Loudest guy in the room

Sunday 5 June 2016

I just got back from PyCon 2016, and it was a giant summer camp love-fest as usual. But I've been thinking about a subtle and unfortunate dynamic that I saw a few times there.

In three different cases, I was with a group of people, and one person in particular had a disproportionate amount of air-time. They were different guys each time, but they just had a way of being the one doing more talking than listening, and more talking than others. In some cases, they were physically loud, but I don't always mean literally the loudest.

These weren't bad people. Sometimes, they were explicitly discussing the need to include others, or improve diversity, or other good impulses. They weren't trying to dominate the space, and they might even be surprised to hear that they were.

But I found myself cringing watching their interactions with others. Even when they thought they were being encouraging, I felt like they were subtly pushing others aside to do it. Keep in mind, this was at PyCon, one of the most explicitly inclusive places I frequent.

I'm a successful white guy, so I know it can be very easy to slip into the alpha male stance. Sometimes people expect it of me. It can be hard to tamp down the impulse to hold forth, letting others have the spotlight. But it's important, and a good exercise for yourself. It's fine to be able to be at the front of the room, but you should be able to turn it off when needed, which is more often than you would think.

Sometimes, this was in a men-only setting. It's great to be aware of the gender gap, but there are other kinds of gaps to consider also: non-native speakers, introverts, beginners, outsiders of various sorts. There are lots of reasons people might be quiet, and need a little room.

Ask questions instead of making statements. Stay quiet, and see what happens. Listen rather than speak. Even when it seems no one is going to say anything, wait longer than you are comfortable. See what happens. Leave space.

Next time you are in a group of people, look around and try to figure out who is the loudest guy in the room. If you aren't sure, then maybe it's you.

» 11 reactions

Comments

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Blaise Pabon 6:56 PM on 6 Jun 2016

Thank you for noticing and for bringing this up. As a parent, I have come to learn a lot about the Autism Spectrum and I find that focus on symbols and patterns so valuable for software development often comes at the expense of processing social conventions. The loudest guy in the room may well be the one with the highest autism score (who can still carry a conversation). I think we would do well to incorporate communication skills as a "birds-of-a-feather" topic in these conferences.

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susan 8:02 PM on 6 Jun 2016

This is so spot-on. I experience this with men and sometimes also with my own relatives.

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Aron Griffis 1:43 PM on 8 Jun 2016

"Ask questions instead of making statements."

This is something I've always appreciated about you, Ned.

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A. Jesse Jiryu Davis 2:13 AM on 18 Jun 2016

Thanks for writing this Ned -- I admire people who ask genuine questions, who are actually interested in others rather than just being polite. I strive to be someone like that myself.

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Darius 8:29 AM on 1 Jul 2016

"I'm a successful white guy"
"It's great to be aware of the gender gap, but there are other kinds of gaps to consider also"
"improve diversity"

Nowadays you can't even read programming blogs without that SJW nonsense and self-flagellation.

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Ned Batchelder 11:34 AM on 1 Jul 2016

@Darius: I'm sorry that being aware of quiet people around you seems like a burden. I guess we all have our struggles.

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susan 2:38 PM on 1 Jul 2016

Yeesh, Darius, it's 2016, not 1816.

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Greg Wilson 4:39 PM on 1 Jul 2016

I now advocate the "three ticket" method in meetings:

1. Everyone gets three sticky notes/cards/whatever.

2. Each time someone speaks, it costs them a ticket.

3. When they're out of tickets, they can't speak until everyone has used at least one ticket, at which point everyone gets all of their tickets back.

This ensures that no one is speaking more than three times as often as the quietest person in the room. It also encourages the garrulous (like me) to think carefully before speaking, because hey, there might be something more important to say in a few minutes.

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Andrew 10:23 PM on 1 Jul 2016

I just want to say that I am not Darius.

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FarScout 2:44 PM on 3 Jul 2016

It is good of you to try to encourage others to get involved. I try to do the same if someone at least shows some motivation to be involved. Although, I do side with Darius when it comes to the racial awareness thing that seems to be the rage nowadays. I couldn't care less about mine or someone else's skin color. I cherish diversity of perspectives and ideas. That may, or may not, include diversity of race.

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Sara 4:07 PM on 24 Jul 2016

Love that, Ned. Thanks for speaking up. Will print this out and put it on the desk of one of my colleagues, together with a rose.

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