This is the first post in a two-part series.Creative Commons-licensed image by David Swayze
"Be your entire self at work." You might hear these words during orientation at a new job, if you work for the kind of company that prides itself on its open, informal culture -- a software company in Silicon Valley, perhaps. When you hear that everybody is free to be their entire self at your workplace, do you hear a promise or a threat?
"You're allowed to bring your whole self to work" should be true by default; in an ideal world, it wouldn't need to be said. Repressing essential aspects of your personality is an energy-sapping distraction. At the same time, it's such a broad statement that it denotes nothing -- so we have to ask what it connotes. When your boss (or your boss's boss's boss, or someone acting on that person's behalf) grants you permission to bring your whole self to work, what's the subtext?
Here's another thing you might hear tech people say that's so vague as to be tautological: "We don't need a code of conduct, because all we need to do is be excellent to each other or say 'don't be a dick.'" The tautological part is "don't be a dick", which is an anti-pattern when used as a substitute for clear community expectations. Nobody could reasonably argue against the value of being excellent to other people or in favor of being a dick. As with "be yourself", the vacuity of "don't be a dick" suggests the need to ask what it really means when someone says the only rule we need is "don't be a dick" (or its relative "be excellent to each other".)
"Be yourself" and "don't be a dick" share at least three problems.
- Unequal distribution of risk: If you're trans, neuroatypical, queer, or poly, you're probably familiar with the risks of disclosing important parts of your life. In the absence of evidence that it's actually safe to be yourself at work, telling people "be yourself" is a request to trust everyone to respond appropriately to you being yourself. That's a lot to ask somebody who is brand-new to a group. Is there a way to show newcomers that it's safe to be who you are here, rather than telling them?
- Unwritten expectations: "Don't be a dick", when accompanied by unwillingness to codify your community's norms (such as in a written document like a code of conduct), is a request to trust everyone to not be a dick. When norms are codified, you don't have to trust everyone to not be a dick: the document doesn't prevent anyone from being a dick, but it provides a basis for increased trust that if someone is a dick, they will be discouraged from future dickishness and, in the case of repeat offenders, potentially be excluded from interaction.
- Unhelpful balancing of different goals: Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" (the latter with its implication that you're free to do whatever you want as long as you don't think you're being a dick about it) reflect on apparently arbitrary weighting of personal freedom as more important than fairness.
Different people perceive a statement like "be yourself" differently -- and the same person might perceive it differently depending on who's saying it -- because different people have different levels of trust in each other. Trust is political: marginalized people manage risk in different ways than people in dominant groups, and the more marginalized groups you're in, the subtler it becomes. Likewise, written community norms benefit newcomers and marginalized people, while unwritten norms (such as the ones implied by "don't be a dick" serve to maintain in-group homogeneity. If people who say "don't be a dick" want to keep their communities uniform, it would behoove them to at least say so.
The assumption that mutual trust already exists may lead you to conclude that we'll be equal when everyone gets to act exactly the way they want. But marginalized people have legitimate reasons not to trust people in groups that dominate them -- namely, past experiences. Trust has to be earned; one way to establish it is by being explicit about expectations.
In computer systems, sometimes we use the terms "pulling a thread" or "thread pulling" for the process of finding the root cause of a problem in a complex system, which is often hidden beneath many layers of abstraction. At the same time, sometimes what seems to be a minor problem as observed from the outside can signify deeply rooted flaws in a system, the way that pulling on a loose thread in a knitted garment can unravel the whole thing. In this essay, I want to pull a cultural thread and examine the roots of the assumptions that underlie statements like "just be yourself." Just as problems in large, distributed computer systems often have causes that aren't obvious, the same is true for social problems. While you don't have to agree with my analysis, I hope you agree with me that it's worth asking questions about why people say things that appear to be trivial or obviously true at first glance.
The Risks of Disclosure
Personal disclosure can be risky, and those risks are distributed unevenly through the population. Here are some examples of what can happen when you do
take the risk of being your entire self at work -- or anywhere, for that matter, but any of these reactions are more concerning when they happen in the place where you earn your livelihood, and when they're coming from people who can stop you from making a living.
- Mentioning your membership in a sexual minority group can make other people uncomfortable in the extreme. You could reasonably debate whether that ought to be true when it comes to talking about kinks, but even mentioning that you're gay or trans can become cause for sexual harassment accusations. You say your company isn't like that? Will someone who's experienced this at a previous employer believe you?
- If you talk about having PTSD, or ADD/ADHD, or being on the autism spectrum, you may be told "don't label yourself, just live!" To not label yourself -- to not seek solidarity and common ground with others who share your life experiences -- is tantamount to not organizing, not being political, not taking power. Maybe you don't want to be told this for the nth time. (Of course, you also risk retaliation by managers or co-workers who may not be thrilled about having disabled or neuroatypical employees or co-workers.)
- If you disclose that you are trans, you are likely to be misgendered in the future (or worse).
- If you mention a chronic illness, people are likely to provide unsolicited and unhelpful advice; dealing with their reactions when you say so can be draining, and smiling and nodding can be draining too.
More broadly, disclosing mental health or sexual/gender minority status (as well as, no doubt, many other identities) means managing other people's discomfort and fielding intrusive questions. Maybe it's easier to not disclose those issues, even if it means letting people think you're someone you aren't. And in some cases, disclosure might just not be worth the discomfort it causes to others. Am I being less real when I keep certain aspects of myself private in the interest of social harmony? Does thinking about how others will feel about what I say make me less authentic? Does being real amount to narcissism?
There are always
boundaries to what we reveal about ourselves in non-intimate settings: it's why we wear clothes. Telling people to be authentic obscures where those boundaries are rather than clarifying them. And what does "be who you are" or "be your entire self" mean, anyway? Every person I know gets to see a different side of me. Which one is the real me? Is the person I am when I'm with my closest friend more like the real me than who I am at work, or is it just different? The idea that everybody has a single true self rather than multiple selves of equal status is just a way in which some people formulate their identities, not a universal truth.
I think part of the origin of "be your entire self" rhetoric lies in the imperative -- popular among some cis gay and lesbian people and their allies -- to implore all queer people to come out of the closet. Being open about your identity, they say, is essential to helping queer people gain acceptance. There are a lot of problems with coming-out as a categorical imperative. One of them is that closets are safe, and it's easy to sneer at others' desire for safety when you yourself are safe and secure.
I think "be your entire self" comes from the same place as "everyone should come out." Both statements can be made with good intentions, but also, necessarily, naïve ones.
Unwritten Expectations Impede Trust
"Be yourself" may seem harmless, if trite, but I hope I've shown that it relies on assumptions that are problematic at best. It can also conceal failure to make social expectations clear. Unwritten expectations often serve to exclude people socially, since fear of violating rules you don't know can be a reason to avoid entering an unfamiliar space. When that fear means not applying for a job, or not participating in a community of practice that would benefit from your participation and help you grow as a professional, it has concrete consequences in marginalized people's lives.
"As a reviewer of code, please strive to keep things civil and focused on the technical issues involved. We are all humans, and frustrations can be high on both sides of the process. Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other."
-- Linux kernel "Code of Conflict"
When you refuse to say what your community's standards for acceptable behavior are, you're not saying that your community has no standards. You're just saying you're not willing to say what they are. When Linus Torvalds says "be excellent to each other", what do people hear? If you're someone socially similar to him, maybe you hear that the kernel community is a safe place for you. If you're someone who has been historically excluded from tech culture, you might hear something different. You might ask yourself: "Why should I trust you to be excellent to me? What's more, how do I know I can trust everyone
in this group to be excellent to me, much less trust that everyone's definition of 'excellent' is compatible with my well-being?"
When you say the only rule is "don't be a dick", or implore people to be themselves, or tell people they don't need to put on a suit to work at your company, what you're really saying is "trust me!" Trust everyone in the group not to be a dick, in the first case. Trust everyone not to judge or belittle you, in the second. Trust them to judge you for who you are and not on what you're wearing, in the third case. When somebody says "trust me!" and your gut feeling is that you shouldn't trust them, that's already a sign you don't belong. It's a grunch
. It's a reminder that you don't experience the automatic trust that this person or group seems to expect. Does everybody else experience it? Are you the only distrustful one? Is there something wrong with you, or is your mistrust warranted based on your past experiences? Asking yourself those questions takes up time.
Freedom and Equality
Sometimes, freedoms conflict, which is why freedom is just one value that has to be balanced with others, not an absolute. If your freedom of expression prevents me from being at the table, or making a living, or even beginning to realize my potential at all, then your freedom limits mine and the solution involves considering both of our interests, not concluding in the name of "freedom" that you should be able to exclude me. Inequality isn't compatible with freedom, and boosting your "freedom" at my expense is inherently unfair and unequal.
The bridge between freedom and equality is trust. People who trust each other can be who they are while trusting other people to call them out on it if being who they are infringes on other people's well-being. Likewise, people who trust each other will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good faith when conflicts happen. But in the absence of trust, freedom won't naturally lead to equality, because marginalized people will (rightly) assume that the power dynamics they're used to are still operating, while less-marginalized people will assume that they are free to keep recreating those power dynamics.
In tech, there's a certain kind of person who often champions "freedom" at the expense of others' safety.
"...if you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested. I’m sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords." -- Linus Torvalds, as quoted by Elise Ackerman
There's a lot to unpack in this quote; in it, Torvalds exemplifies a tendency among programmers, especially privileged male programmers, to use having to wear a suit or tie as a proxy for the forms of oppression they fear if their (e.g.) open-source project adopts norms about respect which they associate with big companies that produce proprietary software. Torvalds and his ilk might express contempt for the notion of a "safe space", but they actually care a lot about safe spaces: they want spaces in which it's safe for them
to wear their bathrobes and swear. They're afraid that creating a space that's safe for every open-source contributor, not just white cis men in bathrobes, might threaten their own
If having to wear a suit is the worst limitation on your life you can imagine, maybe it's time to take a step back and consider the experiences of people with less privilege. In fact, standardized expectations about dress can be helpful, at least when they aren't based on binary gender. Replacing "everyone has to wear a suit" with "only people in T-shirts and jeans will be taken seriously" doesn't fundamentally reduce the degree to which people get judged on their appearance rather than their abilities -- it just replaces one limiting dress code with another. And maybe suits aren't really that limiting. Uniforms can have an equalizing function. I'm not a particular fan of wearing suits all the time myself, but when abolishing suits doesn't result in the emergence of another sartorial hegemony, it potentially burdens people with decisions that they wouldn't have to make if there weren't clear norms and expectations for dress. As always, there are going
to be expectations. I'm not aware of many companies where going to work naked is encouraged. So if suits aren't encouraged, a whole host of decisions have to happen, and guesses have to be made, about what people will think of you based on your clothing. It's a lot of cognitive load. Maybe sometimes, clear expectations about how to dress help people be equal! Who loses when Torvalds and others like him win the ability to work in their bathrobes? Who loses when Torvalds, apparently unable to conceive of sincere politeness and genuine respect, wins the right not to feign regard for others?
"If telling people to be themselves creates unsafe spaces, how can I let people know my space is safe?", you might ask. I'll try to answer that in part 2.
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