The Communication Gap

Language. Have you ever thought about how humankind came to develop a common set of sounds to represent things, in order to enable communication, as we know it ? It was a long, long road. Nevertheless, languages (all of them) are quite limited to express the formidable complexity inside our minds. How could you explain colors to a blind person? And are you sure “blue” for you looks exactly the same as “blue” for me? I learned what “blue” is when I was a little kid, but I cannot guarantee I see the same shade as you.

I also cannot assimilate the notion of how painful it is to give birth, as any other women who didn’t have a baby yet - even after reading or listening to many other women trying to explain it. One day I will probably know, but some things I will never know: like how painful it is for a men to be kicked in “his parts”. I just know that it is very painful, but I cannot relate it with anything from my personal experience.

Our personal experiences will shape the way communication reaches us, and they can completely change the original meaning of a story. This could be seen as a fundamental flaw in the communication process, because in this case, the interlocutor won’t have much control over what the listener comprehends. Imagine one of that stand-up comedy shows, where some really bad jokes can happen. Part of the public will laugh, part of the public will feel annoyed by the same joke.

And then, there’s the Internet. Social media and messengers drastically changed the way we communicate and interact. We communicate with people we never met face to face, and sometimes it’s really hard to tell what is their real meaning, or intentions, in the communication. We can’t see their reactions, we can’t see their faces, and we don’t have a context of how this person is AFK.

Is he / she being rude, or is this just the way he / she talks?

Is this an offensive comment, or just a (bad) joke?

Right after I moved to Amsterdam, when I started to get involved with the international PHP community, there was this incident involving @webandphp and a supposedly sexist t-shirt saying “Enhance your phpness”. Some people got offended, not exactly by the t-shirt itself, but by the fact that 2 girls were using it. They assumed the girls were hired to do so, even using the term “booth babes”, while the girls were actually the magazine editors, and developers.

One person sees a picture, and based on personal experiences that will influence the message - as a noise in the communication -, makes assumptions. Feeling offended, or feeling that other people will get offended, starts a storm that will be spread way to quickly to be clarified with real information. That’s how Internet works nowadays, and these incidents happen all the freaking time. The person who started it might have had really good intentions, but you know: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Now, about 1 year and a half later, another incident came to my attention. Another day, another picture showing a supposedly sexist behavior in the tech world. A guy presented a talk, representing a big tech company, and he had a very controversial slide comparing some software to his girlfriend, because “looks beautiful, complains a lot, interrupts him when he’s working, and doesn’t play well with other friends”. This is the tweet that started to get spread with acusations of sexism, even demanding that the guy was fired.

I won’t say this is OK, because I believe this is not a stand-up comedy show, it’s a tech conference, for God’s sake. Not the appropriate place for such jokes. But I didn’t feel offended, I didn’t feel like he was referring to all women in the world, and I didn’t feel like he was being sexist. If someone can get offended in this story, this person is his girlfriend, if she really exists. At least he said she’s beautiful, huh?

Now I ask: what if, instead of saying “my girlfriend”, the guy used “my mom” as comparison, or a TV series character, for instance? Does it make it less offensive? I’m quite sure the reactions would be different. And it’s still the same thing, a female persona who has some specific behavior.

Again, the gap of communication on the Internet made people assume things without a deeper thought. Some people immediately reacted as if this was directed to all women and specially for women in tech, taking into consideration the comments stating that this would go against the initiative of getting more women in tech. Honestly, a bad joke is the most insignificant thing considering all other shit that will prevent women to choose tech and to make them stay in this career. This constant need for “defending women”, sometimes, makes us feel like aliens, or shiny unicorns.

We don’t need a new Inquisition, we don’t need avengers, we need more education and initiatives that matter. We need to educate our children to change what is wrong in our generation. We need to create better working environments for all genders, encouraging growth and collaboration. We need to encourage more communication, because even though our language is limited, it’s all we have to understand each other - use it wisely!

And last, but not least, talking about initiatives that matter: please do a favor for yourself and have a look in the Code Manifesto, an initiative started by Kayla Daniels in order to promote a set of values that will make our working environments better. Show your support. The more people hold these values, the better our industry will be.

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