she smiled. We both started to laugh. We immediately fell connected over this (sexual) humor and spend the next months happily together. I am really sad that this casual encounter might not happen today as her remark would violate most CoCs.

On the one hand meetup and conference organizers can limit, forbid and make people do anything they want (see Randall’s strip xkcd.com/1357). But if I interpret Thomas Jefferson correctly, code of conducts violate the first Amendment. On 28 January 1786 he wrote: Our liberty depends on the freedom of speech and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Code of Conducts have strange, unforeseen and neglected side-effects. At FOSDEM 2016, a construction worker who picked up C++ told me he does not dare to talk to a girl as he might be thrown out from the event since people might think he is hitting on her. This guy came to the conference to get substantial help on memory allocation and pointer arithmetic. Instead, he had to wast brain-space how to deal with speech codes.

Showing the Swastika in Germany is a criminal act. I am doubtful that a true Nazi feels less Nazi’ish if he can not show the Swastika publicly. Likewise, “forbidding to use sexual/violent/excluding language” might limit the kind of words someone uses but surely does not diminish the bad intent behind.

Some years ago when I was still a baby-recruiter, I was having drinks on a balcony with a guy from a top startup. The traffic lights at the intersection we were looking at were broken and a policeman was unenthusiastically orchestrating the traffic. This guy said with a strong vibe of superiority and irony in his voice: “Wow this guy has a very important job replacing the traffic light”. I felt disgusted by this demeaning remark and decided that I will neither hire nor work with this guy, if possible. No code of conduct can fix this kind of toxic attitude and behaviour.

On top, what can happen is that giving Code of Conducts to bad apples, we help to disguise their “true” intent. With a CoC in place, even the biggest a***hole will manage to avoid certain words that will bring him or her “officially” into trouble. Sure, this might protect the feelings of some people but what is worst is that the toxic person will stay in the community and find other ways to hurt people and we all will have a harder time spotting and actually fixing the situation (= kick this person out / warn employer in the city about the toxic person).

The answer is to go beyond CoCs and design a compassionate approach around social norms. Recurse.com has a “Social User’s Manual” that is a great example how to work on people’s intent. They ask their community to follow only two rules to not hurt anyone:

  1. No feigning surprise: you should not sound surprised when someone does not know stuff.
  2. No well actually’s: don’t be a smart-ass.

These rules don’t limit specific words (“sexual language”) but general concepts. This makes people focus on being aware of the intent instead of the words used which improves the community on a much deeper level.

It is simple to transform rigid rules into something more efficient. One could turn the rule “don’t use of sexualised language or imagery and unwelcome sexual attention or advances” into simply you will be kicked out if we notice that you intend to make people feel uncomfortable.

Conclusion

  • Code of conducts lead to unforeseen side-effects like people erring on the side of silence although they want to say something.
  • To have a truly healthy community we need an approach based mindfulness about our intent and focus on excluding bad apples on an individual case-by-case basis.
  • I propose to use guidelines around compassionate speech instead of rigid, catch-all rules.

I don’t oppose Code of Conducts per see as they are needed because organisers want to protect themselves against potential legal problems (crazy participants suing the organizers for being harrassed), however, I would suggest a more pragmatic and mindful approach that might work in the tech community.

If you look for jobs in Zurich, Switzerland, which is known for Bay-Area salaries and small taxes, shoot me an email at iwan@coderfit.com. (Also, most meetups here still don’t have CoCs.)

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