Why am I saying this?

My cofounders and I adopted the no well-actually rule before we even started the Recurse Center. Almost immediately, it made working together more pleasant because the rule made us aware of an annoying tic we all had: Making pedantic “corrections” that were usually more about serving our own egos than contributing to the conversation at hand.

Having a friendly, named social rule made it easy for us to catch ourselves and avoid derailing our conversations or building resentment. Even better, it was straightforward to give and receive this feedback because it was inside a framework we’d already agreed to. Pointing out a well-actually became a genuinely lightweight piece of feedback, akin to pointing out a style guide violation like inconsistent indentation or a missing semicolon.

When we started the Recurse Center, it was obvious we should incorporate no well-actually’s, since the rule had worked so well for us internally. It worked for RC as well, and over the first few batches, we noticed other unpleasant and educationally destructive behavior and added three corresponding rules. This included acting surprised when someone doesn’t know something (no feigned surprise), interrupting conversations or pairing sessions with unsolicited advice (no backseat-driving), and minor and usually unacknowledged sexism and racism (no subtle -isms).

Throughout this process, we’ve come up with some guidelines for when social rules are helpful, and what makes a good one. Specifically, a good social rule should target behavior that is:

  • Relatively common. There’s little value in a social rule about things most people never do.

  • Done unwittingly. Much of the value of our social rules is that they let people recognize annoying things they didn’t realize they were doing. Most people don’t intend to be annoying. This means the behavior shouldn’t be overtly malicious, and this is why “don’t call people idiots” isn’t a good social rule but “no subtle -isms” is.

  • Fairly minor. The behavior should be more like a pinprick than a punch. Our social rules are meant to provide a means for frequent, friendly, and lightweight peer-to-peer feedback, to provide a release valve so pressure doesn’t slowly build over time.

  • Specific and easy to correct. This is why “don’t be a jerk” isn’t a useful social rule but “no feigned surprise” is.

Our social rules have helped make RC a better educational environment, and a remarkably pleasant place. We introduced our fourth and most recent social rule in the summer of 2012. We’ve considered others since, but we’re reluctant to add more, because we think it’s more effective to keep things simple and have a few, easy to understand rules.

Unfortunately, not all annoying behavior meets the criteria above. So what do you do if you want to further reduce bothersome behavior in your community and yourself, but you can’t even pinpoint what it is that makes certain things annoying?

An experiment to make myself less annoying

Early this year, I came up with a way for spotting my own annoying behavior. I call it, Why Am I Saying This, or WAIST for short.

The idea is simple: Before I say something, I ask myself, “Why am I saying this?”1 I’ve found this to be especially helpful when writing online, for instance, in chat channels or on mailing lists. But I’ve also found it useful for in-person conversations, including meetings and group discussions, and it’s even been helpful when thinking back on past conversations: Why did I say that? If I’m responding to someone’s question, am I trying to answer it (or better understand what they’re asking), or just boost my ego? Am I trying to be helpful or just look clever? Am I trying to contribute to a conversation or just make sure people know I Have Opinions? Why did I make that bad joke that disturbed the flow of the meeting?

Since adopting this approach, I’ve found myself revising or even deleting chat messages and occasionally holding my tongue in meetings2, because I realized after reflection that I had unhelpful motivations. I’ve also found that WAIST is like a macro you can use to discover potential social rules. In fact, I think you can derive all our social rules from it.3

There are two pitfalls to consider if you try this yourself. First, you have to be willing to honestly question your motives. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing your motives are pure when they’re not, especially when there are plausible good ones (for instance, convincing yourself that you’re making a joke just to make others laugh, and not primarily because you want to appear clever). But doing so doesn’t get you anything: The goal of WAIST is to realize when you’re doing things that annoy other people, and fooling yourself here just robs you of an opportunity for growth.

The second pitfall is self-censorship. Clearly, you could take this too far, and become paralyzed questioning every little thing you do. Thankfully, this pitfall is easy to avoid: Just try WAIST for a week or two. All you have to do is reflect occasionally on why you’re about to say (or previously said) something.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

  1. If anyone’s curious, I’m writing this post for two reasons: First to advertise RC (and hopefully encourage people to apply), and second because I hope it will further curb annoying behavior inside our community.

  2. As anyone who works with me knows, I should probably learn to talk less and listen more in meetings. I’m working on it!

  3. The connections between feigning surprise, well-actually’s, and backseat-driving and WAIST are relatively clear. For subtle -isms, the answer is, unsurprisingly, usually more subtle. But the reason typically boils down to an unexamined stereotype or belief about a group of people (for example, consider the riddle about the father and son in a car crash).