How to be Polite… for Geeks

They say don’t be a dick, but they never tell you how.

“You’re so patient,” friends say to me, “I don’t know how you take it.”

“There are few situations so bad that I’m not willing to try and make them better,” I tell them, and then I beam, angelically. I spend my life around smart people with little introspection, some of whom are even functionally disadvantaged at it. I am good at responding delicately to indelicate situations. I have defused fights in parks, won people over on Twitter, made peace between factions at hackerspaces, and gotten along with all kinds of people, some who would have assuredly hated me, and some who would have thought that I should have hated them.

But… yeah. I’m not always such a saint. I’m not always the Olympic winner at introspection myself. Sometimes I’m tired and stressed. In fact, sometimes I go get into fights online for the love of it. But I’ve learned to see that as a red flashing light that there’s something bugging me elsewhere, something I feel bad about or somewhere I’ve been hurt. Taking it out on Twitter usually only results in more followers, which is all the wrong kinds of feedback. The way to avoid this is by realizing that politeness, empathy, respect, and kindness are all practices. This essay is about the theory behind and material substance of those practices.

Helping people understand things outside of their own experience is literally my job. When, for instance, women say it’s not their job to explain what it’s like to be a woman in tech, or a woman in general, they’re right. But I can’t say that. It is my full-time job, the source of my living income. (For that question in particular, I’ve written a four part series here at Medium on Women and the Internet.)

Paul Ford, in the essay that inspired this one, spoke of the “stubborn power of politeness over time.” And he’s right: “Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.” Politeness is a practice, and it adapts to circumstances. If you’re saying please and thank you to put someone down, that’s not politeness, that’s classism.

Politeness is this: respect and kindness, with context taken into consideration.

Sometimes that means saying “Fuck yeah!” and sometimes that means saying “Well done!” Sometimes you mix those up, and get to say “Sorry!”

The practice of politeness is a collection of habits of mind and expression you do on a daily basis. You learn to say “thank you” because you are honestly grateful and “I’m sorry” because you honestly don’t want to contribute to the pain of the world. You learn to say “it’s ok” because you’re honestly forgiving and letting go of small things other people do wrong. This practice makes the rate of unproductive and acrimonious conversations go down, and the enemies you make are usually only the unavoidably unpleasant. There are always bad days, slip ups, nights with too much wine or stress. But by learning to forgive others, you also learn to forgive yourself. Forgiving yourself is great, because it means you can learn and improve and not always be weighed down by past mistakes or the denial of them.

A Note about Importance

Politeness is very important, not just because it’s a better way to be in the world, but because it is more effective. People often say their message is too important to bother being polite, but that’s serving their ego, not the message or its cause. If what you have to say is so important the other person must hear it, then you must say it in the way they will most likely hear it — respectfully, clearly, and with empathy and attention to the hearer, to make a space for conversation and clarification. That moment in disaster movies where the president finally listens to the protagonist because he just rudely started screaming his head off? That doesn’t happen in real life. The people who do that get dragged away by the Secret Service.

There are moments to scream, but if you don’t have this stuff down yet, you won’t know when it is the right time.

A little bit of theory

Somewhere in our toddlerhood we start to develop something called Theory of Mind. This is when we realize other people have minds and bodies and lives of their own that are different from ours. It’s the developmental moment of understanding that we are all disconnected from each other. We start to understand, as well, that others can hold false beliefs about the world. “The Cheerios are in the cupboard, because that’s where I put them,” someone might say, when you know they’re wrong because you moved them. You learn that people know different things about the world, and you can use that to get what you want: “Mom said I could have the Cheerios.” In the end you realize that you also sometimes hold false beliefs about the world: it turns out Mom isn’t going to let you get away with that.

The reconnection with others happens through empathy. Your desire to figure out how to get Mom to give you the Cheerios leads you to try to understand her. By thinking about who Mom is, what she wants, hopes for, and what hurts her and troubles her… ultimately, trying to understand what it’s like to be her, you will probably learn what to say to get more Cheerios. Hopefully, you will also learn to respect why she doesn’t give them to you in the first place.

Theory of Mind, and the empathy it engenders, is something we acquire and hone all of our lives. It comes easier for some people, so much so that it seems like an innate quality of being human. It’s much harder for others, particularly those on the autism spectrum, who often must practice to master it more consciously as a quality of other people.


People live in whole worlds of their own, one per person.

Red. Trust me.

We have no idea if the red you see is the red I see. Science can’t answer that, or art, or philosophy. We just don’t know if people see the same thing when they see red. We can tell if two wavelengths match in the range we have assigned to “red,” but there is no inherent “redness” to a wavelength. The idea of red is created with a signal that’s been translated from that wavelength, moved along another channel, sorted by a department of the brain, re-encoded, passed to another department, sorted again, and then handed to the executive “conscious” parts of the brain all while you are arguing about how tasty, hot, candy-like, sexy, or dangerous that red thing looks. Like fingerprints, examining the process suggests that there may be no two reds in the world that are alike in the mind of the viewer — and that’s just red. It only gets harder from there.

Umwelt means environment in German, but as it was borrowed into English it took on a more subjective meaning. According to the OED:

noun (plural Umwelten) “the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.”

Your sense of candy-apple red is part of your umwelt. So is the feel of your clothes on your skin, the shadows and sounds more likely to scare you at night, the music that makes you feel brave, and the tastes that transport you with pleasure. You will live you whole life trapped in your umwelt, with only a few glimpses of what other people’s umwelten might be like from immersing yourself in the media they create, and employing your imagination. You will spend your entire life totally alone in your umwelt.

If I want to reach you, all I can do is make impressions on the surface of your umwelt, like a hand pressing against a window. We communicate with each other, but to some degree, we will always communicate like astronauts, tapping helmets together to pass sound waves through our spacesuits.

It is lonely to think of ourselves this way, but it is also true, and humbling. Everyone you pass is having a world of their own, as rich and deep as yours, seven billions lives right now, all infinitely strange worlds. We have to make assumptions about everyone else just to get through our days.

I assume three things.

The first is that for the overwhelming majority of human tasks, most people are basically interchangeable. We’re all about the same in most ways, for most of the things we do most of the time. We all eat, sleep, wander around, worry, make messes, get distracted, and even drive in a pretty narrow range of human behavior. We all have highs and lows, and it may be that some ideas of happiness and sadness bind us together more than the abstraction we make of red. In the minutia I’m average. The substance of my day isn’t likely to be too distant from the substance of yours. We’re all normal.

The second assumption is that despite the fact that we’re all horses most of the time, we’re all zebras some of the time. We all have a place or two where our experience varies wildly from the rest of humanity, whether it a trick knee or being the world’s best race car driver. There is some bit of everyone’s life that they can’t explain to the people who haven’t been there. We’re all extraordinary.

The third assumption is that because every moment of your life has been different from mine, within a different body with different genes and your own umwelt building an infinitely complex world that is only ever just yours, I will never know what it really is to be you.

There are a lot of people.

We are normal, extraordinary, and we are each a singularity of infinite solitude, held into ourselves by time and space curving to envelope us until we cease. That’s amazing, and it’s your job to deal with hundreds and maybe thousand or millions of these amazing things.

A lot of practice

Postel’s Law, aka the Robustness Principle is useful here. Be conservative in what you transmit, liberal in what you accept, and reject malicious patterns. Another way to put that could be: speak gently, keep an open mind to what others say, and don’t be a doormat.

Here are a few practical considerations: when someone tells you their name, that’s their name. Not their nickname, or their real name, just their name. You should not rename them. To do so is to express power over them, whether that’s your intention or not. It’s not OK in the course of regular life to express power over other people. It’s the canonical dick move.

As Paul also said in his essay, don’t touch people, except in commonly specified ways. I vacillate between a culture where everyone hugs hello and goodbye, and where people kiss each other on the cheek between one and three times, often with light hands on the shoulders to steady the whole enterprise. I even visit the east coast, where people shake hands, sometimes more than the first time they meet, which I find very strange. But I do it, or if I reach out to hug someone, I explain that’s the way we do it where I’m from, and stop if they look uncomfortable.

It is OK to ask someone local what you should be doing, but whatever it is, do it briefly and lightly. Neither hugs nor kisses are invitations to further touch. Touching demands intimacy from people, who usually aren’t looking to give it. The prohibition on touching each other is so strong that in situations where we are forced to touch, like a busy subway, we pretend no one is there at all.

Bathe, and try to smell and look basically OK. This is not about being attractive as much as people think, it’s more about not being distracting. If you have an extremely strong smell, whether it’s BO or Chanel No.5, it’s going to pull everyone’s attention away from what they’re ostensibly there to do, and back to you. Strong odors are like loud sounds, they make it hard for people to concentrate. If you speak loudly, look around when you do, and read people’s faces to see if you speak too loudly. There are situations in which you want to stand out fashionably as well, but there are also situations that are not all about you. It is OK to not be the center of attention. It is usually OK to ask questions.

To understand other people and the places we find them takes empathy.

Empathy is a practice of seeing other people as they are right now. It’s an effort to feel what we believe they are feeling. When we meet people we tend to assume they’ve had exactly the same day we have had, despite how ridiculous that is when you say it out loud. We expect them to be tired if we are tired, awake if we are. If we’re happy, we don’t expect them to be sad about their aunt’s cancer. If we’re angry, we can’t understand why looking forward to their uncle’s fabulous strawberry and rhubarb is making them so happy. Empathy is channeling the power of your own umwelt to model the feelings of another, and based on that, choosing how to behave with them.

When encountering others, it’s good to ask, “What can I do for this person?” and mean it. Sometimes the answer is that you offer them something they obviously need. Sometimes the answer is nothing at all. Much of the time, though, you don’t know the answer to that question, and you have to ask. Sometimes the answer is “I can help them stop being horrible to me by shutting this conversation down.” You can do that respectfully, which often works better than the other way of ending the conversation.

Politeness is catchy

People take cues from each other on how to behave, and just one stubbornly polite person can transform a space. Once when I was seven months pregnant I got on an empty F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It filled up quickly, and all the seats around me were taken. A women got on with a rambunctious toddler. She clearly needed a seat, but no one would meet her eyes. I got up and offered her my seat, which she gratefully took, pulling her little child on her lap in a hug and making soothing noises. Much of the car gave out a barely audible groan, and a man offered me his seat. For the rest of the ride, people offered seats to others who needed them more.

We take our social cues from the environment we’re in, and that gives both the aggressive and the polite special powers in any shared space. Up front, aggressive usually wins, but over time, persistent politeness will change the situation, and often even the aggressive people calm down.

Explicit is better than implicit

People conflate being explicit with being offensive, cruel, or forceful. At the same time, implicit communication can be seen as courteous, deceptive, or exclusionary. None of these things are categorically true of either. The difference is that implicit communication requires more prior shared knowledge than explicit.

Margaret Barr’s 1955 ballet “Strange Children.” Tons of implicit knowledge here.

Implicitness can be useful, fast, and graceful. Implicit relations are like watching well-practiced dancers perform, but for social rituals. Everyone knows where to step in, and things get done, beautifully the first time.

But not everybody always has all those practiced routines and timings. Which means as communication fails, it should become more explicit, though not in the aggressive sense. There’s no point in punishing people for things they never learned. When a friend of mine who is on the autism spectrum fails to understand some part of social signaling, I simply explain it to them. An explanation can be seen as demeaning, but for people who haven’t worked out all the subrosa going on in a given room, it’s like handing them a decoder ring. The most honest thank yous I’ve ever had weren’t from people whose kids I’ve grabbed out of the street, they were from people who never understood some social convention until I just explained it to them in plain language. To do this, I try to imagine if no one ever told me what that phrase actually meant, or what this thing we use every day looks like. Once I’ve imagined that was me, I explain it to the other me that didn’t know. To be explicit and gentle, both at once, is to point out the handholds of the world to other people. All of us have our moments on the spectrum, when some part of life is baffling, and we need help. Often, politely asking for the help we need can get another person to point out the handholds, as well.

Sometimes, when the situation calls for more implicit knowledge than we have, we don’t belong in that situation. No one belongs on stage their first day dancing.

A Relationship is Not a Competition

Whether a relationship lasts as long as an elevator conversation or a 46-year-long marriage, it has no winners or losers, only participants. Trying to get an upper hand destroys the essence of any relationship, which is communication. It dehumanizes the other person, and becomes a grab for resources. Many people enter into conversations to get what they want, which is fine, but in contemporary life that’s usually achieved by cooperation rather than competition. Being polite, being flexible and willing to change your tone or even your mind creates the possibility of change and cooperation over time. We’ve all been somebody we’d rather not have been, and we’re all hoping to look back from the future and think we’ve learned a lot since what we think right now. We should give that to each other, over time, space, and even Twitter.

One more thing: politeness is not surrender. It is a way of carrying dignity through life, and acknowledging the dignity of others. Politeness is a shared sense of humanity. When I was 17 I moved alone into the territory of a Latino gang, some of whose members had marked me for killing when I was 11. (The background of this is very convoluted, and they weren’t high up in the power structure, so the threat was not as bad as it could have been.) About a week into living there, I found myself surrounded by a circle of Latino men, staring at me blank-faced. I hadn’t yet worked out how to turn on a phone line, but this I knew. I stepped forward to a man slightly older than the others and introduced myself, shaking his hand and smiling. I explained that I’d just moved into the neighborhood, indicated my apartment, and said I’d love to learn more about the area. Everyone’s tension broke into smiling faces. I apologized for my lack of Spanish, but most of them knew English. We chatted for a bit, and I went my way. I never had a problem in that neighborhood, and when I was out on my own, or buried in my teenage melodramas, my neighbors kept an eye on me.

For me the best part of these practices is that I believe them. Being willing to listen to people and empathize with them has given me tremendous hope, love, and optimism for humanity. So much so that people can’t believe that I’m so happy and upbeat about our future, despite being realistic about human violence and oppression. We are, one by one, not so bad, and when we treat each other that well, we are not quite so lost in aggregate, either.

Thank you for reading down here so far, and I hope, with all my heart, that you find it useful.