"When you see others' errors and you want to guide them because you think they are wrong and you feel compassion for them, you should employ tact to avoid angering them, and contrive to appear as if you were talking about something else."

- Dogen

Mike - mps@discomsys.com

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen... and stupidity."
Harlan Ellison

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: On using tact
by footpad (Abbot) on Feb 27, 2001 at 05:12 UTC
    I have to learn more about this Dogen fellow. *smile*

    Seriously, I think there is something very wise here. I'm not entirely certain I'll agree with the prevarication suggested, but I will wholeheartedly endorse the tact angle.

    I've mentioned previously that I spent some time in phone support, 13 months. During that time, I held the various records: number of calls handled, lowest average time, longest call time (yes, contradictory), longest hours spent on the queue, and so on.

    I quickly gained a reputation for providing terse, but technically accurate answers. I didn't quite understand this, because I had done my level best to develop the right answers to the most common questions and to document those in easy to deliver formats. Thus, I had faxes, emails, and other canned solutions ready to go. This was one reason why I was able to process so many calls so quickly.

    Our callers would periodically tell management what they felt of our service, which led to a another "record" I held: most customer complaints. I didn't understand this. I was being reasonably polite. I was solving their problems and answering their questions using the most efficient means possible.

    Fortunately, I had a patient manager who finally managed to get me to understand that a) I needed to take some time to myself (thereby reducing the personal frustration over those that didn't "get it."), and b) understand the call from the caller's point of view. Each call, he told me, was unique to the caller. Even if the subject was one I'd dealt with ad nauseam, it was important to treat each contact as a fresh start...because it was (generally) the first time the caller encountered the problem. If we had a solution, it was certainly the first time the caller encountered it. Each caller needed help over some portion of the learning curve and it was our job guide them for a few steps.

    It took some time before I realized that what was efficient for (and crystal clear to) me was not entirely effective for the callers. Once I started to listen and to help callers take another step along that curve, my complaints went down. So did my other numbers, but the callers were happier. As far as my manager was concerned, that was far more important than hitting the quotas.

    While others will argue it's enough to provide the barest information possible, I'm now of the opinion that it's equally important to take the time to consider the context of a question (a node, if you will) and the context of the poster/petitioner. You need both to provide the best answer for the post in question.

    To illustrate, I participate in a certain set of newsgroups devoted to another programming environment and someone recently posted a pretty standard, though non-trivial question, one that couldn't be simply answered with a single paragraph response. Unfortunately, the proper answer depended on the details of the current implementation, which resulted in several exchanges involving requests for additional details. It was very frustrating for me because I kept asking very clear questions about what I needed, but kept getting inconclusive and incomplete responses. The poster finally emailed the details to me privately. Once I had that, it was trivial to write up and post the proper answer. to make it available to the broadest audience, I posted it publicly. Shortly after I did so, I had gained three replies (two via email) thanking me for the clarity of the post...from the lurkers.

    Experienced netizens know that the newsgroups have a wider audience than the active posters. These folks read everything that goes on, attempting to learn as much as possible. They rarely post, however. We're writing (or rather should be writing) answers to an audience larger than one.

    Also, online messages live on in time. Until recently, it was possible to find stuff I posted to certain newsgroups more than ten years ago. (Amazingly, that information is still relevant to some people.) Actually, some of the older work can be found in other places. That's a bit scary when you think about it.

    The local point should be pretty obvious. Each reply responds to a specific question, yes, but it might also apply to future ones as well. If, by taking a moment to be nice to someone or to provide additional links for more details, we can help another reader along their Path (even unknowingly), does it not make sense to do so?

    We cannot predict who will see our words in the future. Would it not be wise to ensure the record shows that we're not only knowledgeable, but helpful, understanding, and compassionate?

    In practice, I sometimes provide the quick answer and sometimes I'll dig to get the correct answer. While this has meant that I've frequently written the same responses over and over (with the associated frustration), it's helped sharpen my responses, increase my understanding of the material in question, and refine my understanding of the way people respond to on-screen text.

    As tilly reminded us not so very long ago, the person on the other end of a browser is a real person. This is why I think it's nice to be nice to initiates.

    Mantra for the month: "Neither courtesy nor sense are common; cultivate both."


    Update: I wasn't entirely happy with the way this originally came out, so I've sharpened it a bit to more accurately reflect the points I wanted to make.

Re: On using tact
by Lexicon (Chaplain) on Feb 27, 2001 at 09:59 UTC
    As I stated in CB, I agree wholeheartedly. However, the excessive use of tact is currently driving me up the wall. A refresher: I'm in Japan for a year, Japanese has more built in honorifics than any language I'm aware of, Japanese social constructs focus around Harmony above all else. A warning: this has nothing (directly) to do with Perl. But I think we're all above that.

    Main Entry: tact Pronunciation: 'takt Function: noun
    Etymology: French, sense of touch, from Latin tactus, from tangere to touch -- more at TANGENT
    Date: 1797
    1 : sensitive mental or aesthetic perception "converted the novel into a play with remarkable skill and tact"
    2 : a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense

    That said, the Japanese are so tactful it's sometimes hard to get anything done. I'm sure I strike them as a barbarian, but at least I can communicate with other barbarians; they have trouble communiating with each other.

    Example 1: I'm teaching javascript and basic perl to our web developer. The Japanese have a habit during conversation of acknowledging the speaker after every phrase/pause with a 'yes' or 'ahhh' or 'I see' or equivalent. This doesn't mean they understand you, but when I act like I'm done teaching him (because I thought he understood) he won't ask anymore. After getting the same question in different form a few times, I've learned to ask directly whether he actually understands or not.

    Example 2: My bosses will never ask each other if I've been assigned a task, partially because they assume the other will be doing their job and have given me the necessary specs (Japanese specs are a whole 'nother can of worms). I have to keep them up to date, which is inconvenient when the person who knows what I'm supposed to do it out of the office for the day. They've finally learned to some extent to ask me about ETA's so that they can plan properly.

    This boils down to the idea that "there can only be communication between equals." The example is easy to illustrate in Japanese customs, but I'm sure we've all had the same problems back home as well in whatever our native language. So younger types (that includes me), don't be afraid to ask questions when you don't have a clue because you think you're taking too much of their time or don't want to look like a fool (a related problem).

    Too little tact makes people defensive and angry. It's not their fault! Too much tact makes people overly cautious and untalkative. It's not a stupid question! I think by far our worst problem on perlmonks is a lack of tact rather than too much, but in the workplace the problem is often the opposite.


      I totally understand where you're coming from re: Japanese and the excessive use of tact from a Western perspective.

      When I lived in Japan I did not speak Japanese, although I knew some basic phrases and polite words and such. Only problem was, the more effort I put into being polite, the more the Japanese I encountered were polite right back, so much so that after a long string of "politeness" my vocabulary was quickly exhausted and I didn't know what else to say. It made things a little awkward for me because I didn't know how to extricate myself from the situation. I quickly learned to never, ever try to out-polite a Japanese. You'll lose every time. :-D

      Gary Blackburn
      Trained Killer

Re: On using tact
by Tyke (Pilgrim) on Feb 27, 2001 at 13:47 UTC
    Hmmm, reminds of the exam question in a school of diplomacy. (For arguments sake, there are only male candidates).

    Question By mistake, you enter a bathroom where a young lady is bathing. What do you say?

    NO! it's a diplomacy school... remember!

    Model answer Say "Oh, sorry Sir! I was looking for my spectacles..."

Re: On using tact
by jepri (Parson) on Feb 27, 2001 at 17:33 UTC
    I like your point - it conjures to mind the idea of quite, peaceful meditation and coming up with a post that is useful, polite and a delight to read.

    Unfortunately I can rarely stop myself from shooting off my mouth. Back in my formative years I can remember my father telling me that "It's easier to apologise than ask for permission". I suspect I have applied this a bit too broadly in my life, since he was only referring to his job as a project manager (where anything goes so long as you 'win' at the end).

    That probably doesn't seem to relevent, except that people who recall some of my worse posts will see that my attitude of "just do it and worry about what people think later" has made me look like a buffoon.

    I shall try to keep your advice in the forefront of my mind when posting.

    It's just that it's so easy to react without thinking...

    I didn't believe in evil until I dated it.

Re: On using tact
by benjamin (Initiate) on Feb 27, 2001 at 06:50 UTC
    Migrate this to non-Perl meditations...

    A great Dogen quote:

    If you can not find the truth where you, where do you expect to find it?