Jesse Jiryu Davis: Why generosity turns to rage, and what to do about it

published Oct 19, 2017

Keynote talk by Jesse Jiryu Davis at the Plone Conference 2017 in Barcelona.

Symbol of generosity for us in the United States is Santa Claus. He distributes gifts for free in the evening before Christmas. Now there is something called SantaCon, where young men go around dressed as Santa and get drunk.

I saw a young Santa who was asked for money by a homeless man in a wheel chair. He gave five dollar. The homeless man did not say thank you. Maybe he was just tired. But then the Santa got enraged, demanding that the man thank him. So here we see power in action. Not a pretty sight. How does that happen.

A new colleague of mine at MongoDB asked me about something. I said it was going to be in the next release, and thought that would finish the conversation. Then he asked me to make more effort: what is the ticket number. For some reason this angered me, and I answered: 'I memorised all ticket numbers, it is 12345.' Then he came back at me: 'Are you sure? I cannot find that ticket.' I regretted my answer.

It is not okay to get mad and lash out at people because they make us angry.

On StackOverflow Python is projected to become the most popular language next year. I think one of the reasons is that we are an inclusive community. We try to be nice to new users. But we are not as welcoming as we could be. I searched for rude answers on StackOverflow and it was not hard to find.

  • Question: 'How to I convert GIF to PNG in Python?'
  • Answer: 'Just Google it, you are lazy.'

That is not a good answer. It hurts our community, because it drives people out.

Why do we do this? There cam be several reasons:

  • We are generous, but get no reward, like the bad Santa.
  • Unexpected difficulty: I give an answer, and then the person does not understand me and asks a followup question, and suddenly I am facing more trouble than I want.
  • Sense of obligation. We sense we need to give some kind of answer, so we give a rude one.

If I get a promotion, or delete ten emails, it gives temporary satisfaction, but does not really make me more satisfied in the long run. I got a lazy (in my eyes) comment on a Python video that took long to make, and I got angry. I have learned to not make a rude remark. Instead I closed the browser tab. That is the easy way.

When faced with a question, ask yourself: am I angry?

  • Yes, I am angry. Walk away. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
  • Yes, I am angry, but what is my intention? My job may be to answer questions. I may want to take good care of my code, or nurture the next generation of programmers. Thinking about that, am I still angry?
  • No. Start your answer with: 'Good question!' Even if it was not really a good question at all. It makes you and the other feel good.
  • Is it complete? You are done.
  • No, the person asks a followup question. Go back to the first step: am I angry?

Take the 3-breath vow: "I vow to take 3 breaths before I answer a question online."