Dealing with the dickheads

Paul Boag

Many of us are put off of contributing to the web community for fear of criticism. What can be done to stop the negativity?

I recently wrote a post entitled “contributing to the web” where I encouraged others to share what they have learnt and contribute to the development of our industry.

It is a subject I feel passionate about and so was sad to receive an email from a reader outlining why he doesn’t contribute more. His email can be summed up in the following extract:

I can tell you why there isn’t more contribution to the web despite having such a large community.Because this community can appear to be a cruel, vindictive, judgmental, and exclusionary group. It’s sad but true, I see it almost every day.

He is right. He goes on to recount various instances where he has witnessed this behaviour first hand. I could add many more. In fact relatively recently a dear friend of mine decided to stop speaking at web design conferences because some dickhead (sorry there really is no other word) decided to include her in a list of speakers that would actively make him boycott a conference. His post was personal, vindictive and based on no fact whatsoever.

What then do we do about this appalling state of affairs?

You can’t fight human behaviour

The person who emailed me implored respected figures in the web community to speak out on this issue. He seemed to believe that in some way this behaviour could be stamped out. However, I am sorry to say I disagree.

I believe this is a matter of human nature and the medium within which we work. It is easy to de-humanise the people we talk about online because we are not looking into their eyes. I myself have been less than complimentary about certain products, software etc, forgetting that this is somebodies hard work.

The web also doesn’t allow us to see the circumstances of those criticising us. Some guy once called me a c*unt on Twitter. However, when I challenged him on this unacceptable behaviour he quickly apologised explaining that a day of disasters had got on top of him and he lashed out. Was his behaviour acceptable? Absolutely not. Was it understandable? Completely. We have all had days that have caused us to say something harsh.

Yes there are those who are simply vindictive because they are jealous, angry or bitter. They hurt because they can or because they themselves have been hurt. This behaviour is disgraceful, but I suggest that no amount of outcry on our part is going to prevent these people saying what they are going to say.

Where then does this leave us? If we cannot change the situation, does that mean we should all give up contributing for fear we are torn apart by criticism?

We can change ourselves

Although we cannot change the behaviour of others, we can change our own attitudes. That is where the answer lies in my opinion.

I don’t believe we should allow these people to hold us back, but instead we should simply ignore them and so remove the power of their voice. We need to develop thicker skins and recognise that people will criticise, but their criticism has no value.

I know what some of you are thinking. “It is easy for you to say that Paul. You are an outgoing, confident person who is respected within the web community.” I am sorry but that simply isn’t true. I am actually as sensitive and vulnerable as anybody else. I just don’t let it stop me.

My mantra is simple. I only accept criticism from those I know and respect. Everybody else I basically ignore. Yes that means sometimes I ignore good well intentioned criticism, but that is how I cope.

Ask yourself why?

I also apply a lesson my mother taught me as a kid (when I was badly bullied at school). She taught me to ask “why”. Why do people behave the way they do? It has actually become so engrained in my thinking that I apply it readily to clients, users and those I work with. However, I apply it most readily to those who criticise me. Why is this person being a dickhead? When you ask this question you tend to end up with one of the following answers:

  • They have a valid point that I am not taking seriously and have become aggressive to get me to pay attention. Personally I tend to confront them, recognise their point but state that their behaviour is unacceptable. But you could equally walk away.
  • They are jealous of me in someway. In these situations I tend to look for common ground and repair any negativity.
  • They are lashing out because they have been hurt. In most cases you will never get to the bottom of what has happened or know how to help, so you are best just backing off.
  • They feel the need to build themselves up by knocking you down. This is often a sign of poor self esteem and I quietly ignore them because if it makes them feel better it is no skin off my nose to let them rant.

It’s about them and not me

Notice the common factor. Other than the first scenario it is entirely about them and not a reflection on me. Even in the first scenario, it is often more a sign that they cannot cope with being ignored, than it has to do with them having a valid point.

In short most criticism I encounter doesn’t hurt me because it is not really a reflection on me. They can say whatever they want, but it reflects more on their character than on me or my contributions.

Don’t respond

Finally, and probably most importantly, I rarely react to criticism. I don’t allow it to change my behaviour and I don’t respond to it. If you remain silent others will come to your defence. Generally speaking this is by far the best way to deal with it.

Let me be clear, I am not criticising people like my friend who has chosen to stop public speaking. I completely understand her decision to walk away. What I am saying is that if you want to preserver, if you want to contribute, you can teach yourself not to take criticism on board. Its sad to say but the dickheads are not going away, we just need to learn to ignore them.

Obviously this is just my experience and personal opinion. I would be interested to hear other perspectives on this. Am I being naive? Let me know (gently) in the comments :)