A few months ago three people told me I had been right about something. Obviously this brought me joy – I do love being right – but it was not all joy, because what I had been right about was bad news for them. I personally felt vindicated. But my friends were in a bad place and I worried for them.
I think that anticipating disaster is part of being a good engineer. You look at the system, you consider what will go wrong, you weigh it up and make a decision: prevent, mitigate, or note and ignore.
Obviously not everyone agrees with me. This line of thinking is what drove me to become an expert in unit testing the kind of code that most people do not test at all.
Which is fine. I don’t think there is One True Way of being an engineer, and I’m sure there are benefits to having optimists around (although I’m not sold on delusional megalomaniacs). But it does mean that I have spent a lot of time predicting, and worrying about disaster, with mixed results.
Some people will listen to you, and you’ll fix it together. And some people will listen, but the decision will be to leave it. Later, you can come back and say “hey you were right this wasn’t really a problem” or they might tell you “yeah I guess we never thought that guy would come back and fix that thing we knew was a terrible decision, and I’m sorry you lost 2 weeks of your life to dealing with it. But his poor decisions won’t be your problem for long because that project is moving and by the way you didn’t get promoted and he did.”
Of course there are people who won’t listen. And when I think about that, I always think about one of my friends. Who complained about something for months. And eventually she decided she couldn’t take it anymore and walked away. And her manager, and his manager, they said, “we had no idea it was so serious, you should have said something.” But she had. They had just ignored it.
As I have failed to walk this line between “passive” and “aggressive”, between “fine” and “dramatic”, and as I have watched my friends do the same, my observation is,
If someone doesn’t want to listen to what you are saying, they will complain about how you are saying it.
This is why tone policing is harmful. Because it derails the conversation – tone over topic. Because it’s victim blaming.
But what deeply offends me about tone policing is that it is inefficient, and demonstrably pointless.
Sometimes I’m told I should be angrier, or more cynical. Sorry – don’t have the energy. Sometimes that I should be nicer, try and “catch more flies with honey” – since when was catching flies the goal?
Look at the vast array of media that people consume and it’s clear that people connect with different things. I never watch violent movies, some people love them. People learn in different ways. I prefer to read, others like to listen. The thing that makes one man say “wow what a bitch” causes another to realise “oh, she’s serious”.
The book The Male Factor is pretty depressing but worth a read on how men perceive things when women communicate. Two key takeaways on this topic are 1) men write off anything they don’t understand as a woman being emotional. 2) around 20% of men are predisposed to react badly to women.
For me, that book was the last thing that liberated me from any need to “be nice”. Since it’s clear that 20% of men will probably never find me nice, then I’m free from the need to try and appease them.
Now I try and approach this stuff in a way that is authentic to me, and I encourage other women to do the same. If someone thinks their strategy is more effective, run with that and prove it. Genuinely, I wish all success.
One of my friends is really feminist now, but as part of his journey to actually understanding he was blocked by multiple feminists, and now he owns that he was being a jerk and deserved it. He didn’t need every woman to be holding his hand and soft-soaping things to eventually get it, because he’s a decent human being and in time he learned.
So yeah… I just can’t find it in me to worry about my tone or any other woman’s tone “alienating men”. Because if they are that easy to alienate, then if not that then something else. And if they are actually – like my friend – learning as they figure it out, then they’ll get there, in time. They don’t need me to hold their hand. And frankly, I have better things to do.