Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

Self-selecting for the thick-skinned means turning away contributors.

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Every so often, usually in the middle of an online argument or flame war, someone will say that the climate of the group has him or her uncomfortable. He’ll say something like “I don’t want to be around all this hostility” or, worst of all, “This makes me not want to get involved.” The reply sometimes comes back “You’re just thin-skinned.”

Labeling someone as “thin-skinned” makes no sense. There is no measure of skin thickness. When someone says “You are thin-skinned,” he’s really saying “You are less willing to put up with anti-social behavior than I am.”

I wonder what the speaker hopes for “You’re just thin-skinned” to do. Is that supposed to inspire the listener? Make him realize the error of his ways? I don’t know what the intent is, but it communicates “You are wrong to feel that way” and that’s hurtful, not helpful. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to put up with anti-social behavior.

None of this is an endorsement of being easily offended, however you may define “easily.” I wish we all had the attitude of Gina Trapani, who once said “I eat your sexist comments for breakfast. YUM.” But not everyone does, and that’s no reason to shut them out. Yes, online communities can get hostile, but that doesn’t mean we need to tacitly endorse that hostility. We can do better, and we should, to help our communities grow and thrive.

Aside from ignoring the aspect of treating other humans with compassion, it makes no sense to ignore or insult those you see as thin-skinned. Ricardo Signes recalled a lightning talk at OSCON 2011 where someone noted “When we say that this community requires a thick skin, it means we’re self-selecting for only people with thick skin.”

Self-selecting for the thick-skinned means turning away contributors. If you were running a restaurant, and a customer said “I like the food here, but my waiter was rude to me,” the sensible restaurateur would take this as an opportunity for improvement. You’d thank the patron for bringing it to your attention. You wouldn’t say “Well, that’s just the way it is here” or “You’re just too sensitive.” The wise restaurateur would see it as an opportunity for improvement.

There’s an adage in business that for every customer complaint you get, there are between ten to 100 other dissatisfied customers that don’t say anything and go somewhere else. This is especially so in the case of those tarred as “thin-skinned” by someone in the community. For every person who speaks up and says “I don’t like this hostility”, how many more unsubscribe from the list, leave the IRC channel or vow not to come back to the user group meeting again, all without saying a word about it?

In online communities, we’re not dealing with an owner-customer relationship, but nonetheless contributors to the community are a scarce commodity. A business owner can’t afford to turn away customers. Is your online community or open source project so flush with talent that you can turn away contributors?

2 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s annoying enough to have to put up with overbearing types at work. I’m certainly not going to put up with the same behaviour when my participation is optional. I’ll simply and silently walk away.

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