Why can’t you just communicate properly?

Online communication bugs me. Actually, bugs isn’t accurate. Maybe saddens and fatigues. When volleying with people hiding behind their keyboard shield and protected by three timezones, you have to make a conscious effort to remain optimistic. It’s part of the reason I haven’t taken to Twitter as much as I probably should.

I’ve talked on this subject before and it’s something I often have in the back of my mind when reading comments. It’s come to the forefront recently with some conversations we’ve had at Western Devs, which led to our most recent podcast. I wasn’t able to attend so here I am.

There are certain phrases you see in comments that automatically seem to devolve a discussion. They include:

  • “Why don’t you just…”
  • “Sorry but…”
  • “Can’t you just…”
  • “It’s amazing that…”

Ultimately, all of these phrases can be summarized as follows:

I’m better than you and here’s why…

In my younger years, I could laugh this off amiably and say “Oh this wacky world we live in”. But I’m turning 44 in a couple of days and it’s time to start practicing my crotchety, even if it means complaining about people being crotchety.

So to that end: I’m asking, nay, begging you to avoid these and similar phrases. This is for your benefit as much as the reader’s. These phrases don’t make you sound smart. Once you use them, it’s very unlikely anyone involved will feel better about themselves, let alone engage in any form of meaningful discussion. Even if you have a valid point, who wants to be talked down to like that? Have you completely forgot what it’s like to learn?

“For fuck’s sake, Mom, why don’t you just type the terms you want to search for in the address bar instead of typing WWW.GOOGLE.COM into Bing?”

Now I know (from experience) it’s hard to fight one’s innate sense of superiority and the overwhelming desire to make it rain down on the unwashed heathen. So take it in steps. After typing your comment, remove all instances of “just” (except when just means “recently” or “fair”, of course). The same probably goes for “simply”. It has more of a condescending tone than a dismissive one. “Actually” is borderline. Rule of thumb: Don’t start a sentence with it.

Once you have that little nervous tic under control, it’s time to remove the negatives. Here’s a handy replacement guide to get you started:

Original phrase Replacement
“Can’t you” “Can you”
“Why don’t you” “Can you”
“Sorry but” no replacement; delete the phrase
“It’s amazing that…” delete your entire comment and have a dandelion break

See the difference? Instead of saying Sweet Zombie Jayzus, you must be the stupidest person on the planet for doing it this way, you’ve changed the tone to Have you considered this alternative? In both instances, you’ve made your superior knowledge known but in the second, it’s more likely to get acknowledged. More importantly, you’re less likely to look like an idiot when the response is: I did consider that avenue and here are legitimate reasons why I decided to go a different route.

To be fair, sometimes the author of the work you’re commenting on needs to be knocked down a peg or two themselves. I have yet to meet one of these people who respond well to constructive criticism critique, let alone the destructive type I’m talking about here. Generally, I find they feel the need to cultivate an antagonistic personality but in my experience, they usually don’t have the black turtlenecks to pull it off. Usually, it ends up backfiring and their dismissive comments become too easy to dismiss over time.

Kyle the Inclusive

Originally posted to: http://www.westerndevs.com/communication/Why-can-t-you-just/
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  • Alice W

    I think you’re absolutely right – yes, there are irritating mistakes you see posted without people searching for an existing answer. And there will always be some grouchy impatient responses along those lines. But in general, we should make an effort to lean away from “criticism” and towards “mentoring”. People pose a question because they aren’t sure what to do. Coming in with phrasing that implies they’re an idiot further undermines that confidence, and basically just erodes their likelihood of seeking help in the future. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be fired or anything, chances are they’re just going to code in ways that get things done but aren’t optimal. And we ALL most likely will live with these errors in the software and devices we consume. What I don’t understand is – why are people who are so impatient with other people’s learning process spending their time trying to answer questions? If you want to take on a role, do so willingly and with some awareness of your tone.

  • kg2v

    There are places where at least one of these is appropriate:
    “it’s amazing that we live in a world of such wonders as the internet” etc – things that really ARE amazing

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    Here’s the link again: http://www.westerndevs.com/News/ASPNetCoreGetOverIt/

    Disqus decided the closing parenthesis was part of it. And take note of the “It’s amazing that…” comment later on. (Note: I know the author of that comment and he gave his blessing to use it as an example in this post :) )

    My own language often fails this test, at least in blog posts. And full disclosure: I did have to edit at least two instances in this very blog post where I broke my own guidelines. The tone of the post is harsher than usual but the goal is more for people to be cognizant of it than to adhere to hard and fast rules. You don’t get the same facial cues in online communication so it’s easier for people to dismiss comments without recognizing the intent. Even if there’s no conscious intent to be dismissive, comments like “can’t you…” have a tendency to put people on the defensive in the absence of any facial cues to the contrary.

  • Ryan Vice

    That link 404d for me and I think you made some great points there. I’d add that I’ve been focusing heavy on communication for about 4 years now because I knew it seemed to be holding me back. No matter how great your code or ideas might be, you can be on a project for a year and rub one person the wrong way and the project can go south. So for me I took Sandler training and I try my hardest to make sure that I don’t offend or upset anyone to the point of “compromising” the solutions that end up getting implemented. I think it’s extremely unusual for someone to put this much effort into communication and my language would probably fail your test above from time to time. But I do get what you are saying about intent. My bigger issue is probably with people who are negative than know it alls. If I put an idea up and you say “why don’t you…” at least it’s better than saying “i don’t like it…” without offering an alternative. But I don’t really blog so I’m probably not feeling the same pain points as you.

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    You highlight a good point. I didn’t mean to imply that I take offense at these comments. Offensive ones are easy to deal with. I’m referring to dismissive comments that effectively kill any form of meaningful engagement. When you say “Sorry but you’ve totally missed the point”, I don’t get offended. I get, as I mentioned in the opening, saddened and fatigued. As in “ugh, I can’t be bothered to deal with this person”. If I respond, it’ll be from a defensive position so more often than not, I just ignore it, even if I actually *did* miss the point. And one or both of us miss out on a potentially meaningful dialogue.

    The point you highlight though is interpretation. Both in the comments and in conversations with people since posting this, it’s become clear that the intent of this post can be easy to misconstrue. Which led me to think the same about the comments I call out in it. Language barriers and cultural differences can sometimes make comments sound more abrasive than they are meant to be. So while I still think it’s a good idea to be mindful of your comments (i.e. are you commenting to further the conversation or to show your superior intellect?), responding to comments should, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, assume the best intentions of the commenter, at least at the beginning. Simon’s responses on this post (http://www.westerndevs.com/News/ASPNetCoreGetOverIt/) are great examples of the tone I probably would not have reached for first if the comments were directed at me.

  • Ryan Vice

    People get offended by all kinds of things, so it’s not for me to say what you should or shouldn’t get offended by. However, If I got offended that easily I wouldn’t be able to run my business and I most certainly wouldn’t publish anything and I find it surprising that a blogger would get offended that easily.

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    I’m running through scenarios in my head and none of these sound any more respectful when said face to face. Quite the opposite actually.

  • Ryan Vice

    Gotta be honest, this feels overly sensitive way for a blogger to think. It’s the exact same type of feedback you get when you share ideas face to face.