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Why I'm (not) an Asshole

Dave Cridland
Open source and open standards for mission-critical code.
・3 min read

There's been a few "heated" comment threads here recently, where people are - apparently - trading insults and claiming that this is "just how they are", and that they claim some right to be an asshole because to have anyone else require otherwise is some kind of Orwellian totalitarianism. It's an excellent use of Godwin's law, and for that alone they have my respect.

Now, here's the thing. I am quite capable of being an asshole. I've had training, over many years of old-school Internet flamewars. I have a thick skin, asbestos underpants, and a decent command of a wide range of insults. Moreover, I've been in this game long enough that I've accrued plenty of experience in things technical, so I generally know what I'm talking about.

In fact, let's face it, I am a consummate asshole. I have to work at not being one, and it's frankly not easy. Being an asshole comes naturally to me. It's a gift. But I've understood, over the years, that I while I have many rights, including freedom of expression, it's much more effective not to be an asshole. I don't do this because I kowtow to some nefarious Big Brother Ben Halpern, even if it is his site, and I suppose he can make the rules. I do it because it gets better results.

This is difficult when that target of my ire is, indeed, flat out wrong. I mean, what were they thinking? Do they even ... Well, do they even? Clearly, they are complete idiots. But - much to my irritation - they often turn out not to be, when approached with mind-numbingly boring politeness. Yeah, they're still wrong. But when I query them calmly, and explain why I think they "might" be in error, it's amazing how often they revisit their statements. Yes, I do mean that they're not idiots only because they realise I'm right. I did say I was an asshole.

I mean, it'd be a hell of a lot more fun to unleash my inner asshole and really flame them to oblivion. There's no doubt they deserve it. But then I wouldn't get the same reaction. I know, because I know what I'd do.

When someone's an asshole to me - and as I say, this has happened many times over the years - I ensure they do not win. Even if they may have a point. Even if, let's face it, they're right and I'm wrong. And that's human nature - I can just about accept I may be wrong. Sometimes, I mean. And it's not often, okay? But I will never accept it - and certainly not admit it - if that asshole is right. I mean, no way am I giving him (and it's always him) the satisfaction.

And sure, I accept that these other idiots - the people who get everything wrong, and I mean all the time - probably feel the same way. And it's my duty - as someone who is right (pretty much) all the time - to help these idiots see the error of their ways, right? So if it's more effective to tell them nicely, and to lead them toward the truth in kind and gentle steps, shouldn't I do it that way?

So, yeah. I'll pretend to be a "Nice Guy", if I really have to. And if this means everyone ultimately accepts how I'm right all the time, and they're clearly so desperately fucking wrong, isn't that a win for me? Um... I mean, our community?

Discussion (6)

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kwiesmueller profile image
Kevin Wiesmüller

I completely saw my self in your post...
Wow.
I am involved in some communities and mostly around younger, less experienced developers there who I hope to help and teach. I love it, as I learnt all I know by myself and through people telling me, it's a way for me to giving that back.

Still... I most of the time see my self being right in discussions and through experience and knowledge easily invalidating most technical arguments. This way I (obviously) raise the view of being an asshole, arrogant and nothing one should like.
I try really not to, but I see it as my duty to opose wrongness and therefore I can't stop.
Yes people respond much different when writing politely, what I tend to do out of respect, but the fact of me (knowing) being right most of the time does not change the impression I leave (despite the fact that I am)...

I really hate this. I even know it's arrogance but to me the only other solution would be if ignorance on my end which I hate even more, so I have to live with it, I guess. Even worse, those young people (14-21) not always got the most objective way of discussing technical or professional facts/topics. That makes it really hard for me.
Recently some of them even started to opose almost everything I say and do just to opose "the almighty"... While I love and won't stop trying to help people on their way of getting good developers, it makes what I love really hard most of the time during the last few months.
I am out of ideas and while I know my own mistakes there is yet a solution to be found.

Thanks for writing your article. It helps to see that others are having a... Hard time I guess... With not being an asshole too 😅

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dwd profile image
Dave Cridland Author

I was, it must be said, writing somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I know it's hard to criticise someone without it putting the receiver on the defensive, and I know it's the giver of that criticism that has to work on that - it's just human nature that an aggressive attack on one's opinions is going to harden those opinions.

It's a simple matter of empathy - if you ensure someone can empathise with you, you'll get them to see your point of view much more easily. Me, I find the Aristotelian method generally works best - asking the "student" questions so they figure out the answers on their own. Often, their answers give you insight into how and why they went wrong - and therefore what's wrong with your teaching. Sometimes they'll give you answers you hadn't thought of at all.

I'm pretty sure you're no more an an asshole than I am - but I'm also sure you've had the same struggle trying to give - and receive - criticism.

But I have encountered, and indeed worked with, too many people who think that they have some kind of right to be aggressively arrogant. Maybe they even do, but it doesn't actually help. There are a few people around in the community - Linus Torvalds is one - who are deeply obnoxious, but also astoundingly smart. People think one makes up for the other, but it really doesn't. Linus has lost good people - really good people - from the Linux kernel community simply because he's an asshole. He probably doesn't care, which of course just makes it worse.

In a previous job, I worked with a guy who was, undoubtedly, really smart - but he made my work life increasingly intolerable by his sheer arrogance and inability to work with people in a useful way. I tried to make things work, I tried raising it with the boss when it didn't, and all to no avail - some people, I was told, are just like that. Eventually I had to leave what was otherwise a great role in a great company. The guy was removed from the team and set to work on his own after a couple more years - it seems others shared my view eventually.

So yeah, assholes are horrible people. They're horrible to work with. And any amount of technical brilliance doesn't alter that very simple fact.

But the crazy thing is that being an asshole gains nobody anything. It's not a logical option, and it leads to no long term gains. If these people are so damn smart, you'd think they'd figure that out.

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zenmumbler profile image
zenmumbler

The classic "How to win friends and influence people" — written by a marketer hence the click-baity title (about 60 years before most people would be clicking on anything at all) — is still a great resource about this and related matters. The book really is all about empathising with others, trying not to "be right" etc. I encourage everyone to give it a read, no matter what level of assholishness you feel you exhibit.

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dwd profile image
Dave Cridland Author

Yup, I have a copy on my bookshelf. Good old Dale even changed his surname for marketing reasons.

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pmcgowan profile image
p-mcgowan

It's incredibly satisfying to join someone's level and beat them there, and for the longest time I thought that was the best approach - and I won't lie, with certain people it's more-or-less innevitable.

However, one thing I've always been impressed with, and which turns out to be even more satisfying (not to mention significantly more challenging) is to diplomatically de-escalate those kinds of interactions. It would always amaze me when watching somebody so calmly and systematically engage in a toxic conversation, and eventually have the other person even admit they were in the wrong (who'da thunk it possible). Personally, I think every interaction is a chance to learn and grow as a social being, as I happen to thoroughly enjoy being a cave troll, however it sure doesn't help when can't avoid "the others".

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dougaws profile image
Doug

There's also the Dunning–Kruger effect, where (I'm paraphrasing) the dumber you are, the more likely you are to think you are smart.

Another meme I read somewhere: "It annoys the hell out of those who know it all to be around people who think they know it all".

Ad nauseam...