War over being nice

Quick question:

Bob says something to James. James is upset and goes to have a cry about it. Who is responsible for James being upset? Is it Bob, for being mean? Or is it James, because he obviously has emotional development to do? If there's 100 points of responsibility, how would you apportion it out?

Would the answer change if I told you Bob and James are 5 year old children?

Would the answer change if they were actually two 5 year old girls?

A grown woman says something mean to her boyfriend, and he runs off and has a cry about it. Is she abusive? Is he overly sensitive?

A grown man says something mean to his girlfriend, and she runs off and has a cry about it. Is he abusive? Is she overly sensitive?

I think there's another element of the current culture war that nobody talks about. And that is, who is responsible for emotions?

I'm going to describe two cultures:

In culture A, everyone is responsible for their own feelings. People say mean stuff all the time - teasing and jostling each other for fun and to get a rise. Occasionally someone gets upset. When that happens, there's usually no repercussions for the perpetrator. If someone gets consistently upset when the same topic is brought up, they will either eventually stop getting upset or the people around them will learn to avoid that topic. Verbally expressing anger at someone is tolerated. It is better to be honest than polite.

Respect comes from how you contribute to the shared values of the group. At work, you get respect by doing your job well. Amongst your friends you get respect for being an easy person to keep as a friend - maybe you organise events, or make everyone in the group laugh. Respect flows from action to person. If my actions embody a shared value, I am respected as the person who carried out those actions. At work my social respect is tied into how well I do my job. If I don't meet deadlines or quotas, I will lose social respect. "If you can't sell shit, you are shit".

Conflict is often resolved simply and quickly - if someone has a problem with someone else, they can say so immediately and openly. They can express their anger in a hostile way if they want to. And the other party is welcome to respond in kind. At its worst this looks like barely restrained violence. But at its best this often looks like open, comfortable and fun goal-oriented ribbing.

In culture B, everyone is responsible for the feelings of others. At social gatherings everyone should feel safe and comfortable. After all, part of the point of having a community is to collectively care for the emotional wellbeing of the community's members. For this reason its seen as an act of violence against the community for your actions or speech to result in someone becoming upset, or if you make people feel uncomfortable or anxious. This comes with strong repercussions - the perpetrator is expected to make things right. An apology isn't necessarily good enough here - to heal the wound, the perpetrator needs to make group participants once again feel nurtured and safe in the group. If they don't do that, they are a toxic element to the group's cohesion and may no longer be welcome in the group. It is better to be polite than honest. As the saying goes, if you can't say something nice, it is better to say nothing at all.

Respect in culture B flows to you from the way you make people in the group feel. The core value of the group is "I want to feel supported and respected". In a work context, once someone has been hired they are welcome and included socially no matter how good or bad their work is. Making sure everyone feels welcome and included is held in higher regard than the work itself. "Be someone your coworkers enjoy working with."

Interpersonal conflict happens sometimes. Dealing with those conflicts is much more complicated than in culture A. You can't just have it out with the other person and yell at them! They might feel really unsafe, and tell everyone the awful things you said, how you said them and how you're a terrible person for doing so. This would hurt your reputation and social standing in the group. The worst version of this conflict culture playing out is the catty social dynamics you hear about at some high schools. But there are plenty of healthy ways this sort of conflict can play out. A much better way is for the people involved to go off on their own, take some time to figure out their feelings (alone or with a confidant) and then calmly bring their feelings back to the person or group. Non-violent conversation is great for this - "When you say X, I feel Y. I have a need for Z, and that need isn't being met".

Dealing with interpersonal conflict in culture B in a healthy way requires huge skill. There are two big pitfalls:

  1. If you just tell them how you feel you might make the other person feel unsafe and uncomfortable. They might badmouth you to the group and you could be socially punished.
  2. To avoid upsetting anyone you bottle your feelings up inside and don't express how you feel. This is really unhealthy - it makes people neurotic and depressed.

There's another way to think about this. Most people don't have the skills to both express their feelings of frustration and anger, and make sure social harmony is maintained at the same time. In this case, do they err on the side of maintaining social harmony at the cost of their own needs? Or do they get their needs met and damn the social cost?

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes

Most people (certainly most of us when we're young) haven't learned how to be a collaborator in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes analysis. Where do you fail back to? In culture A people fall back to the top-left competing corner. "They don't have to like me, but at least I'll get the job done and get paid". In culture B people fall back to the bottom right, accomodating corner. "The outcome wasn't great but we all enjoyed doing it together."

Do these social strategies feel gendered to you? They do to me - if I play the association game, culture A feels masculine. Its "bro culture". Its "guys being guys". And culture B feels feminine. Weirdly, I don't know any shorthand names for this culture. Maybe "inclusive community building", or "safe spaces"? But plenty of people are gender-atypical here. But I know lots of male-gendered people who feel more comfortable in culture B. I feel more comfortable in culture B. And I know plenty of women who feel much more comfortable in culture A. Camile Paglia is a great example of a feminist who fights for culture A.

I suspect that the gendered assumptions here are related to our expectation that women have better social skills than men and spend more time talking about feelings. You need those skills to navigate culture B successfully.


I feel like there's a war being waged right now against culture A. Communities need to be inclusive and welcoming. Not doing so is immoral, sexist and exclusionary. The sexism argument is this:

  • Women don't feel comfortable in culture A
  • Therefore culture A is unwelcome to women, and thus sexist
  • Any community operating under culture A is sexist and male dominated

Its true that culture B participants are disadvantaged professionally. Imagine if you hold your tongue in deference to the feelings of those around you, but your coworkers just say whats on their mind. They will get their needs met much more than you will. The system of asking for raises is a culture A thing - just say what you want, and its your boss's responsibility to not be offended. Unsurprisingly, women ask for raises at a much lower rate than men, and thus often end up being paid less.

I don't believe culture A is inherently sexist. Its just a different set of cultural norms. The cultural relativism lens suggests that we can't judge culture A through the values of culture B. But it seems like at a societal level we're still figuring out how to answer the question of what work culture should look like given mixed gender participants.

This has been playing out recently in the vitriol levelled against Linus Torvalds. He's the epitome of Culture A. He's finally acknowledged that yelling at people over email is a bad idea. Now that thats happened, my twitter feed is full of folks saying an apology isn't enough. Because of course, in culture B, apologies aren't enough to make things right. Its Linus's responsibility to restore the feeling of social cohesion and inclusion that his abusive tirades have eroded.

One person I spoke to on twitter said that Torvalds has caused damage by his rants, that he made people feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the tech space through perpetuating that culture. That makes sense from the perspective that culture B is the only non-sexist way to be.

In the 50s workplaces were male dominated. I'm sure culture A was king everywhere. In that world, the call that "We need workplaces that let culture B people (women) thrive" made all too much sense. But we don't live in that world any more. I'm far from convinced that a complete societal purge of culture A is possible or healthy. Amongst other things, the attempt to do so is causing a crisis amongst young boys, who are dropping out of school and university at alarming rates (Ref: The Boy Crisis) and there's an epidemic of male suicide.

I also have a few female friends who feel much more at home amongst the more masculine culture A. I would paraphrase their perspective as something like this:

I've always felt more comfortable with male company. As an adult I have very few female friends. Growing up I had several experiences where my female friends rejected me and got really angry with me for reasons that never really seemed to make sense. The people I feel most comfortable with will rib me and give me crap, and I can do the same back to them and we have a laugh about it. I am a little creeped out by the growing push even amongst my male friends to talk about their feelings, and be sensitive. I've gotten in trouble a few times even amongst my male friends for saying the wrong thing, and I'm constantly a little anxious I'll put my foot in it and ruin some of the few friendships I have.

And so I'm growing to think that the fierce war against culture A in the workplace is a bit misguided and wrong. I say this as someone who feels most comfortable in culture B anyway - I want everyone to feel comfortable and included. But I also respect the virtues of culture A - openness, emotional honesty, directness, taking responsibility for one's emotions and self sovereignty. And I think its important that we care about the outcome of our work, and for that to happen I need my coworkers to feel comfortable expressing disagreement. If one of my employees isn't performing, I don't want it to be a social faux pa to tell them so.

The way this conflict interacts with consent culture is complicated and interesting.

To set the stage, by 'consent culture' I'm referring to the practice of asking for consent before doing anything intimate, at least for the first time. "May I kiss you" / "Is it ok if I do this?", etc. I'm going to establish two claims:

  1. If you don't feel safe saying "no", saying "yes" is meaningless. If I put a knife to your throat and ask if you consent to giving me your wallet, consent is coerced and the fact that I consented doesn't get you off the hook for the crime. If you personally don't feel comfortable ever saying "no thanks" when a partner asks for sex, you will eventually, inevitably have non-consensual sex.
  2. If you feel completely comfortable and safe saying no, and you have time to contemplate your decision, then verbally asking for consent is somewhat meaningless. After dinner your partner moves forward to kiss you seductively. You know they want to kiss you. You can feel the desire radiating off them to get their hands on your sweet bod. If you feel totally comfortable and safe saying "no thanks; maybe later" - then your partner doesn't need to verbalise the "may I kiss you" question thats hanging on their lips.

So, then, why has there been such a strong push for verbal consent? I suspect its because relationships are one of the places where people from these two cultures meet. He's from culture A, and expects everyone to feel comfortable knowing and expressing what they want all the time. She's from culture B, where people are expected to take care of the feelings of those around us. She's been brought up to think that if anyone takes offence to what she says, she's (maybe!) done something wrong.

The problem that asking after consent addresses is that she needs to explicitly consider her own feelings. Nobody wants her to have mediocre, unenthusiastic sex that she later regrets. So we have this ritual of consent - "May I touch you here?" "Yes you may". The thing the consent asker is really trying to do here is make the other person feel comfortable saying no, while hoping they will say yes.

A couple years ago I had a new partner. We were dating for a couple of weeks and I went out to their place to hang out. I was excited to see them, and made a few physical bids (hugs, light touch, etc). They didn't push me away but were weirdly standoffish. I asked, and they said nothing was wrong. We went for a bush walk, and we walked in silence - during which they kept a few meters away lost in thought. Had I done something wrong?

Eventually we talked about it - they didn't want to be physically intimate with me that day. It felt wrong to them. But it turned out they had been punished by men for saying no in past relationships. Somehow they felt like once we were 'dating', they weren't allowed to revoke consent for physical touch. We talked about it, and then practiced. I physically came on to her, and she said "no thanks" or "no fuck off" or shoved me away. It was super emotional, and honestly really good for both of us.

I've told that story to a few times, and the interesting part is the lingering question of "Would you actually feel comfortable saying no to a partner?". I struggle with this myself! (As I said earlier, I default to the female-typical emotional caretaking / appeasement of culture B.)

A fun game I like to play in new relationships is to asking my new partner to practice revoking consent with me. As I see it, the point of asking for consent is to help your partner feel comfortable saying "no". If they want to refuse consent but don't feel comfortable doing so, we'll have all sorts of gross conflict. The goal is to establish the kind of masculine culture A trust here. I want you to trust that I can handle hearing 'no'. I want to trust that you will be selfish and say 'no' when you want to. If we can do that, then and only then can we have an actually consensual physical relationship. And as a bonus, if you can establish that sort of trust, you shouldn't need verbal "seek an enthusiastic yes" consent with that person. (Though it can still be fun.)

I never know how to close long rants like this. I suppose my perspective is this:

  • I think there's two cultures at play. I've called them A and B. We can call them masculine and feminine, competing and accomodating, bro culture and inclusive culture.
  • Each of these cultures has good parts and bad parts. The masculine culture A deals more comfortably with conflict, while culture B helps members of the group feel safe and supported.

Where do you stand? What is your default? How comfortable are you with the other culture? I think the healthiest version of me is comfortable navigating successfully in both of these cultures, and I think thats a general pattern.

What culture do you operate under in your interpersonal relationships? I find it interesting that I almost never have heated fights with partners. I've previously thought that was something to boast about, but this year, thinking about this, I've realised that its because I am not very good at culture A style relationships. I have friends who have heated fights with their partner all the time, and for whom that seems healthy. (Research backs up that claim by the way. Speaking about arguments, Gottman says: "If they don’t or can’t or won’t argue, that’s a major red flag. If you’re in a “committed” relationship and you haven’t yet had a big argument, please do that as soon as possible.")

Culture A teaches us that self determination and listening to one's own goals are important to all of us from time to time. Culture B teaches us that we build better communities by respecting the feelings of others. We need both of these skills sometimes, in every context. Consent is improved under the wing of culture A, but relationships in general are improved with lessons from culture B.

Arguing under the banner of "fighting for diversity" that culture B is the only acceptable culture is ironic and a little sad. We aren't all the same. Maybe its ok if workplaces reflect the diversity that exists in who we are as people. I don't want to be tyrannised by the need to be nice, from others or out of shame and guilt. Being nice out of obligation is like mandated consent - its impossible to achieve and it makes a liar out of everyone who tries. Its impossible to be authentically generous if you expect punishment for not doing so.

I think we need to accept and allow that some workplaces will stay in the classic masculine culture A style. And we need to negotiate an acceptable middle ground, where we accept both that others are affected by what we say, and that nobody can decide how you feel without your consent. Assessing culture fit at a new workplace should go both ways - during a job interview you should decide if the place you're considering working will be a good space for you to learn and grow.

And ultimately, if you feel more comfortable amongst emotionally accomodating communities, join organisations like the Rust community rather than the Linux kernel community. Vote with your feet. If the linux community wants to slurp up all the people you don't want to be working alongside, let them. The modern world is big enough to fit us all.