Does this conversation need “both sides”?

In our work, we’ve needed to consider what kinds of conversations are healthy and what are abusive bad-faith debates. We’ve come up with some ways to think about the problem and decide the best steps to take. Those steps might include continuing the discussion, adjusting the rules for conversation, or stopping things entirely as to prevent further harm.

Free speech requires each of us to choose for ourselves what we will listen to

While speakers in the U.S. use the concept of “free speech” as an excuse to share offensive, hateful, and even harmful speech, the real beauty of the right to free speech is our ability to refuse to listen. While anyone can say (almost) anything they like, they have no power to force us to listen to their words. Ultimately, everyone’s right to free speech extends only to the point where it endangers my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We choose what to listen to and what to ignore. But we have to make an actual choice where to draw the line. What speech is useful or valuable to us and our society? And what speech causes more harm than good? For myself, I draw the line at listening to speech or participating in conversations where speech can be used to harm others. A few examples of speech and debates not worth participating in include:

  • Limiting the participation of others, especially by drowning out minority groups
  • Calling for harm for other people
  • Misleading people, both overtly and subtly
  • Participating in bad faith
  • Reinforcing power imbalances
  • Relies on false equivalencies to avoid meaningful discussion

Healthy conversations are grounded in equal participation and good faith

The opposite of harmful speech is healthy debate — conversations where both sides are willing to participate in good faith (including listening to opinions they don’t agree with). There are arguments where both sides are worth listening to; we need to look for these debates, while refusing to participate in harmful speech. That means looking for key characteristics:

  • When we can be respectful and listen to each other
  • When everyone with a stake in the outcome can participate in the process as an equal
  • When everyone participates in good faith

While telling harmful and healthy debates apart isn’t as simple as referring to a spotter’s guide, reviewing the circumstances of a conversation (including who has power), as well as how participants have acted in the past, can give you an instant gut reaction. With a little practice, you can tell if a specific somebody’s speech is going to require you to schedule appointments with your therapist.

How can we put this to use?

Let’s talk about a hypothetical situation: Joe Less is a speaker covering standard alt-right talking points, like claims that women are biologically unsuited to technical work. That argument right there throws up red flags — not just because his argument runs counter to the evidence on hand, but because he’s focusing on the rights and abilities of an entire demographic group. Our hypothetical speaker is a man, with commensurate privilege and power in our society, offering another red flag: attacking groups with less power is almost always harmful.

If we research our hypothetical speaker’s background, we may have our instinctual reaction confirmed: I’d look for reactions to other talks by the same speaker, litigation against organizations dedicated to social justice, and examples of physical harm. In less hypothetical circumstances, I’ve seen that a lot of people willing to use hate speech are also willing to use physical violence.

Accepting a debate with someone like this is risky. You need to choose how much risk to expose yourself to. Depending on the circumstances, you may be faced with debates you can’t walk away from. Lots of us have that one right-wing relative who can’t wait to corner you and talk about how they want anti-immigration or anti-abortion legislation. Though it’s not comfortable, you might decide the risk of getting into a shouting match at family events is worth extending yourself.

But other situations take more consideration. You have to evaluate who you will listen to and work with. After all, there are some people who can work on issues together while holding extremely different points of view. But some people can’t: they come in refusing to act in good faith. Good faith is the litmus test when it comes to listening to both sides of an issue and to working together.

Yes, these evaluations and assessments are work. I expect the most work from people in positions of privilege and power, because people with privilege have more resources to work on these issues. And, frankly, someone in a position of power, such as the administrators of universities that our hypothetical Joe Less might speak at, have the most power to make quick changes, like shutting down a talk that could cause harm to members of the student body.

For those of us not running universities or other large organizations, there’s still work we can do. Focus on the biggest impact you can create: convince leaders in your organizations and communities to support healthy debates, rather than making space for harmful speech presented in bad faith.

Need some ideas about how to handle these conversations in your workplace?

We made you a handy guide! This includes a page you can post for others to read, and second part to support your ally efforts and self-care. Download Healthy Debates and Discussions.

Learn more tools for these conversations from our book, The Responsible Communication Style Guide.

The Responsible Communication Style Guide is headed back to the printers!

When we sold out of print copies of The Responsible Communication Style Guide last fall, we promised to do another print run in early 2018. We’re happy to announce that we’re ready.

If you’ve been waiting to pick up a printed book (or enough for the rest of the office so they stop filching your copy), this is your chance.

Order the book

We’ll accept pre-orders through April 15 and expect to have books back from the printer, ready to ship on June 1.

Just want to grab the ebook? You can buy and download The Responsible Communication Style Guide right now.

Order the ebook

Why should I pre-order?

While we’re planning to print extra copies, we’re a small publishing house. We can’t keep large numbers of books in inventory long-term. When we sell out, there will probably be a wait until we can do another print run. Pre-ordering guarantees that you’ll get a copy and helps finance the second printing.

What if I need more than 10 copies? (Or an invoice, a purchase order, or other details.)

Email us at We’re set up to handle larger requests, as well as to provide training for teams.

About the book

The Responsible Communication Style Guide is a style manual covering topics of identity and how to address them in technical contexts.

Announcing our first two Style Guide supplements: Age and Python

This year’s publication of The Responsible Communication Style Guide was an amazing start towards having better tools for writing about identity in technology.

But we’re not nearly done.

We set a fairly narrow scope for the first edition of the style guide, knowing that we couldn’t possibly cover everything we wanted to and still put a resource into your hands in a timely fashion. So we made plenty of notes on topics we still needed to cover and started thinking about how we could iterate on the first edition of The Responsible Communication Style Guide.

As a result, we’re pleased to announce our first style guide supplements: The RCSG Supplement on Age and The RCSG Supplement on Python.

Why these two topics? Age, as a facet of identity, matters in technology more than we may notice. From legal constraints on websites targeting children under the age of 13, to jokes about technology ‘so easy your parent can use it’, we need to talk about age in a responsible manner. We’d originally considered including more content on age in the first edition, but we discovered that we needed a separate section to properly present this information.

Our supplement on age will follow the approach we laid out in The Responsible Communication Style Guide. To do an addition for a specific language community, like our Python supplement, is a little more of a leap. Looking at how we write about specific communities, however, directly improves our ability to make those communities accessible and inclusive. We’re starting with Python because my personal experience is with Python and making sense of the community requires a certain amount of cultural knowledge. I already have a long list of things I’ve found difficult to write about in the Python community:

  • How to explain the Monty Python references to someone who doesn’t have time to watch 45 television episodes, five movies, and a bunch of other media
  • The pronunciation and capitalization of Python tools — I’m looking at you, PyQt.
  • Enough facts about nonvenomous snakes to make clever puns in my articles.

None of these issues prevents anyone from writing code in Python, but they do make the process of creating articles, tutorials, and documentation harder than it needs to be, and sometimes get in the way of understanding someone else’s code or docs.

If you’d like to be the first to have access to these important supplements, join in backing The Recompiler Year 3 Kickstarter and choose the “Community Builder” reward. All backers who choose this option will receive each supplement as soon as it’s ready to ship.

Keep tuned for an introduction to our supplement editors, as well as calls for contributors for these supplements.

‘Shaping a Style Guide’ at AlterConf Portland


I was asked to speak at last week’s AlterConf Portland about the process of developing The Responsible Communication Style Guide. It’s a little rough, but I wanted to share the talk I wrote. 

Content warnings: Discussions of abusive language, misgendering, misnaming, sex work

I want to talk to you about the word “literally” for a moment. When I tell you that I am literally freezing, you know I’m cold. But am I actually literally experiencing a concerning drop in my core temperature? Not so much.

Despite my own feelings on the interchangeability of the words “literally” and “figuratively” (and do I ever have some opinions!), the reality is that we haven’t just suddenly agreed to switch the meaning of a word out of nowhere. Different communities use different words in different ways. Language grows and changes to cover new concepts constantly, like how the word “computer” used to refer to a person making calculations, but now refers to a bunch of different types of devices. These changes are routine, through conversation, slang, academic use, memes, translation and literally every other time we communicate. There is a reason English has a reputation for rifling through other languages’ pockets for loose nouns!

Trying to stop the growth of language is like shouting into the wind. Even if it makes you feel better, it’s not effective. And, honestly, most attempts to control language come with a lot of elitist and biased crap. (The history of the word “ain’t” is a basically a primer on classism and language.)

We make plenty of tools to help us write and communicate, from linters to dictionaries. We create tools to make sure we get job titles and other details right. But those tools can be tools of oppression. When a journalist relies on references recommending obsolete, oppressive, or offensive terms as standard, they’re going to use those terms. It’s the easiest option, just like using someone’s deadname is easier than researching and respecting someone’s identity. Their audience will use those terms or approaches, too, because an authority just used them. There’s a ripple effect when we rely on tools created without considering their use and impact.

We can see this in actual examples from actual tools: There’s a particularly awful example that The AP Stylebook updated last year. While “child prostitute” or “teenage prostitute” used to be acceptable under AP style, in 2016 the guide was updated to suggest that writers avoid using the word “prostitute” for anyone under the legal age of consent. That’s because the word “prostitute” implies a sex worker who is “voluntarily trading sex for money” and someone under the age of consent, by definition cannot voluntarily participate in sex in the first place, according to Tom Kent, one of the editors of The AP Stylebook.

The AP Stylebook will definitely have more updates in the future, from new technology terms to updated discussions of sports statistics. In fact, that’s their entire business model: journalists are encouraged to buy a new copy every single year. Most of us only update our copies every couple of years, but we’re used to thinking about at least this one specific tool as something that needs to grow and change with the language it describes.

That assumption of change is really useful when we talk about how to improve the systems and tools we rely on. It provides a framework where we can find ways to do better, ways to update our expectations as we learn, ways to improve our communications. Sometimes it takes more time than we like to make these changes. (It took the Associated Press until 2016 to agree with the rest of us that “internet” shouldn’t be capitalized.) As it happens, though, there’s nothing to stop you from opening up a text doc and writing your own style guide. I’ve been doing that for years, which led me pretty much directly to giving this talk.

Writing about people is hard and I’ve messed up more than once. I’ve learned a lot of what I know at the expense of the people I’ve written about because the tools I relied on were crap in one way or another. I started keeping a pre-publication list of everything I need to double check on every project because I misgendered an interview subject I only knew through email. I made an assumption and pushed publish. A few hours later, I got an incredibly kind email from that person pointing out my error. I apologized, but that wasn’t enough. I never want to make that error again, so I added a step to my workflow to ensure that I’ll do better.

I try to do good work, but I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes in the future. When I do, I’ll apologize and try to find a way to do better. That, as Kronda has told us, is the job.

For me, part of that process has been creating The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Basically, I wanted to take all of my tools and tricks and put them in a reference manual so I could improve my own work. Then I realized that sharing this sort of guide could help a couple of my fellow writers avoid making similar mistakes and that I could do some research to answer some questions I still had.

Then — and this is the most important thing — I realized that writing this style guide by myself would be a huge mistake. Just like the top-down approach at organizations like the Associated Press, writing everything would be a way to guarantee that I got something else wrong. If we want to guarantee that our work is inclusive, thoughtful, and responsible, we need to create it in inclusive, thoughtful, and responsible ways. Sure, I had a list of questions, but I didn’t have useful answers.

But I sure wasn’t going to ask anyone to work on fixing MY writing for free. So I worked with The Recompiler to run a Kickstarter. We met our goal mere hours before our campaign ended, giving us enough money to pay contributors and cover printing costs. That’s basically it. Folks, do not expect to get rich writing style guides.

But we did pay our contributors! That’s one of the pieces of this project that makes me the happiest. One of the most wonderful feelings in the world is to say, hey, you, you’re awesome and you know stuff and would you please take this money right now? I strongly recommend it when you need a serious pick-me-up. Keep this recommendation in mind, though, because I’m about to have some feelings up here.

Usually, I have to talk about my work in a way that will convince everyone in the audience that they should pay for me to keep doing it. But in this room, I see people who not only have done that (thank you!) but who have helped me to do work that I consider important. That makes me feel like I have a certain amount of freedom here. So I want to say a couple of things in conclusion.

I don’t think I’m the right person to have edited this style guide. I’m just a person who had the willingness and the time to do so. Focusing on this work, running a Kickstarter to fund it, and not relying on this book as my main source of income is incredibly privileged. I’ve tried to stay aware of that privilege throughout the process of making The Responsible Communication Style Guide a reality. The most effective strategy I’ve found is paying contributors so that people other than me can afford to work on this project. It’s not a solved problem in any way, though, just like everything else about this project. We had several potential contributors who weren’t able to work on this project because we couldn’t pay enough to make this project a top priority.

I want to acknowledge that I don’t consider The Responsible Communication Style Guide complete. I have lists of improvements to make in upcoming editions, topics we need to add, and experts I need to pay. The first edition is just that. It’s a first iteration to at least give us a starting point to improve upon as we learn more and try new approaches.

Given that we live under capitalism, the standard solution to both of my concerns is more money. I have to admit that I’m not optimistic about either capitalism or getting money for important work right now. Several communities I love are shutting down or scaling back right now because there’s so little cash to be had. Even this conference today is bittersweet because I know there’s only one AlterConf left after this.

For the organizations that have the most money to give, things like diversity and inclusion aren’t a priority. When an inclusivity project can’t raise for $10,000 from an organization that spends that much just on “unisex” t-shirts, there’s something wrong. Sure, there are always organizations looking to buy diversity and inclusivity indulgences, but they don’t put money into it in the long-term.

You’re in this room. You probably already know all of this. But I want to ask you to do something when you go back to work next week. Go ask your employer to spend some money, preferably from outside some poorly-funded D-and-I initiative. Do the same thing next week, and the week after. Look at technical training budgets, continuing education credits, even the budget for holiday parties. Look for ways to move that money into the hands of people doing good work.

  • Helping plan a party? Pick a catering company operated by a person of color.
  • Need CE credits for a professional certification? Check if there are CE trainers for your certification focused on accessibility.
  • Got a technical training budget? Choose the trainers who subsidize community work with technical training.

I’m not asking you to seize the means of production, but I am asking you to redirect the means of production every chance you get. I know that isn’t a particularly inspiring message, but it’s the one I’ve got right now.

On that cheerful note, the last thing I want to do while I’m up here is acknowledging all of the people who have worked on The Responsible Communication Style Guide. I can’t name all of you in the time I have left, but I want to thank Audrey Eschright, our publisher, as well as our contributing editors Stephanie Morillo, Ellen Dash, Heidi Waterhouse, Melissa Chavez, and Anat Moskowitz, along with our designer, Mel Rainsberger. I may have done most of the cat-herding on this project, but there literally would not be a book without these people.

Ready to party? Come celebrate with us!

Join us in celebrating the release of The Responsible Communication Style Guide! We’ve worked hard to bring you an extensive resource for improving your technical writing, documentation, and workplace communication.

If you bought a book through the Launch Party option on our Kickstarter, we’ll have it available for you to pick up.

If you didn’t buy a book through the Launch Party, you can buy a party ticket through Eventbrite. Tickets are $5 (but if that’s a hardship, please contact us).

We’ll be at Old Gilbert Road Tavern on September 14 at 7 PM. Come celebrate with us!

via GIPHY / Tuomasmoi

Last chance to pre-order the book

The Responsible Communication Style Guide is one last review away from the printer’s inbox. That means that you have just three days left to preorder a copy of the print book. While we are printing more copies than we need to fulfill our Kickstarter rewards, we can’t guarantee when we’ll be able to do another print run. If you prefer hard copy, I strongly encourage you to pre-order.

Pre-order your copy here

If you prefer ebooks, you’re in luck — we’ll be sending out ebook rewards before print books. Once we finish our final review, you’ll get a download link for the ebook.

We’ve also launched a website for The Responsible Communication Style Guide: The site has additional resources, as well as upcoming training opportunities — even if you’ve memorized everything from our Kickstarter campaign, there’s some new stuff.

Lastly, we got to test out some of our training materials during Open Source Bridge last month. We spent about 90 minutes working on the following techniques:

  • Interviewing people about their identities
  • Editing business communications to make them more inclusive
  • Writing about people in ways that emphasize their humanity
  • Adding style guides to editorial workflows

(We spent an additional five minutes talking about how amazing the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comics are, so consider checking those out too.)

Once we’ve completed fulfilling our Kickstarter rewards (including the onsite training level), we’ll be available for organizational training, including workshops. Let us know if you’re interested in having members of your organization trained to use The Responsible Communication Style Guide.