Up to Interpretation

Assuming Stupidity

We’ve all heard of the term mansplaining—when a man condescendingly explains something to a person, often female, who already knows it. It’s quite terrible and unfortunately too common on tech.

While I don’t want to discredit the phenomenon of mansplaining, what I’ve noticed is that this situation of a person assuming another person’s stupidity and using it to condescend or treat them badly is far more common than just the cases of mansplaining. Especially in tech.

This condescension and rudeness stems from an assumption of stupidity. These assumers (or “asses” for short) often cite times where they assumed the opposite, namely that a person was competent, and paid the resulting price for it. Maybe a junior developer wrote some awful code that crashed the server. Maybe somebody deleted a prod database. “I just can’t trust people” they claim.

However the opposite of assuming competence is not to assume stupidity. The opposite of assuming competence is to be skeptical. However not a rude, aggressive skepticism, but a friendly, polite, but thorough skepticism.

Let’s give some examples.

Junior Dev Hey, how do I write to prod?

Assuming Alex Oh no no no, never write to prod. That’s a terrible idea.

Junior Dev Okay, well I need to run my code on a server. What should I do?

Assuming Alex You’ll need to work on the staging environment. For that, you’ll need SSH keys, which you’ll need to generate using your terminal. You can open your—

Junior Dev —oh yeah I’ve used ter

Assuming Alex —terminal by going to Applications and double clicking on Terminal. Then you’ll need to generate your keys—

Junior Dev Uh huh, I already did that. I’ve sshing into servers since I was 15

Assuming Alex SSH is how we connect to servers. You can write commands on SSH like ls.

Junior Dev Buddy I wrote a terminal in class

<15 minutes of condescending explaining later>

Assuming Alex And that’s how you SSH into a terminal

Junior Dev Great…. Damn that took forever. Not talking to him again

There’s a few mistakes here. The first is when Alex responds to the junior dev’s request to write to prod with horror. Sure, it’s not a great idea, but acting in such a dramatic fashion just makes the junior dev feel stupid. The second mistake Alex makes is not asking any questions. Alex is spitting out information without any context on the junior dev’s knowledge or the project’s current state. Not only is this advice given from a place of ignorance, as we can see from the junior dev’s attempts at interjections, it’s knowledge the junior dev already has.

What would a healthier conversation look like? Let’s give it a try.

Junior Dev Hey, how do I write to prod?

Skeptical Sarah Hmm, why do you want to write to prod?

Junior Dev Oh well I can’t process this data locally because it’s too big.

Skeptical Sarah Ah, that makes sense. How about we work on the staging environment instead. Are you familiar with staging environments?

Junior Dev Yeah, sure…

Skeptical Sarah Just to double check, could you give me a quick explanation of them?

Junior Dev Hmm, well, erm, they’re environments that stage stuff?

Skeptical Sarah Close! They’re environments that mirror prod as closely as possible which allow us to test code meticulously before we deploy for real.

Junior Dev Huh, okay. Thanks for that!

SS Now to connect to the staging server, you’ll need SSH keys. Are you familiar with SSH?

JD Yep! I’ve had to SSH into servers for class.

SS Great! Could you send me your public key? If you need help with that, feel free to ping me again.

JD Sounds good!

With this conversation, Sarah manages to dissect why the junior dev wants to write to prod, offer a solution and most importantly do it without being a jerk. When Sarah senses that the junior dev doesn’t know something, she doesn’t just vomit out info, but instead nudges the junior dev towards the right path.

Some may argue that the junior dev may not actually know how SSH keys work and mess up, maybe send Sarah their private key. Sure, but messing up is part of the process. It’s not the end of the world if Sarah ends up with the junior dev’s private key, but the junior dev learns a valuable lesson in the process. Also, because Sarah was nice and approachable, the junior dev is much more likely to approach her again and ask for help if they get stuck on their SSH keys.

Why does this matter? For one it’s always good to not be a jerk. But also assuming stupidity makes people less likely to ask you questions. They’ll see you as a person who at best wastes their time with lengthy explanations and at worst is mean to them. And lack of communication creates the precise problems that an assumption of stupidity seeks to prevent in the first place. Stupidity also obscures the true root cause of a potential issue. When Alex assumed the junior dev was just stupid for asking for prod access, he missed a potentially crucial bit of information by not asking why the junior dev wanted prod access. Perhaps the junior dev has a valid reason. Perhaps there’s an underlying issue that needs to be fixed. Maybe, upon hearing that the junior dev was having trouble processing the data locally, Alex could have advised a better alternative, like smaller batches of data. But by assuming stupidity, Alex was unable to discover the root cause of the intern’s problem.

TL;DR: Being an asshole to get a point across is an inherently contradictory idea; the act of being an asshole inherently hampers communication.