Avoiding arrogance, again

The past few weeks I’ve noticed that I have a bias in my interaction with other people, especially other developers, that is probably not doing me favors or winning me friends: I really judge people when they misuse technical vocabulary.

Because it’s the 21st century, of course, when I notice a negative personality quirk in myself, my immediate reaction is to tell strangers on the Internet. And maybe we will learn something along the way.

Now, I’ve always had, and at least sort of known about, a mental heuristic in favor of well-used technical terms: If I’m talking to someone about stats, and they start to tell me something is “statistically significant,” but they really just mean “important and interesting,” I begin to doubt their knowledge of statistics. Fair enough. The reason I am suddenly blogging about this heuristic and calling it a bias is because it think it’s starting to have a high false-positive rate. And, of course, a heuristic for guessing whether other people know what they’re talking about that’s beginning to reject other people’s thoughts pretty frequently is just another name for turning arrogant in my middle age, so let I’d like to pick the experience apart and see if I can’t learn to stop it.

I noticed the other day when I was listening to .NET Rocks, a favorite programming podcast, and one of the guests didn’t think of the name of the adapter pattern in time. He stumbled around for a second, and then explained the pattern perfectly well and went on with his talk. And I actually caught myself thinking, “ha! I guess that guy should go review his technical vocabulary” (or something equally uncharitable) before I caught myself. This guest is a veteran, accomplished engineer being interviewed on one of the most famous programming podcasts in the world. And here I am thinking I know better just because he stumbled over a word. This is a bias that has to end.

So how do I go about counteracting this bias? I mean, constantly underestimating other people just because they stumble over words (or I think they stumble over words) is at best misinformation about my surroundings, and at worst downright mean. And giving myself the advice, “don’t have bias” is sort of like giving the advice “don’t drown” during swim lessons: surely correct but totally useless.

I think what I should do is cultivate the opposite habit. It’s not New Years, so here’s my early-autumn resolution: Whenever someone misuses a technical term, I’ll try to deliberately assume that (1) the person knows the correct term perfectly well and just slipped and (2) the rest of the person’s ideas and thoughts might be perfectly sound, even if I have to fudge the meaning of that one term to make the sentence compile.

I suspect that as I practice this habit, I’ll start getting along with people better, since everyone misspeaks and no one wants to be judged for it, however silently, and I’ll probably also start learning more, since I’ll reject fewer ideas for superficial reasons.

I almost hope no one reads this, but if you do, I hope it will help you not to repeat my mistakes. And if you’re someone who forgot the name for some technical thing recently, and noticed me judging, please accept this apology.

Till next week, happy learning!

-Will

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