"Just leave if you don't like it"

A note on the arguments following Mark Pesce’s keynote. There’s one in particular that bugs me: “just leave if you don’t like it.”

The thing is, it isn’t normal at linux.conf.au (unlike at a Bar Camp) to just exit a talk from, say, the front section in the middle of a row. Unless you are at the very edge of the room, it’s considered rude to just leave, to the point where some speakers or session chairs might actually yell at you. (I had university lecturers do that.) And I suspect LCA, for organisational reasons as well as for speaker comfort, would rather not encourage an atmosphere of people just traipsing in and out of talks through the centre of rooms. So… the environment is (somewhat) coercive: if you don’t like the talk, you have to be actively rude to the speaker and the rest of the audience in protecting yourself from the talk.

If an environment could be created where someone could leave a talk from any place in the audience with a minimum of fuss and without risk of social retribution, and if people really did do so for all kinds of reasons, and thus an exit during Pesce’s talk would not have been immediately visible to everyone as “I have a strangulation phobia, if you would like to bother me in future, please mime strangling me”[1], I’d at least take this argument seriously. But in the LCA context it currently equates to: “don’t like the talk? embarrass yourself and be rude to the speaker!”

(Note to LCA people: I have a comment policy, and if your comment annoys me I won’t publish it.)

[1] I do have a strong reaction to strangulation, although probably not technically phobic, and if anyone uses this information to harass me even as a joke[2], they will not be my friend thereafter.

[2] People who have physical triggers, like having sharp objects pointed at their eyes, or disliking their neck being touched without warning, and who admit them, do suddenly find that half their acquaintance immediately does that to find out what happens. Consider yourself warned about what will happen.

The art of the blow-off

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

The primary rule is to consider how much your absence will inconvenience your friend, and how much damage it might do to the relationship. The more of these factors that hold, the firmer you should see the commitment as being:

  1. you have blown off this friend for any reason in the recent past
  2. he has not blown you off for any reason in the recent past
  3. he has invested emotional energy in you in the recent past (eg letting you talk about a breakup or work woes)
  4. the plans involve a small number of people, possibly just the two of you
  5. the plans involve him going out of his way, eg travelling a long distance, making a lot of phone calls, reminding you of the event fifteen times
  6. the plans involve the organiser paying for things, especially in advance (consider this carefully… he may regard telling you that he paid a deposit, or that the tickets aren’t refundable, as crass, so use some common sense)
  7. a number of other people have blown off this event already
  8. it’s close to the event, such that the organiser is likely to have chosen to say no to other things that might have been fun and/or profitable because he had committed to his plans with you
  9. you have expressed extreme enthusiasm about the plans (even if you actually express extreme enthusiasm about everything)

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

If you consider these, and either very few of them hold or your reason for the blowing off is stellar, you should:

  1. make every effort to cancel as early as possible
  2. apologise sincerely and be accepting of and don’t call the organiser on any irritation that creeps into her voice
  3. if money was spent, make several firm offers to repay the organiser for the money she spent on you (about three firm offers is the right number). If you can possibly afford to, don’t ask her to buy back your ticket from you if there was one: give it to her for someone else’s use.
  4. when apologising, don’t explain the excuse in great detail. You probably should mention the general idea (“this big project has sprung a leak”, “John is in town”), but don’t lean on it, even if it’s really important to you, and especially if your motives are money (eg overtime rates).

The only time that you should dwell on your excuse is when your excuse is traditional: that is, you were sick or another friend or family member died or was sick and needed you. Attempts to downplay that come across really strangely (eg “I had this seizure type thingie, oh well, I’m so so so sorry, I’m such a bad person”). Your friend will want to help or sympathise, most likely.

Otherwise, the problem with explaining your excuse in great detail is that it comes across as tantamount to explaining to the nearest cent exactly what the relationship is worth to you (“ok, so I’m less important than the boyfriend’s last minute availability”, “ok, so overtime rates trump my friendship”). More details actually make this impression worse, not better, because they show just how cold-bloodedly you calculate the worth of your friends. This may seem like nonsense—we’re all upfront hyper-rational geeks here who should be happy to have our friendship valued at market rates—but remember, it’s best for her when you over-commit to a friendship. So showing signs that you’re only rationally committed is hurtful, and not only at the conscious level either.

In some cases, eg hard to get tickets or the like, it can be nice to make gentle offers of a replacement for yourself. “Please go ahead and find someone else to take with my ticket. If you don’t find anyone, I know my friend Karen would be happy to go with you, and you’d love her, so give me a call.”

The best way to make amends is to firstly be careful to honour social engagements with this person very highly the next couple of times and depending on the level of trouble you put them to, try and assume the organiser role next time. Take the trouble on yourself, and furthermore organise to do something that your friend likes, at a time and location especially convenient for her, rather than yourself.

Oh, and if the reason you are blowing your friend off is because you suspect that he or she is romantically and/or sexually interested in you, and you are trying to gently signal your own lack of interest, this is a bad way to do it. The good way to do it is to bite the bullet and deliver that awkward “um, so, I’m not sure if I’m right, but just in case… I, um, I’m not interested in dating/shagging you” line and then give him or her a week or two without unnecessary contact so that he or she (a) believes you and (b) can choose to put on a social mask and pretend that this interlude never happened.

On the other hand, if you are blowing off a friend BUT you are romantically or sexually interested in him or her, just your luck, they probably will read blowing them off as a irrevocable sign of your lack of interest. If for some reason the time is not ripe to make a completely unambiguous move, you need to really work hard and express your regret at missing this thing, and furthermore, organise a replacement event almost immediately, ideally one that’s slightly more intimate and slightly harder to organise than the one they organised for you.

How to accept an invitation

This article originally appeared on the now defunct Geek Etiquette website.

Traditional etiquette is pretty spot-on about accepting social engagements in the first place. A quick rundown for those who aren’t familiar:

You get an invitation. For geeks, it probably comes in email, unless everyone has moved to Google Calendar without me looking. For big ticket events like weddings, you might still get a written invite. You reply by the same method you received the invite, unless another method is specified in the invitation itself.

You should reply to all personal invitations that come from people you know, either accepting or declining. A personal invitation is one-to-one (or one-to-a-few, in the case where households or partners are invited together). For public events like LUG meetings, you typically don’t reply unless there’s specific instructions to, and usually those will ask for acceptances only. For those, general invitations are issued to the public, rather than specific invites to individuals. In case of doubt though, it doesn’t hurt to reply.

Responses should be timely and brief. Let’s look at those.

If the invitation has an RSVP date, this is the drop-dead date for responding. The date is typically influenced by things like the date on which your friend must tell their caterers the final numbers, or on which she wants to do that giant shopping run to buy all the pizza ingredients. Replying before the RSVP date is the best thing to do and you should aim to do this almost all of the time. If you can accept or decline right away, do that, so you don’t forget.

If you’ve missed the RSVP date by a few days you should typically send profuse apologies and, if you want to accept, non-pushy inquiries about whether a late acceptance is all right. If you’ve missed it by much more, you need to decline the invitation with profuse apologies for being so late. Accepting is no longer in the question, unless your friend tells you that you can do so. Don’t ask; if this offer is going to be made, they will make it.

If the invitation has no RSVP date, you reply as soon as you can make a decision. You can work out a rough drop-dead date, usually: when do they need to start spending money? For an average sized informal party, it’s probably a couple of days before. For a trip overseas, it’s probably several months before. You need to reply before you think they started spending money on guests.

Now, to your brief replies. If you’re accepting an invitation, you say something like “I’ll be there, and I’m really looking forward to it.” There’s special wording for replying to formal invites, basically mirroring the invitation back at them. (If they said “Ms Nerd requests the pleasure of Mr Geek’s company on the 9th June”, Mr Geek replies “Mr Geek accepts with pleasure Ms Nerd’s invitation for the 9th June”.) You likely only need this for weddings and there are lots of websites with full examples of how to word replies to formal invites. Otherwise, all you need to do is accept and express that you’re looking forward to it. Don’t go into any and all sacrifices you’re making to come. (“It’s really a pain to get flights that weekend, and my usual travel agent is
away, and I’m going to miss my new puppy, but I’m coming because I just love you that much.”)

Once you’ve accepted the invitation, you regard this as a fixed engagement and you must either turn up as you said you would, or break your word, a subject we’re going into soon. You never just fail to show up and don’t either warn them beforehand or apologise afterwards.

If you’re declining, the excuse you use in all circumstances is either “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement, I would have loved to be there” or “I’m so sorry, I won’t be in town, I would have loved to be there”. Not being in town gets its own excuse because ‘prior engagement’ refers to plans for a particular day. It just sounds weird to call your six month holiday overseas a ‘prior engagement’.

‘Prior engagement’ is what’s called a ‘polite fiction’: it covers everything from a real prior commitment to your need to wash your hair that night. That is, in the event that you can’t be bothered or just don’t want to, the phrase for this is still “I’m so sorry, I have a prior engagement.” (Alternative phrases include “I already have plans”.) Almost all explanation beyond that comes across more as “your event sounds dumb” than “I really wanted to come but can’t”.

One geekly explanation for this, if you like, is cognitive load. You care deeply about not liking smoky venues, or not liking events that Boring Dude is at. That’s fine, that’s why you’re allowed to decline invitations and organise your own events which are in fresh air and to which Boring Dude is not invited. There’s no reason to bring it up for a particular event, because that event is already being organised and there’s nothing that can be done about it without the organiser making radical changes, so you’re just adding to her load of things to fret about. If smoky venues and Boring Dude are about to cost the organiser your friendship, you should bring this up separately when a particular event isn’t under discussion.

The only exception to offering generic excuses is when invited to something by intimates who know what you’re doing most days: partners and very best friends. With them, you should be more open. Etiquette by and large is a guide to social relationships, not intimate ones.