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Manners matters.

I was checking out this fabulous new book called Open Advice after seeing a link on a mailing list. The book is a collection of reflections by experienced (and often well-known) free and open source software contributors on things they wish they’d known when they started in FOSS.

I found a particularly wonderful section among a wealth of other wonderful text. In fact, I probably could have opened the book at random and found something just as quotable and insightful. But this piece struck a sympathetic nerve, probably because one of my pet issues is treating each other with kindness. This excerpt is from the chapter called “Good Manners Matter” by the amazing Rich Bowen, and I’ll reproduce it here, thanks to the author’s and editors’ enlightened use of the CC BY-SA 3.0 license:

I had been doing technical support, particularly on mailing lists, for about two years, when I first started attending technical conferences. Those first few years were a lot of fun. Idiots would come onto a mailing list, and ask a stupid question that a thousand other losers had asked before them. If they had taken even two minutes to just look, they would have found all the places the question had been answered before. But they were too lazy and dumb to do that.

Then I attended a conference, and discovered a few things.

First, I discovered that the people asking these questions were people. They were not merely a block of monospaced black text on a white background. They were individuals. They had kids. They had hobbies. They knew so much more than I did about a whole range of things. I met brilliant people for whom the technology was a tool to accomplish something non-technical. They wanted to share their recipes with other chefs. They wanted to help children in west Africa learn how to read. They were passionate about wine, and wanted to learn more. They were, in short, smarter than I am, and my arrogance was the only thing between them and further success.

When I returned from that first conference, I saw the users mailing list in an entirely different light. These were no longer idiots asking stupid questions. These were people who needed just a little bit of my help so that they could get a task done, but, for the most part, their passions were not technology. Technology was just a tool. So if they did not spend hours reading last year’s mailing list archives, and chose instead to ask the question afresh, that was understandable.

And, surely, if on any given day it is irritating to have to help them, the polite thing to do is to step back and let someone else handle the question, rather than telling them what an imbecile they are. And, too, to remember all of the times I have had to ask the stupid questions.

Well said, Rich. Any of us helping users or newcomers to any endeavor, whether it’s Fedora, some other FOSS project, or a volunteer organization in your town, can learn from Rich’s experience above, assuming that we haven’t already lived it ourselves. Any user can be the contributor of tomorrow. It pays real dividends to extend them a helping hand.

I do highly recommend you check out Open Advice at the website. It’s chock full of insight, anecdotes, and lessons about the powerful, transformational, and exciting journey of free and open source software. The book is a free download, but you can also purchase a copy from Lulu (and, according to the site, from Amazon soon).

4 Comments

  1. Carolina Flores Hine said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    Hi, Paul. I didn’t know about that book. I know by now I will love it :-) I’m glad I came to your blog today.

  2. Carlos (casep) Sepulveda said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Thanks! I’ve downloaded the book, now to read it.

  3. Moritz Barsnick said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    Well, this fits so well for any type of professional communication as well. I work a lot with cross-site, cross-continent teams. Meeting people (and be it via video conference) gives all that stupid email and chat communication a whole new perspective.

  4. tatica said,

    February 12, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    I guess things change once you realize you’re not Neo and world isn’t matrix. Both sides are right: Non-Tech users should search a bit more andTech should give better answers, I guess that the key point is to find balance.

    Internet is so huge and scary for non-tech users that sometimes they are afraid/bored/whatever to seek for info that they just rather to ask to some human instead ask to a machine. We, as answers providers should also be a bit more polite when we reply.

    We had an interesting session at Blacksburg where we talk about this particular issue. So I guess that just after send this comment, I will go to next tab and purchase this book :D Thx Paul for this amazing reference

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