2006-12-19

Why "If you can't say anything nice ..." hurts development

Come on now, admit it. Your mom/dad told you at some point "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." The thing is, neither had any idea how detrimental this philosophy is to the real world. While I will focus on the harm it causes the development community, you could extend my ideas to any thread of social interaction.

Basically, there are two main reasons why I feel mom/dad should have received a lecture after stating that gem:

1) It instills a mindset into the recipient that speaking your mind is not welcomed in the world.

2) This mindset further expands itself within the recipient so they are no longer able to receive (and act upon) "hostile" criticism.

Let's examine further...

Words have an everlasting effect on children -- it scares me how quickly my 6 y/o daughter repeats things I didn't mean to say. In addition, endless studies (which I won't take the time to quote) have pointed out a correlation between verbal abuse and self-esteem. The contrapositive of that is also true, positive reinforcing words instill wonderful feelings within their recipient.

Because of this everlasting effect, simple phrases become absorbed deep into subconscious behavior and alter a person's persona. Now knowing that, let's rethink what that glorious phrase really means to a child -- I'm not allowed to say anything that isn't nice.

The worst example of this tends to happen to extremely introverted people that hide behind the "No one cares what I think anyway" phrase. Sadly, this travesty of justice keeps these people from reporting problems they see, solutions they've conceived, ideas they've dreamed up, and a whole slew of other items that can help a project achieve its goal.

Some people will say something that isn't nice but feel the pressure to employ that wonderful effect called "sugarcoating" (placing as much "nice" words around a "hard to swallow pill"). I've seen it in plenty of relationships with my users. For example:


Wow, this page is really neat. I like the layout, all the links work, the articles are great. You've really done a good job. However, you misspelled the word "Emmeekaguramookavich" in paragraph 32. Hopefully this will be an easy fix.

Keep up the wonderful work,


Now, for me the above comment has this long drawn out way of asking me to do something. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the appreciation you're showing me, but the first sentence suffices at doing so. As far as how easy a fix would be, don't you think I'm better qualified to answer that? After all, I am going to be implementing it. Finally, are you expecting me to hand you anything but the wonderful acts of work that I create? Not only do these extra words discombobulate the communication effort, I now have to repeatedly skim them over every time I refer to this message for what I need to do. My time is in high demand, so please speed up my ability to help you by not buttering me up.

Then, you get the side of the spectrum where I sit, the one where the person either never heard this advice or (like me) concluded it was full of crap. We're the ones that don't hesitate to blurt out to your face, "This sucks!" and "I wouldn't even feed this to my neighbor's dog." We're also the ones who will then go over every point as to why we came up with our assessment and expect you to fix them. But however, you won't because of my second point.

For example, instead of taking what I said back to your drawing board you'll be labeling me as a jerk because of my "hateful diatribe."

This same thing happened to me at a previous job. I asked a junior developer to create some custom form that would sort by name, allow you to add new ones (and then more importantly resort once they were added/edited). After a week, I got back something that I used and then immediately told him "didn't work" because it didn't do the one thing I wanted (the resorting). When I said these points, he literally called me "rude", turned around, and went back to his desk. Now, I was able to code what I needed by the time he got to his desk, so I didn't push the issue. However, I wonder if my second point about this little phrase was to blame.

Basically, when you grow up in the mind set that "you can't say anything nice," you conclude that there is something wrong with the person saying these "un-nice" words before you actually listen to what he/she is saying. You can see examples on many Internet based threads. The typical pattern is this. User1 says "this module sucks because it doesn't do blah which I really need." This thread will then quickly fill up with replies stating how User1 is a "n00b", "Id10t", how they should "use something that has blah", "code it", "be happy with what they have," etc. While it is amazing that these same people lash out using such un-niceities, the fact remains that until someone comes along that can accept such criticism (and possess the resources to add blah), blah never gets added to this module. The module is further hindered because many of the developers that do have the resources to add blah are probably turned away from working on it because of the aura that now surrounds its request.

It's getting late and I need to wrap up so I'll finish here and ask that "if you can't say anything nice, shout it loudly!"

93 comments:

Anonymous said...

See this for another take on the communication problem

Anonymous said...

That comment on tact really nailed it.

Also in Canada (or BC perhaps) we have a similar thing that drives me (orig. from England) nuts. Everyone is so polite and tolerant - and the end result is that since most people will accept rude behaviour from other people, you just end up with some jerks who go around getting away with things.

Eg. a woman asks to sit at my table in a busy cafe, but I'm waiting for my friends, so I decline - therefore, in her mind, I'm being rude (she wrote to the local paper about it!)... because she's started with base assumptions about what others should do, without realising that she's a jerk.

Rod Lovett said...

You're a complete fucking idiot.

Anonymous said...

People respond to things in a predictable way if you get to know them a bit. Learn some social skills, and use that sugar-coating (or fury, humor) when necessary. It might be annoying to deal with changing your demeanor and word choice, but you will find people to be more receptive.

In your example I imagine you WERE being rude. It was justified, and he acknowledged your message. If you're a dick for no reason, though, you'll end up getting blocked out.

Anonymous said...

White text on a Black page makes the eyes hurt. I had to disable stylesheets to be able to read this.

Charles said...

That quote works in certain contexts. Especially for children growing up heeding those words can save them from a hellish world of teenage dramatics. Of course getting older, you realize that words are not black and white, and you learn to use discretion with when to speak your mind

Anonymous said...

Why you are an idiot:


1) It instills a mindset into the recipient that speaking your mind is not welcomed in the world.

1) It instills a mindset into the recipient that speaking your mind has power and so, responsability.
You're an irresponsable.


2) This mindset further expands itself within the recipient so they are no longer able to receive (and act upon) "hostile" criticism.

2) This mindset further expands itself within the recipient so they are no longer able to receive irresponsable criticism.

LabThug said...

Wow, thanks for the comments.

"Learn some social skills" Believe me, I have far better social skills than my example's recipient. I've also learned that "actions speak louder than words," and when someone's actions prove to me that they can't do the job, I'm going to tell them that.

"disable stylesheets" Isn't that the beauty of them? I can make the page anyway I like, and you can change it to anyway you like. It's my blog, it'll be the way I like.

"hellish world of teenage dramatics" Funny, most parents use the phrase "They're being nasty because they're jealous" to sum up those days. One of the talkbacks discussed this.

"You're an irresponsable."

I may be, but at least I can spell correctly.

"This mindset further expands itself within the recipient so they are no longer able to receive irresponsable criticism."

Wow, you're actually trying to claim that because something is "irresponsable" it should be ignored? Jeez, bad spelling is the least of your concern.

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Anonymous said...

"Words have an everlasting effect on children -- it scares me how quickly my 6 y/o daughter repeats things I didn't mean to say. In addition, endless studies (which I won't take the time to quote) have pointed out a correlation between verbal abuse and self-esteem. The contrapositive of that is also true, positive reinforcing words instill wonderful feelings within their recipient.

Because of this everlasting effect, simple phrases become absorbed deep into subconscious behavior and alter a person's persona. Now knowing that, let's rethink what that glorious phrase really means to a child -- I'm not allowed to say anything that isn't nice."

This seems to be untrue in light of research in the field of developmental genetics. Read some of Judith Rich Harris's work, especially.

Also, may I suggest that all of your complaints would be solved if you started with the constructive parts of criticism, rather than the absolute? If you told the guy "This doesn't have the function I wanted it to have, or it doesn't work -- come look" instead of, "This sucks", it might have made all the difference, and I fail to see how the former is anymore "sugar-coating" than the latter.

Saying things in an acceptable way without sugar-coating to make your message saccharine-sweet or abrasive and angry is exactly what counts as "good social skills", wouldn't you agree?

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