If you know me, you know that I have a sense of humor that can be risqué at times (ok, perhaps crude would be a better description!). I’m also known to engage in the predominantly male form of communication that involves bonding by insulting each other: put downs, the dozens, whatever you want to call it. I also hold very opinionated positions on politics and religion, and enjoy engaging in lively discussions about them.
Yet when I am in a group of people I do not know very well, I do none of these things. Why? Because I am aware of their potential for offending people, or at the very least, making them feel uncomfortable. So I default to respect.
In programming, a default value is one that is used unless specifically overridden. Setting your default to respect means that unless you are certain that everyone within earshot (or who can otherwise observe you) knows you well enough to properly interpret your words or actions, limit yourself to those words or actions that do not require special interpretation; those that show respect for the people around you. Failing to do this is one of the biggest sources of the problems in the tech community when it comes to how women and other under-represented groups are treated. At conferences, or online, guys (yes, it’s a guy problem) act as they would normally do when they are within their tight-knit group of friends, and say/write/do something that is interpreted as offensive or even hostile. When their poor choices are pointed out, they get defensive, using the excuse that their intention was not to offend, so no one should take it badly. Or they attack, claiming that the person who pointed out their behavior is too “politically correct” (at best), or an over-sensitive bitch (if the reporter is a woman). These attacks all too frequently cross the line from name-calling to outright threats.
But refraining from sexual references or racial stereotypes is not being “politically correct”; it’s a sensible default value. Maybe later you might get to know these people better, and more importantly, they’ll get to know you better. Only then when you make a crude joke will they know that you mean no harm. But until then, the only sensible approach is to default to respect. The practice of a conference having (and enforcing!) a Code of Conduct is really a way of defining these sensible defaults for people who apparently never learned them growing up. It is encouraging to see them become more common than not, for that will help our communities “grow up” and become more inclusive. The days of the tech world being an old boys club are quickly drawing to a close, although it can’t happen fast enough for me.
So does that mean that you need to muzzle yourself? No, of course not. There are plenty of places where you can express yourself; hell, if you follow me on Google+, you’ll see that I’m not at all shy about stating my opinions. It’s totally appropriate there, because if you don’t like what I’m writing or the way I write it, you don’t have to follow me; there are plenty of other people you might like better. But a conference or an online forum is a community vehicle, and filling them with potentially hostile or offensive words or actions means that we will turn away many who would have otherwise helped the community grow better. We all suffer when otherwise talented and interesting people choose not to engage in our communities because they do not feel welcome. So do us all a favor and when you are in a community situation, set your default to respect.