Why so Rude?

The engineering world has a long standing tradition none of us should be too proud of: rudeness. There was, in fact, a time when I was working the phones on customer support that the general attitude was, “feel free to flame me when I ask a question, just answer the question in the flame.” Flames were an accepted part of daily life.

Which prompts me to ask a simple question: why?

A number of answers have been given over the years, with the most prevalent being, “It’s nothing personal. Primarily it is a time management problem,” (Actually posted as the answer in a FAQ).

I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. As I can attest from my personal experience in the forum tied to the FAQ, people in the IT industry often make more time to be rude than they do to actually be helpful. Rather than posting a link to answer a question, we make up long stirring posts about how stupid the questioner is.

Or maybe the answer is engineers just think people who “can’t read the manual,” don’t deserve our time and respect? Or that we don’t want to constantly answer the questions of people who won’t take the time to learn for themselves? Sorry, I don’t buy these excuses, either. I’ve worked with really smart people all my life, and yet I’ve never met anyone who didn’t fail to understand what the manual says, or didn’t have the time to read the code, or simply couldn’t find what they were looking for — resulting in what some folks might call a “stupid question.”

I’m not going to psychologize here, or try and put personal motives behind the epidemic of rudeness in the engineering world. Is it because we think being rude makes you look smart? Or because we like the feeling of power we get when someone asks what we consider to be a “stupid question,” and we want to belittle them as much as possible along the way? Or is it because we really think that rude questions will drive away stupid questions, and everyone will eventually leave us alone to put our heads down and code, or configure that new router, or… ??

I don’t honestly know the answer.

What I do know is that if we think rudeness will make people leave us alone, then we’re probably right. On the other hand, I’m not certain how and why we think that being left alone is a good thing. After all, you don’t want to be “left alone,” when you’re looking for a new job, or when you’re asking for a promotion, or when you’re the one asking a stupid question, do you? No, I didn’t think so.

Yes, I get frustrated at questions for which I think the answer is obvious. And yes, I sometimes snap at people who ask me things. But over the years, I’ve learned that just as I can’t always find the answer with a search (because I simply don’t know where to look all the time), others can’t either. That I need to differentiate between those who are using me to get ahead in their own world, and those who honestly want to learn, or honestly can’t find the answer they’re looking for.

In general, I’ve learned that rudeness doesn’t, actually, serve me well. That being rude doesn’t make me look smart, it just makes me rude, and there are more people who can ask me questions than I can be rude to.

That being rude is not an effective defense mechanism.

Russ White

Russ White

Principal Engineer at Ericsson
Russ White is a Network Architect who's scribbled a basket of books, penned a plethora of patents, written a raft of RFCs, taught a trencher of classes, and done a lot of other stuff you either already know about — or don't really care about. You can find Russ at 'net Work, the Internet Protocol Journal, and his author page on Amazon.
Russ White
Russ White
Russ White

Latest posts by Russ White (see all)

  • LeeBadman

    The rudeness factor is a two-sided coin. I’ve seen more and more users Tweet along the lines of “your F#ing network sucks tonight!” and somehow that is supposed to equal an actionable trouble ticket. Human nature is very much at work here- it’s easy to bark out 140 terse characters and get on with your life, without realizing the wake of bad feelings created by the action whether you are a user or a support type. It’s unfortunate, but also a statement on the general state of society today as we try to squeeze complicated sentiments into tidy little messages.

    • riw777

      Agreed –it’s not just an engineering problem, it’s also a problem in our societies at large… But the only end of the problem I can attack is within my own community (ies) –engineering being where I see it a lot, and hence where it really strikes home.

  • http://networkerzone.blogspot.com/ ORHAN ERGUN

    Every word is correct , especially , when you start to look for a job , you don’t want to be alone :) . If we also look the problem from another side , among the IT guys , although they are not network guys or maybe limited amount of knowledge , when they pretend that they know a lot or they pretend they have an idea on everything , to be a rude is unavoidable , isn’t it

  • Jim

    Russ,
    From what I have seen, there is a big ego in the IT industry. Something I have even had to overcome myself when I realized I really don’t know it all, lol. I may be on a rabbit-trail here, but I have noticed may IT support/engineers perk up or act better when the person asking for help work on the techs ego.
    But as a whole, you are exactly right, rudeness abounds in the workplace, and it (the workplace) is stressful enough without people adding to it.
    A kind word and a soft voice can go along way in making everyone’s day just a little it easier….

  • Fernando Montenegro

    My intuition is that it is tied to peer pressure in the ‘echo chamber’ exacerbating personality traits. Sound like pop psychology (and probably is…) but I get the sense that many in our industry see their ‘elders’ being rude in forums and that to fit in they have to do the same. It doesn’t help that the very format of the medium – acerbic electronic forums – strips away most signals of nuance that would likely be present in a more “emphatetic” approach.

    Best way to address it (IMHO)? Lead by example and promptly sh[o?]ut down offending behaviour. If those new to our environments see that poor behaviour is not acceptable, we can use the same peer pressure for our benefit.

    Not to say it’ll be easy or painless, but I think it needs to be done.

    Good discussion to have over a meal …

  • Guest

    Great article. Those of us that work in IT need to remember that almost 100% of our job is service. The end user can’t and shouldn’t be expected to know our job well enough to not have to answer questions. They work in the department they work in for a reason, they don’t work in IT.

  • Chris Bell

    Great article. Those of us that work in IT need to remember that almost 100% of our job is service. The end user can’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to know our job well enough to not have to ask questions. They work in the department they work in for a reason, they don’t work in IT. Soft skills are almost important as your IT skill, if not more.

  • Jonathan Davis

    Hey Russ, I’ve got your answer right here! If you would read the freakin manual (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DSM-IV)… :-). Seriously though, there is a population within IT that works with technology because they can’t handle people. We’ve all worked with the programmer, engineer, DBA, etc. that has the personality of an 800 ton steamroller. Yet, when you need something flattened, they are REALLY good at their job. When I started in IT, it seemed that steamrollers outnumbered the socially aware bunch by a large margin. As that has slowly shifted, some of the attitudes have held on. I think we are maturing as an industry, and as we continue to do so, we will see attitudes mature along with it.

  • Calvin Christopher

    This article was written about me, I know it. Thankfully, a book written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People” changed my whole attitude (and career) around.

  • lkchild

    It’s interesting that this isn’t the norm in other areas of engineering. Particularly where safety is involved, mechanical and electrical engineering, there tends to be a much better culture of “there are no stupid questions”.

    • Russ White

      This is an interesting observation… Maybe this is one reason why I’m so attuned to this –my background isn’t in computer science (I only took in a degree in IT in the last 10 years), but rather electronics (radio, RADAR, and the like). And you’re right, there’s no stupid question when you have an airplane wandering around someplace waiting on you to fix the ILS or VOR so they can get on the ground. Maybe part of our problem is we largely work in a monoculture, in terms of experience and background? Part of it might also be that we’re playing in a “young person’s” playground — IT is “no country for old men,” as the saying goes.

  • Pär Björklund

    Disclaimer: this in no way is intended as an excuse, just an observation .
    Could some of the perceived rudeness be the cause of being overly terse when answering questions? In my experience this is a common trait among technical types and can require constant analysis of your wording before saying/writing.

  • Pär Björklund

    Disclaimer: this in no way is intended as an excuse, just an observation .
    Could some of the perceived rudeness be the cause of being overly terse when answering questions? In my experience this is a common trait among technical types and can require constant analysis of your wording before saying/writing.

  • Greg

    I recently watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, where she discussed the internal effect of body language on (self) perception/emotion. The first thing I wondered is if there had been any studies showing a correlation between negative emotional state, and how long an office worker has been hunched over a workstation, or head down on a phone call. Might be a factor, but surely not the only one.

  • cangowrong

    Not everyone is a born teacher. I find that many resort to rudeness to disguise an inability to perform as an effective teacher. Like that TA that left out all the steps that you needed to see in Calculus, never understanding that you are at a different learning level than them.