Warning! This post is a mental health / feels post from a long time ago (in fact, one gender ago). It is kept up in case some people find it useful, but I don't necessarily endorse the content in here nowadays.

Various people have various different opinions on how they should present themselves. Personally, I’d consider myself quite a sensitive person; I’d like to think I try quite hard to take the feelings and circumstances of other people into account when talking to them, although doing so is by no means easy or automatic (and I often fail at this, sometimes quite badly). Partially, this is because I often have a lot of feelings and circumstances going in my life myself which I’d like other people to attempt to take into account – in fact, especially nowadays, I’d argue that the overwhelming majority of people have some topics or areas that make them uncomfortable, or that it’d be possible to upset them with a correctly targeted remark.

It’s very hard to judge what might upset or offend someone, simply because there can be a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that people just don’t tell others about (it’s almost as if having an entire country where not talking about stuff is the norm could lead to significant problems!). That said, you can at least attempt to be reactive – it’s sometimes possible to detect that something you’ve said or done wasn’t received well, and try to do less of that thing in future.

There are, of course, cultures and groups where this sort of thing is very much not the norm. Some people – and groups of people – attempt to act in a sort of “macho” / “tough guy” sort of way, where one is supposed to pretend that one doesn’t really have feelings, or that one is immune to whatever life might throw in one’s way. This, of course, is obviously false – everyone has feelings! – but it suits them to conduct themselves in this manner, because, at the end of the day, talking about one’s feelings can be very hard.

Maybe you weren’t brought up in an environment where people do that; maybe you never saw your parents, or your school friends, cry, or be angry, or show feelings toward things, because they thought they had to be ‘strong’). Maybe you had people express too much of their feelings in your past and really got put off by it (as in, maybe you were distressed by other people having issues and now have decided that ‘burdening’ others with your feelings isn’t a good idea). Maybe you don’t have any friends you really trust enough to be able to confide in, perhaps because they’re all tough guys, or perhaps because you have issues trusting people for some other reason – especially in our modern society, that reason can often be loneliness, an epidemic that people don’t actually realise the severity of.

But anyway, you don’t want to talk about your feelings. I get that, because I don’t really want to either1. Being in that position, while it’s not really a good thing for you long-term, isn’t really wrong; you aren’t hurting anyone except yourself there (although if you read the previous paragraph and found it hit a bit too close to home, you should probably watch this video).

It’s not uncommon for large-ish (i.e. more than 3 or 4) groups of people to have leaders, whether explicitly or implicitly allocated. Usually there are one or two people who do a lot of the talking – who appear to set the tone and the rules of engagement for the rest of the group. This doesn’t always have to happen, of course, but what I’m saying is it probably happens more than you realise. (It can also become painfully obvious when the leaders step out to go and do something else for a bit and you end up with a bunch of people who don’t really know what they should be doing with themselves, which is always a fun scenario!)

As you probably gathered from the title, what I really want to emphasise is the whole “setting the tone” aspect of being a leader. This turns out to be important in a bunch of ways that aren’t immediately obvious. I’d hypothesize that a large part of the issues people who aren’t cishet white males face in STEM fields, and especially programming / IT, are down to this factor; the groups people tend to hang out in are implicitly using a bunch of norms that probably aren’t very inclusive (think people making slightly inappropriate cheeky comments about women they fancy, but also more subtle mannerisms and ways of communicating that tend to only be shared by people from a certain background that make it harder for people not from that background to communicate). A lot of ink has been spilled about this2 in terms of how companies should try to avoid it when creating teams at work, because it’s a real problem.

The macho people from earlier can face real issues with this sort of thing. Often, their tough-guy behaviour implicitly sets the tone for the groups of people they find themselves in (which usually end up being filled with people who don’t really care, or are also trying to be macho). To avoid opening themselves up to the potential of insecurity, they often tend to do this more forcefully – terms like “pussy”, “wimp”, et al. are often employed for this purpose, wherein such people attempt to claim that people who do have feelings, are afraid of things, etc. are somehow ‘weaker’ than them.

The astute reader will think that I’m writing this because someone did that to me and I’m angry about it, and this blog post is my way of rationalizing their behaviour and asserting that I’m actually a better person than them. And they’d be partially right!3

It’s more nuanced than that, however. The thing that’s actually really sad about these sorts of situations is that the people responsible for creating the harmful no-feelings-allowed environment are often the people most in need of a way to express their feelings (as implied earlier). And what they’ve managed to do by creating such an environment is ensure they most likely won’t be able to do that thing with those people – if they try, it could get awkward (since the others aren’t really happy having a more ‘deep’ conversation, and that’s why they’re in the group), or they might find themselves met with a surprising lack of sympathy (because others actually did have problems and got humiliated for them).

I don’t even think you can blame these people, either. They’ve just found themselves in a situation that most likely isn’t even their fault, and they don’t really know what they should do to cope with it. If anything, it’s probably society that teaches them to behave in this way – and that’s just a sad, sad situation that’s not exactly easy to fix4.

  1. No, it suits me to write pseudo-intellectual blog posts that nobody reads that vaguely hint at a whole bunch of screwed up stuff going on. 

  2. Like a lot of the claims on this blog, this one is unsubstantiated. I think it’s true though… 

  3. I mean I really don’t post often, so someone has to have annoyed me for things to get this bad. 

  4. That said, I’ve seen advertising campaigns that try! I think some biscuit company teamed up with some mental health charity to promote the idea of having a cuppa and a chat about your problems with your friends, which is absolutely a good thing (even if Big Biscuit ends up profiting from it)