“You’re awesome!” and giving good compliments

Tl;dr at the bottom.

I live in a social echo chamber in which giving compliments is quite common. Often in society we don’t know how to give or accept compliments and without feeling silly or embarrassed.

I receive quite a few compliments, and still struggle to receive them (showing gratitude but not shrugging them off due to embarrassment), but I try to give them fairly liberally. Recently, I received an unprompted compliment from somebody, reminding me that I was awesome. I really appreciate people taking time out of their day to say these things, and I expressed gratitude for it at the time, but I found myself thinking about it later, and I realised that I’d wanted to ask “what made you say this?” but had refrained from doing so because I don’t want to sound ungrateful or expect people to take more time to explain themselves.

To be completely clear, telling people you appreciate them, or that they’re awesome, is a great start, especially in this society where recognising people’s flaws is common, but recognise their achievements is rare. The trouble with this, is that telling everybody that they’re “awesome” or similar has the potential to devalue the term through overuse. “Awesome” is an unqualified judgement that can be nice, but ultimately not very useful. I am consequently endeavouring to take things a step further when giving compliments.

Recently I read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B Rosenberg. In it, the author notes that gratitude is less useful than its justification:

The Three Components of Appreciation NVC clearly distinguishes three components in the expression of appreciation:

  1. the actions that have contributed to our well-being
  2. the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  3. the pleasureful [sic] feelings engendered by the fulfillment [sic] of those needs

(That whole chapter on “Receiving Appreciation,” and indeed the entire book, is a fascinating read.)

So rather than a judgement of “you’re awesome,” perhaps instead one could say “I really appreciate this particular perspective you have on that topic; it’s great to have somebody to bond with over this opinion; it makes me happy.”

This approach both gives the recipient of the complement a better understanding of what they’re doing well so they can do more of it, and as a result, in my case at least, helps me to receive and appreciate the compliment more easily, because I feel I deserve it more.

I am not saying I expect anybody giving me a compliment to go to this effort. In certain situations, I might ask for clarification, but I appreciate that people are busy, and despite them taking the time to compliment me out of the blue, they may not have time to elaborate. All I’m saying is that I will endeavour to be more specific with my own compliments in future, and occasionally might respectfully request the same of others, when I deem it appropriate.

A respectful request might be phrased like this: “I appreciate you saying that nice thing, but would you mind taking the time to elaborate on why you think that? It would be far more valuable to me if you could give examples as to what I said or did, why it was valuable to you, and how it made you feel, so that I can (a) appreciate you’re compliment more fully, and (b) use it as an opportunity for growth, to do more of the things that prompted the compliment.” I realise this is very verbose, and depending on your relationship with the individual, it could be abbreviated as time goes on, but I think the above is one of the clearest ways to make this request without sounding self-indulgent or unappreciative.

Tl;dr: give more compliments; we don’t do this enough! In doing so, try to be specific as to what you’re complimenting, and why it’s worthwhile to you. This helps avoid judgements (which when used regularly can have diminished value). This can help the recipient receive the compliment more authentically.

On being offended

“Offence is taken, not given.”

There’s a school of thought that says that you can’t control whether or not somebody will take offence to your words or actions. In this world of “political correctness,” or, as I often prefer to call it, “not being an arsehole,” there are those that think language policing is going too far: that people should be less sensitive, get a thicker skin, and just deal with it.

Examples such as “women should just accept that when I say ‘guys’ I intend it to be gender neutral.” “When I say something is ‘gay’ I don’t mean to imply that gay people are bad.”

The flipside of this argument is that “intent is not magic.” Regardless of what you intend, you may hurt somebody’s feelings.

My question is: where does one draw the line? I, personally, am of the opinion that if making a small change to my language will have a smaller chance of me hurting or alienating a person or community, then I’ll take it as an opportunity for self-improvement, and just make the change. I occasionally find myself in discussions, though with those who think that they should not be responsible for others’ feelings, or who will change some of their language, but reach a point where they deem they’ve done “enough” to be inclusive. I want to be receptive to these perspectives, but also have a reasonable counter-argument.

So I ask you, internet: what is your stance on being empathetic to those who don’t want to put in additional effort to make some people more comfortable or included (on the basis that “you can’t please everybody”), while trying to explain that in general, it’s really not that hard?

“Guys” isn’t gender neutral

I wrote this post because when I was looking recently, I couldn’t find a good article that communicated this point. Presumably my search-fu wasn’t working that day, because I’ve just found several, which I’ve referenced below.

The word “guys” isn’t gender neutral.

I don’t know many people who use “guy” singular, to refer to somebody who doesn’t identify as male. Yes. I know that progressive, descriptive dictionaries like Merriam-Webster state that both “guy” and “guys” are gender neutral, while Oxford still states that the singular form is male.

Yes, I know that many people treat it as gender neutral, even people who don’t identify as male. I am aware of plenty of women who will say “guys” when referring to a mixed-gender group. Some might even use it to refer to a group of all non-male people.

I invite you to consider this, though. Just because some, maybe even many, people who don’t identify as men consider “guys” to be gender neutral, that doesn’t mean everyone does. What if one person in that target group being referred to as “guys” does consider it to be a gendered term, and as a result, feels othered by your language? What if your language, to that individual (and there may be many of them in any given group), tells them “I assume that this is a male-dominated group and anybody else is an anomaly who isn’t important enough to be recognised or addressed?” There’s a good chance that person isn’t comfortable raising this issue themselves, so you have no way of knowing how many people feel excluded by the word “guys.”

I work in IT. Like many other fields, it’s male-dominated. If we want to diversify our workplaces (and who wouldn’t, given so much evidence that diversity is a Good Thing?), we need to stop using language that may make people feel excluded or uncomfortable. In my opinion, it’s a needless microagression.

So, let’s put aside the argument of whether or not you consider “guys” to be gender neutral, and ask a different question:

If you knew that your language, this single word, “guys,” was making a person you’re addressing uncomfortable, wouldn’t you want to change it?

It’s not that hard! there are plenty of alternatives:

  • folks
  • people
  • peeps
  • y’all
  • everyone

Those are just the few I came up with off the top of my head. I’ve just done a quick search, and found this blog post, which adds, among others:

  • friends
  • team
  • pals

(check out that post for more), and that post references Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist, which I’ve only skimmed, but which is an amazing resource and links to heaps of other amazing resources, such as A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy, and Geek Feminism.

If you still would like to be convinced that “guys” isn’t gender neutral, A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy offers three exemplary thought experiments:

Thought Experiment #1: Imagine a room full of men and women. Someone stands at the front and says, “I want all the guys to stand up.” What happens next?

Thought Experiment #2: You are with a woman. You tell her you think she’s such a guy, a great guy, the smartest guy you’ve ever known. Note the expression on her face.

Thought Experiment #3: You turn on cable news and the first thing you hear is someone saying, “Everyone knows it’s a guy’s world.” Picture in your mind what he’s trying to say.

I love these examples so much.

Now, back to the matter at hand: changing your language. Yes. It requires time and effort, to stop using “guys” as a collective noun for a group of diverse genders. I have largely settled on “folks” as my replacement word, and I still slip up after at least a year of trying. There are certain situations that I’m so used to saying “guys” in, that I have a lot of unlearning to do. But the important thing is that I’m trying, and after just a couple of months of conscious effort, 90% of the time, I was not using a term that some people may find exclusionary.

So pick a new word to replace “guys” in your everyday vocabulary. There are plenty of them. It won’t take all that long to get used to if you keep at it, I promise you, and most people won’t even notice the change.

But for those that do notice, it’ll mean the world to them.

That’s all, guys folks!

The pain of passwords

This post may get a bit rambly and is kind of self-indulgent, but some might find it an interesting story. There’s a tl;dr at the bottom.

I use a password manager to manage passwords to the majority of services and websites I have accounts with. Most of these sites have unique and complex passwords that I have no hope of remembering. I like it this way.

Password managers can’t help with everything. You still need to remember the password/phrase to unlock the password manager, and the phone and/or computer you access it from. If you host the password manager’s data file on a cloud storage service, like I do, you need to remember your password to log into that too. Further, given that, that in my case, my cloud storage service of choice, ownCloud, is self-hosted, I need to remember all the passwords pertaining to the server that runs that service. This includes local Linux passwords and SSH key passphrases.

Now, sure, I have a copy of the passwords on removable storage somewhere safe so I’m not dependent on all this infrastructure. But guess what? That copy is PGP-encrypted. With a passphrase. That I have to remember.

So let’s recap. The passwords I currently have to remember include:

  1. Local workstation computer password
  2. Smartphone PIN/password/pattern
  3. Password manager passphrase
  4. Cloud storage password
  5. GPG key passphrase
  6. SSH key passphrase
  7. Server login password

Now I’m going to put aside the questionable design decisions I’ve made here; I grant that I could just use a single encrypted password file on a USB key (with backups elsewhere), that I can plug into any computer I trust, and access my passwords. And that’s great for a fallback which I could easily implement, but it’s not exactly something I want to do on a day-to-day basis. Let’s say I simplified this system, though, so I wasn’t worrying about the cloud-hosting of the file. I’d still need to remember 2-3 passwords:

  1. Local workstation computer password
  2. Smartphone PIN/password/pattern
  3. Password manager passphrase

Yes, that’s better, and more manageable. Say, though, that I have multiple computers. Do I use the same passwords for all of them, or should I be a good security-conscious person and use different ones everywhere?

I will tell you right now that in the longer list of passwords above, several of those services shared a password. I hate remembering passwords, as everyone else does, so naturally, I try to remember as few as possible and put as many as possible in my password manager. It got to the point that the aforementioned shared password was one that I’ve used for a long time. By long, I mean at least 10 years. Now before you start yelling at me for being careless and insecure, in my opinion, it was a pretty good password. It was reasonably long, contained non-dictionary words and different character classes, and for the most part, the services that used it were not directly exposed to the internet, so you’d likely need possession of one of my devices to try to crack it.. I had no reason to expect that it was compromised.

Monday last week, I typed that password into a group chat. You know how it is; it could happen to anybody. You see your computer screen is blank, and, given how unlikely it is that you’re within the 5-second grace period, you assume your computer is locked, so you sit down, and blindly type in your password while your screen wakes up. You hit Enter, switch to the window you want to be in, and get on with your day. Then your colleague leans over quietly and says “perhaps you want to delete that message you just posted,” and, confused, you take a look at the channel, and feel the ground fall out from under your chair.

Not just because you remember that the password you’ve been typing from muscle-memory for a decade without really thinking about can actually be interpreted as a rather juvenile set of words that your present self would never use, but also because now you’ve got a problem: you have to relearn a new password or passwords, for the machine you type the password into about 50 times daily.

Bother.

Because of the nature of passwords, ones like this one have existed since before the jury came back on what a good memorable password looked like. My general passwords that I’d drop into a password manager look something like this:

$pyf|?u?'yB7pCNW~$y:yv;Kc*^<c,%U

The length I use has increased over time, as I’ve found less occasion to have to type these manually. There’s no way I want to remember a password like this, let-alone have to type it, fingers moving all over the keyboard, hitting Shift every second character. I don’t even want to contemplate having to regularly type something like this into my smartphone.

So after some deliberation, I took a leaf out of Randall Munroe’s XKCD comic

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Pictured: A comic contrasting the struggle of memorising low entropy passwords like “Tr0ub4dor&3” with high entropy passwords like “correct hors battery staple” (CC-By-NC Randall Munroe, XKCD 936)

This, combined with a handy shell script, written by a past colleague, which assembles a password from several words from Linux’s /usr/share/dict/words file, gave me a password that I just had to start remembering. I quickly set the password on my laptop, while storing it in my password vault accessible from my phone (which I could access with other, different passwords that I already knew and didn’t need to change right now) for the inevitable moments I forgot it.

I probably had to look it up about a dozen times, and about two dozen other times I had to sit at my computer for several seconds while I (a) typed my old password before remembering it had changed, and (b) remembered which words comprised the new one, getting it wrong the first couple of times. So all it all, it’s taken almost a week, but I think I’ve got it embedded in my memory now. I still want to have a backup of it somewhere safe in case I have a lapse of memory, but I’m pretty pleased.

There are still a couple of services that shared my old password that I haven’t changed yet (a reason I was reluctant to publish this post yet, but decided wasn’t a big deal), which I’ll do shortly, after I’m a bit more confident in my memory. My main remaining question is whether I get ambitious and try to use different passwords for each of these services. I suspect that if I leave some time between changing each one, I’ll be able to sufficiently remember them all, but it’s a bit scary to think that I could forget one of them and then be completely locked out. I will consider this further.

In summary: Passwords are hard. Brains are fallible. Computers are the worst.

Tl;dr: I typed my very old workstation password into a work chat room and had to go through the pain of choosing a method to generate and remember a new one, then change that password in all the places I used it.

2016 Highlights

2016 was a struggle for many of us, with some pretty unpleasant stuff going on all over the world. To combat the feeling that 2016 was nothing but a huge trash fire, several of my friends have published lists of their 2016 highlights, and reading them really warmed my heart, as I felt so pleased for them having some wonderful experienced (there was much compersion to be had!). So, in return, here is my list of things that were awesome about 2016. I hope next year is half as amazing!

  • Went to the Australian Scout Jamboree 2016 in NSW with 39 other awesome people for 10 days, and watched kids have awesome fun, and learn and grow as they took care of each other.
  • Quit my job, after 7 years, for a proper holiday that didn’t involve attending conferences or scout events!
  • Went to Linux.conf.au 2016 in Geelong, and ran a one-day Open Knowledge Australia mini-conference. I’ll get to do this again in 2 weeks’ time in Hobart!
  • Helped out with the Scouts Victoria Kangaree, getting about 10 hours sleep in 3 days, and generally being amazing. It was really gratifying.
  • Went to my first festival, Confest, in NSW. It was an amazing week in which I did too much volunteering, had very little mobile reception (which was the best!), and met awesome people!
  • Saw some awesome shows for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, including Lisa-Skye’s “Spiders Wearing Party Hats,” which, between MICF and Fringe, I saw 3 times!
  • Experienced and participated in my first ever scene at a kink club, expanding my comfort zone. It was a fascinating experience!
  • Helped set up computers for Popup Playground’s Small Time Criminals, which is still running until February, and which you should totally book in if you haven’t already!
  • Went on my first overseas touring holiday to Europe. This was amazing, three weeks was exactly the right duration, and I absolutely loved it!
  • Did some awesome and fulfilling work with Invent The World, using Minecraft and other games to teach kids online empathy, problem solving, teamwork, and keyboard and mouse motor skills. Seeing these kids work together and learn was exhausting, but extremely rewarding, and I really hope to do more of this in the future.
  • Planned and ran GovHack Melbourne 2016, a weekend hackathon for about 100 people, with an amazing team of volunteers!
  • Attended my first PyCon AU in Melbourne, where I went to an education seminar, learned some awesome stuff from some even more awesome friends, new and old!
  • Went to Slut Walk Melbourne for the first time, and marched with hundreds of others against slut shaming and rape culture.
  • Attended HealthHack Melbourne 2016, as a participant, and not a volunteer, for a change, and, with my team, achieved second place for our hack!
  • Visited Adelaide for the first time, for the GovHack 2016 National Red Carpet Awards; a beautiful city!
  • Returned to Wellington, NZ, for yet another amazing KiwiCon, which ran in spite of the earthquake earlier that week!
  • Presented a talk about getting youth involved in tech at that fantastic BuzzConf emerging technology festival in Ballan, Victoria. A delightful, family-oriented feel permeated the event, and I met some of the best people!
  • Expanded my comfort zone further by attending my first ever gay clubs etc.
  • Went to the ever awesome Swingin‘ Bella Christmas, and sang and danced to the excellent music they play there every year!
  • Formed new relationships (from friendships to intimate partnerships) with some brilliant folks, while amicably ending some that had run their courses.

The experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met this year have been unforgettable, and I’ll cherish many of them for years to come. Thank you to all of you who have made my life amazing simply by being a part of it.

Book Review: Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

I don’t tend to write book reviews, but this is important. I’m not sure I’ve ever written one before,  so please bear with me.

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Book cover: Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl is a book about feminism. It’s about a woman who has battled sexism, body shaming, and abuse all her life, and fighting like a girl who, surviving all this, has come out the other side strong, independent, and not giving a damn what men think.

Clementine talks about the ridiculous, contradictory, and often implicit and unspoken societal expectations of being a woman, the hateful names she’s called by men, who react with horror when they’re laughed at in response, as if that is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. She talks about perpetuation of rape culture, and contradictory suggestions regarding how women can avoid being raped, as if it should be their responsibility.

She discusses men’s assertion that feminists, particularly her, hate men so much, and how they wonder why, as she lists, extensively, the horrendous insults she’s received from these men online. Several pages of this chapter, Man-hater, were such a hard slog I had to put the book aside for a week to avoid just skipping them and denying them the attention they deserve. Men can be unbelievably awful.

Eventually, I made it to the epilogue. For some reason, possibly related to the poetic way it was written, I was compelled to read it aloud, and it literally brought me to tears. I bought the audiobook, just to hear Clementine read this, and it was amazing. The first paragraph does not do it justice:

This book is a love letter to the girls. It’s a letter to the bitches and the broads, the sluts and the whores. It’s to the troublemakers and the rebels, the women who are told they’re too loud, too proud, too big, too small.

Men, you should read this book. This book is not written for us. We are not its target audience, because if the patriarchy is to be overturned, women can nor depend on men to help, let alone lead the assault. It pulls absolutely no punches while detailing all the ways that patriarchy is perpetuated, how men can be awful, and women are second-class citizens. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, at the very least, stay out of the way an not make things worse, and call out bad behaviour when we see it.

This book is eye-opening, and heart-wrenching, and I’d have it no other way. This book is not written for men, but you should read it anyway.

Everyone should read this book.

“This book is a love letter to the girls.” And, given everything in the world whose focus is on men, so it fucking should be.

“Do you have a partner?”

NB: This post and Communicating and Living Authentically were my attempts to sort out some thoughts. I don’t think I quite finished sorting them, let alone express them clearly here, but this may still be useful information. It took me 2 days to decide this wasn’t too private to publish.

When somebody asks about “relationship status”, the default interpretation in monogamous, heteronormative society is “do you have a partner?” As someone who practices polyamory, my answer to this question is usually “it’s complicated.” The reality for me is that I perceive lots of different kinds of relationships that are difficult to label. Some approximate labels or descriptions are, in no particular order:

  • Acquaintances (People who I know but don’t really interact with outside the space in which we met, such as those from meetups)
  • Friends (Best described, I think, as people whose personal lives I actively take an interest in outside the context in which we met. I try to make an effort to check in on these people occasionally to see how they’re doing.)
  • Close friends (People who I might chat with weekly or more regularly, and who I can usually enjoy simply spending time with, with no expectations of conversation or other forms of entertaining each other.)
  • Friends with benefits (Friends with whom I have an occasional sexual relationship.)
  • Casual sexual partner (This is a difficult term to find a synonym for, but Wikisaurus suggests “lover”, among others. I rarely consider this relationship type applicable to me, because in order to be intimately comfortable with someone, I tend to need to build some sort of friendly rapport first, hence “friend with benefits”.)
  • Romantic relationships (People with whom I feel I have a deep emotional connection and non-platonic relationship. This is probably the label that most closely approximates the “partner” definition in the original question. “Girlfriend” or “boyfriend” may also be used by the more heteronormative-minded.)

And then there are others, like live-in- and/or life-partners (people with whom one shares things such as a house or other possessions, finances, or children), and play partners (people with whom one has a BDSM-style relationship).

Now here’s the kicker: it’s possible that multiple labels may be applied to the same person. Additionally, some people may not quite fit into any of the above definitions exactly. So, returning to the question “do you have a partner?”… it’s complicated.

Often, the complication is due to the fact that, as a bit of a relationship anarchist, I’ve not necessarily had explicit conversations with people as to how they view our relationship; I just go with the flow, and take things as they come. Many of the above labels come with attached expectations (such as a certain level of time availability or other commitment), and as somebody who has lots of commitments already (e.g. to the multiple volunteer roles I’ve put myself in), and is, quite frankly, not sure of their ability to make too many further commitments, I feel guilty asking the same of others. This basically comes back to communication of wants and needs, like those addressed in Communicating and Living Authentically.

It’s complicated. Words are tricky. Brains are weird. Feels are hard.