Too long; didn’t read: In written communication, if you find yourself wanting to leave a snarky remark, pause. Try to find common ground, understand your differences in perspective and continue. If you cannot continue, disengage. Don’t snark.
an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm
In programming communities, I’ve seen way too much snark, especially in the context of people asking questions, trying to understand something or making well-intentioned (but potentially ill-informed) suggestions. This is especially true when communicating in a medium where writing is not expected to be long-form: Twitter, messaging apps (Slack, IRC etc.) and StackOverflow comments.
Why do people snark?
I understand wanting to be snarky. It’s very tempting, especially when there is some combination of the following factors:
- You want to “get back” at someone by responding to something they said which you strongly disagree with. Particularly if you are having an argument over some X vs Y.
- You think they’re “stupid” or that the point they’re making (or question they’re asking) is “stupid”.
- You are not good friends with the person, so a private conversation is not something you’d consider an option.
- The interaction is in a visible context, so being insulting or directly rude like “RTFM” is likely to reflect negatively on you.
By being snarky, you’re trying to make the opposite person the butt of a “joke”, while trying to have at least some people laugh along with you. At the same time, you have a “defense” of “you should be able to take a joke” in case the opposite person takes offense. It’s a win-win; what’s not to like?
What’s wrong with being snarky?
I suspect that snark is a key contributor to new people feeling unwelcome, including people who are beginners as well as people who are new to your community. Enough snark and you’ve driven away someone who was excited to be part of your community. Slowly but surely, your community will attract more snarky people – thanks to them finding the snarky people in your community funny – and grow increasingly more toxic. Snark is the first insidious step in getting the ball rolling downhill.
Trying to not be snarky
Okay, maybe you are now convinced that being snarky is bad. (In case you couldn’t tell, I try to be optimistic about people changing their behavior.) Maybe you will try to not be explicitly snarky. But that’s not enough. If you already have a habit of being snarky, it’s probably going to be difficult to break out of it. This is especially true if you like sarcastic humor.
I still sometimes struggle with not responding with snarky comments when I am particularly agitated with someone’s response. Arguably, recognizing negative sentiments when I’m about to snark and pausing before hitting send seems like the most important step in the process of avoiding it. If you’re familiar with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s work, this is the same idea as switching from System 1 thinking to System 2 thinking.
Switching to System 2 thinking
Based on my personal experience, I’ve tried to create “Three Golden Rules” about written communication, which I use to proof-read my comments before hitting send when I’m in a negative mood.
- Assume competence related to the topic under discussion, unless explicitly demonstrated otherwise.
- Assume good intentions related to improving X, unless explicitly demonstrated otherwise.
- Assume that there’s some part of the picture that I’m missing, including potentially the opposite person’s perspective, unless explicitly demonstrated otherwise.
I’m not saying there’s anything particularly special about these rules. But they work for me. You can make up your own rules if you like. The benefit of these rules is that they guide me towards concrete ways in which I can:
- Reflect on what I’m about to send and “judge” it within a framework that’s outside my immediate moody brain.
- Refocus my comment on filling gaps in understanding and building a bridge, instead of tearing someone down.
- Potentially decide that the discussion has already moved to a point beyond repair, and hence opt to disengage.
Roughly speaking, the core thing I try to do (I don’t always succeed but it’s great when it works) is to first establish common ground if possible, then understand the divergence between my viewpoint and the other person’s viewpoint and then finally respond with that context, potentially explicitly talking about both the common ground and the divergence.
Establish common ground
I think one thing that triggers the instinct to snark is how far removed someone’s point is from your own experience. If you know a way to do a task with steps A, B, C and a person is trying to achieve C, you’re much less likely to snark if they ask on how to get A, D, C to work compared to asking how to get Z, Y, X, C to work.
So the natural way to oppose the instinct is to develop a habit of first trying to establish common ground in such situations. For example, in the situation above, instead of asking “What are you really trying to do?” or “Do you not understand how A, B, C works?”, you could ask “Is having C the only important thing or do you need something from Z/Y/X as well for other reasons?”
Maybe they forgot to give you information on why they need to start from Z and cannot start from A. Maybe they already tried A, B, C and it didn’t work for some reason. Maybe their background experience involves always starting from Z, so they didn’t realize you could start from A. There’s a myriad of possibilities.
I’m not saying you need to understand their whole thought process or their life’s history. But you do need to understand what common ground you share. If there’s no common ground, it’s really difficult, if not downright impossible, to continue with the conversation. Recognizing that is important too; it is probably best to disengage if you cannot find that common ground.
Tease apart differences
Once you’ve recognized what common ground you share with the opposite person, the next step is to understand where the differences are between your perspective and the opposite person’s by asking further questions, followed up by checking with them that your understanding of their perspective is correct. The checking part is important; otherwise you run into the risk of having your writing incorrectly reflect the opposite person’s point and having them get frustrated with “that’s not what I said” or “that’s not what I meant”.
Or maybe they were in a hurry, and wrote something that only roughly meant what they thought, so there’s a subtle misunderstanding due to no one’s fault. The checking step is a good way to avoid that hazard of “well, yes, I literally said X but what I really meant was X’”.
Of course, this can be a time-consuming and emotionally-draining affair. If you don’t have enough time or energy to engage in a discussion where your presence is not strictly necessary, that is an excellent reason to disengage.
If you do continue with the conversation, at this point, it is both clearer to you and the opposite person what the two perspectives are. This doesn’t necessarily entail that you’ll arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution, but you’re in a much better position to get there, compared to where you started out with.
In certain cases, it’s not really possible to make progress on a discussion because there is a fundamental disagreement between you and the opposite person. The temptation to snark here can creep in if you’re having a back-and-forth and the opposite person keeps trying to counter your points without recognizing the fundamental disagreement. It’s important to recognize when this happens and disengage.
Nothing good can come out of it, but things can certainly get much worse; stress, anger, resentment and bad blood, to name a few things. Chances are, if you’ve gotten to this point, there’s already a tinge of all those, if not more.
There are a LOT of different ways of engaging in discussions where you have a large difference in perspective with the opposite person to start out with. Snarking is arguably the worst option after outright toxicity, it’s an insidious step towards fostering a more toxic environment.
If you find yourself wanting to leave a snarky remark, pause. Try to find common ground, understand your differences in perspective and continue. If you cannot continue, disengage. Don’t snark.