Encouraging empathyNovember 18, 2011 12:03 pm community, freesoftware, General
A couple of days ago, I tweeted this: “Insight of the day: All “community norms” documents come down to one word: Empathy. Think how others will feel before you act.” I think that’s worth developing on.
Here are a few examples:
- GNOME Code of Conduct: “If someone asks for help it is because they need it. Do politely suggest specific documentation or more appropriate venues where appropriate, but avoid aggressive or vague responses such as “RTFM”.” – think how it feels to need help, and to take the step of asking for it. I want to know that someone *understands* what I’m going through, feels my frustration, and is looking for a way to help relieve it. Recently, when confronted with a technical issue that prevented me from using my scanner, the advice I received on an IRC channel was to upgrade or change my Linux distribution! How un-empathic can you get!
- Koha patch rules (along with every other development project in the world): “The patch must apply to the current HEAD of the master branch of the code”: Put yourself in the place of a project maintainer who receives a patch proposal. He tries to apply it to his source tree, but the merge fails. Why? Because the patch was created against a year-old release of the project, and he’s since reworked internals to solve a different, unrelated issue. The maintainer is faced with a number of unsavory choices now: Spend time reading the patch, understanding what it does, and “forward-porting” it to master; check out the old branch, apply the patch, review, and test it there, and not commit to master; or drop the patch. What would you do in that situation? Someone is giving you a gift, which is going to make work for you. Is it worth an hour or two of your time to work on it to get it to just apply to your work? You still need to review the patch after that – which you would have to do anyway. In that situation, most people will ask the original patch proposer to do the initial grunt work and get the patch working on the tip of master.
- Now flip things around. You found a bug in software you use – the bug was really annoying. You took the time to get the source code, identify, qualify and fix the buig, open a bug report, which was confirmed, and attach a patch which you have checked fixes the problem. And what answer do you get? “Not good enough – work on it more”. How would that make you feel? That depends on how it is communicated. If it’s a stock answer, like a sheet of paper handed over a tax office counter, with a list of prerequisites, then I bet that would make me angry, resentful and frustrated. I poured time and effort into that patch, and this is how you treat it? If the criticism is of the core of the patch – it doesn’t fix the problem, or should do so differently, then the criticism might be easier to take. But if it’s issues which potentially add many hours of effort on top of time already spent, with no benefit to the proposer (check out the latest code, upgrade half a dozen dependencies without breaking my old version, compile it, and then forward-port the patch), chances are he won’t do it. An empathic response might be to make someone aware of the guidelines and their reason for being, but help him with the forward-porting on IRC by asking him to explain the patch, what it does and why.
All of those guidelines on indentation and whitespace, commenting code, including test cases, updating documentation, and ensuring code compiles at the tip of the master branch are designed to help patch proposers make patches which are easy for maintainers to apply. And in this context, an empathic patch proposer can understand them much better. Miguel de Icaza did a great job of framing this right.
When I was in college, I went to the Netherlands one Summer for a working holiday. At one point, I had a job offer for short-term work, but needed to be registered for tax to start, and I needed a bank account to get paid. So I went to the tax office, and the lady behind the counter very resignedly handed me a piece of paper with prerequisites, and told me to come back when I had fulfilled them. Then she looked over my shoulder and said “Next!” One of the prerequisites was a permanent address – I explained that I was living in a camp-site for the summer, and would that address do? Of course not! No proposed solution, no consideration of the situation I was in, no empathy.
Then I went to the bank, where I was told that I needed a permanent address to open an account. Same sense that the person I was dealing with didn’t care about me. So with my friend Barry, we looked into short term accommodation options. Landlords required (among other things) an employment agreement and a bank account before they would rent us accommodation – even if only by the week! In the end, we had to pass up that job, and work “on the black” for less than minimum wage to survive the Summer – but what choice did we have?
How frustrating! Just imagine how we felt. That’s empathy.
Again and again in community guidelines, whether it’s guidelines for people who are approaching a community to report a bug or propose a patch or feature, or guidelines for community members dealing with each other and people outside the community, this idea “think how this would make you feel if the roles were reversed” is pervasive, but unwritten. I think that it should be.
It reminds me of a social experiment I heard about recently:
Rats are placed in a box with a lever. When you pull the lever, a food pellet is distributed. The rats quickly learn to pull the lever. After a while, you change the configuration of the cage. Now, when the lever is pulled, the food pellet is distributed, but a cold shower drenches all the rats in the box. After a while, the rats learn not to pull the level, and start to punish rats who do as a group.
The second generation starts when a new rat is introduced into the box. as he approaches the leverl, the older rats all jump on top of him, to prevent him from touching it. In effect, they are teaching him the rule “don’t touch the lever”, without explaining why the rule exists. As time goes on, new rats are added, and old rats removed from the box.
The third generation happens when there are none of the oiriginal rats left in the box. None of the rats have experienced the cold shower after the lever was pressed. At that point, you can turn off the cold shower function – you will be sure that no rat will ever touch the level, because the community rules forbid it. Ask any of the rats why, though, and they will not be able to give you a better answer than “because that’s the way it is”. If rats could talk, of course.
Community guidelines which are purely written documents, but which neglect the empathic side of the equation, and don’t explain how not following the guidelines affect other people, can be similar. It’s important to include the reasons for guidelines,so that we don’t forget how breaking the rules makes others feel. It’s also important to have sufficient flexibility and adaptability in dealing with new community members – like the rat experiment, circumstances change all the time. Back when everyone was using CVS, performing merges was a complicated and time-consuming process. Nowadays, rebasing and merging with Git, Bazaar or Mercurial is so easy that some of the coding guidelines we used to have may no longer have the same impact. Likewise, email technology has moved on, and with cheap and copious bandwidth, email norms have evolved – netiquette community norms move on with them.
In general, as Bill & Ted famously said, “Be excellent to each other”. Think about how your actions & statements will be received. Be empathic.