AlterConf NYC 2017 + Social Rules For Healthy Communication

This weekend I attended my first AlterConf, a one-day conference with the aim of helping to create a more inclusive tech industry. There were many great talks throughout the day as the speakers shared their inspiring stories and delved into thought-provoking topics, including:

  • Designing ethically-conscious products
  • Potential problems with the way tech companies express how they value their employees
  • How to empower so-called “quiet developers”

One talk stood out to me for its simplicity and message of “fostering healthy communication on small teams”. The speaker was Rachel Vincent, the Head of Operations at The Recurse Center, which provides educational programming retreats in NYC. In Rachel’s talk, she highlighted the social rules that her team has adopted that help ensure they communicate with each other in efficient, honest, and non-harmful ways. These are the four social rules:

No Feigning Surprise

“Really?! You don’t know about… ?”

This rule is about not acting surprised when a person shares that they don’t know about something. This type of reaction adds no benefit to the conversation and can often lead to making the person feel bad or insecure for not knowing about the topic. Furthermore, in an industry like tech where people are constantly learning, it is important for people to feel comfortable admitting that they don’t know something to their colleagues. When people feign surprise at such an admission, it can inhibit the learning process for that individual.

No Well-Actuallys

A: “Beethoven’s Symphony №5 is probably his most famous work, and he was 38 years old when he finished it. It’s my favorite of his, especially the second movement.”
B: “Well, actually he was 37 years old.”

A well-actually is when someone corrects (often by interruption) an insignificant fact stated by another person. While it is always important to convey accurate information, being corrected on small details is not beneficial to the actual topic being discussed. These minor corrections do not serve truth-seeking. Corrections that do provide real clarification to the conversation and are not given with a disguised yearning for admiration are, of course, always welcome.

No Backseat Driving

A: “Maybe running that rake task again will fix it.”
B: “I tried running it 5 times already.”
C: “Just clear the cache!”

Backseat driving is when a conversation is happening between two or more people and someone attempts to interject with their own advice. In most cases, that individual does not have the full information to be providing useful advice and ends up slowing down the individuals actually engaged in the conversation. It is most efficient (and least annoying) to fully engage in the conversation first before offering advice.

No Subtle-isms

“It’s so easy my grandmother could do it.”

A subtle-ism is a statement with underlying, often unintentional, tones of sexism, racism, homophobia, or other similar biases that can make others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. The last thing we want to do is make someone feel bad for various aspects about their lifestyle and/or identity, even if that was not the intention of the statement.


I’m not going to lie, I have definitely broken all of these rules before, and I am sure that I will continue to break them. I’m not perfect. But my hope is that by keeping these rules in mind during both my personal and professional communications, I can become better at identifying when I break them so that I can apologize, correct myself, and move on.

I also highly encourage anyone who is interested to attend an AlterConf event. They take place throughout the year in cities across the world, the tickets are fairly inexpensive for a tech conference (basic tickets were $25 for the event I attended), and the mission of the conference is quite admirable and important in our largely homogenous, oftentimes uninviting industry.

And a big thanks to my friend & coworker Melissa Moy for urging me to attend this event!