Messaging in Divided Times: Lessons from that Basecamp Post
Like a lot of my friends in tech circles, I watched with curiosity, then shock, as more than a third of Basecamp employees quit the company after Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson announced policy changes.
I glanced at Fried’s initial post when he published it and, to be fully honest, I thought it was well-written and reasoned. He’s a great writer and communicator, and I thought they’d averted a crisis.
My goodness was I wrong.
So I decided to go back and re-read Fried’s initial blog post —but this time with my speechwriter lens back on.
I was completely floored by this second reading. The post’s overall tone — and underlying messages — were much harsher than I first perceived.
There were lots of small details — wording, reference, and tone — that could’ve gone over badly with readers, consciously and unconsciously.
And this is worth considering for anyone who needs to craft careful prose in divided times. The little details really, really matter.
Let’s take a deeper look at Fried’s original post.
The whole first part is an exercise in framing
This is how Fried began his post:
At Basecamp, we treat our company as a product. It’s not a rigid thing that exists, it’s a flexible, malleable idea that evolves. We aren’t stuck with what we have, we can create what we want. Just as we improve products through iteration, we iterate on our company too.
Why frame “the company” as “a product”? It’s obvious: Basecamp is probably full of product people. And if they can agree on anything, it’s that products change — they’re flexible and malleable.
So if people could agree that company = product, then they should be prepared for change.
With this established, Fried then reframed “major change”:
Recently, we’ve made some internal company changes, which, taken in total, collectively feel like a full version change. It deserves an announcement.
Following the product analogy, the changes he would announce amount to a “full version change”.
But you notice how much distance he’s putting between company changes and version change: “, which, taken in total, collectively feel like…”
A surer way of saying it would be: This is a full version change. But he had to use a bunch of words in-between to soften the impact. He KNEW that what was coming would be hard.
A puzzling quote from Huxley
Before he announced the actual changes, he quoted Aldous Huxley:
As Huxley offers in The Doors of Perception, “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.”
And he added his interpretation of the quote: Heavy, yes, but insightful, absolutely. A relevant reminder. We make individual choices.
This is a pretty puzzling quote, if you think about it.
If his goal was to persuade everyone at Basecamp to accept the new changes, why use this quote? Wouldn’t it have been better to:
- Quote someone his readers all admired
- Who had to make a decision that was difficult, unpopular, and RIGHT
- And his readers agreed the decision was right
But Fried chose a quote about solitude. About making decisions alone. It seems like he was ready for what’s coming. He knew they’d be suffering the consequences alone.
Another possibility, given reports that came out later, is that he’d already been under tremendous pressure within the company, and that the quote was a way to communicate his feelings. It was an outlet.
The changes themselves were written in a blunt and definitive way
The five policy changes all began with NO MORE.
If that wasn’t enough to convey the tone, look at the language Fried used to announce the first change:
It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well. And we’re done with it on our company Basecamp account where the work happens.
Compare that against the “which, taken in total, collectively feel like…” above, and this is entirely different: a series of short, definitive phrases that lead up to a hard conclusion.
We are done with it ALL.
Other lines later on had no modifiers to soften their impact either:
- We’re done with 360s, too
- We are not a social impact company
- They’re not our topics at work
Fried was being very clear: it’s where Basecamp is going, and there’s no coming back.
Us vs. Them
Sometimes, the most telling words in a piece of writing isn’t the nouns, verbs, or adjectives. It’s the pronouns.
On Biden’s recent 100 day address, CNN noted that Biden kept saying “We” rather than the “I” that Trump preferred. And that represented a significant shift in governing style.
I also noticed something interesting in Fried’s use of pronouns.
Here’s how he talked about those who found political & social topics stressful:
You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.
He addressed them by YOU. And I assume these were people who agreed with his decision to keep social/political discussions separate from work.
What about the impact of social/political conversations on people? He wrote:
It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.
Now, what about people who wanted to continue talking about social and political issues — who would object to the change?
Employees are free to take up whatever cause they want, support whatever movements they’d like, and speak out on whatever horrible injustices are being perpetrated on this group or that (and, unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from). But that’s their business, not ours.
That’s right: THEY.
Re-reading the post, it’s like Fried already drew a line in the sand. This is what WE want, what WE are going to do. THEY can do what they’d like, away from the company. That’s THEIR business, not ours.
If you think I’m being harsh on Fried and Heinemeier Hansson, I’m not trying to be. I don’t know them, and I don’t use Basecamp. I live in Taiwan, where people are blithely oblivious to these issues.
I’m only interested in the language they use to communicate a sensitive issue, at a sensitive time.
And what I found, on second reading, was a bunch of little things that probably didn’t help mollify readers who disagreed with them.
As a speechwriter to political and corporate leaders for over ten years, I can tell you that…
Tiny wording and subtle tone can make a difference.
If you find yourself in a situation of divided sentiments and hurt feelings, and still would like to bring everyone onto the same page…
Pay close attention to your use of pronouns
- Avoid using “we vs. you”, or “us vs. them”.
- Just use “we” to talk about pursuit of common goals.
In Heinemeier Hansson’s much milder follow up post (I’m guessing they’d gotten considerable backlash by then), note his use of pronouns:
We encourage you to continue these difficult discussions with willing colleagues on other systems. Signal is an excellent choice that provides end-to-end encryption and group support…
We also encouraged you to exercise your right to activism and political engagement outside of work. It’s none of Basecamp’s business how or whether you choose to spend your time, money, or voice to support charities, causes, or political action groups.
By the way, if you find yourself using “I” and “they” a lot, it’s also a sign that you’ve been too wrapped up in your own position and feelings. In this case, rewriting won’t help you — you should spend more time getting familiar with what the other side is thinking and feeling.
Don’t use short and blunt phrases to convey your position. Consider going with positive framing
If you’re done discussing, then sure, short and blunt phrases are just right — don’t mislead people into thinking there’s still room to talk.
But if you still hope to bridge divides, consider going with a more positive framing.
- Not: “No more discussing politics in the work channel”
- But: “We hope you continue to talk about important societal and political issues, and we’re opening a dedicated space & time for this…”
*The point here is positive framing, not the measure itself. They’re 100x the managers I am, so I’m sure they considered all the options.
But do use short and blunt phrasing to convey their feelings
You should feel free to go direct and blunt, however, to recap the other side’s feelings:
- You’re angry
- You’re upset
- You want to walk away
When you do this, your words stop adding pressure to the other side’s emotional cooker — it releases pressure instead.
Now, would these wording and phrasing changes have averted a crisis? Probably not. We shouldn’t be that naive.
But do I think that starting with tougher words and tone (in Fried’s post) rather than the milder version (in Heinemeier Hansson’s post) made a difference?
Absolutely I do.