I Give Up: Extroverted Barbarians at the Gates
Someone sent me a link to the video shown after this paragraph the other day, and I watched it. I then tweeted the link and sent it to a few of my coworkers because I figured it would make people laugh. It’s really funny, so give it a watch. But weirdly, I didn’t laugh. I watched it over and over again, mesmerized. I recognize that it’s funny and I find it funny, but I didn’t laugh.
This video is really a work of genius because it captures some incredible subtleties. There are two common archetypes captured nicely here in the form of the protagonist’s supposed allies: his boss and the project manager. I’ll give them names in their own sections below, along with the client characters. And then there are conversational tactics that bear mentioning.
This all revolves around a protagonist with whom any introverted person can identify. There’s nothing to indicate, per se, whether he’s introverted or extroverted, but the precision, the mannerisms, the posture — all of these scream “programmer” (or at least “engineer”) and so goes the association with introversion. The protagonist is the sole bulwark of sanity against a flood of idiocy, misunderstanding and general incompetence. You probably relate to him, having attended a meeting where all of the gathered C-levels and analysts thought you were being an obstructionist malingerer because you wouldn’t install Angry Birds on the meeting room’s television.
So who are the players?
In a way, I liken the smarmy project manager, Walter, to former British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, most remembered for his foreign policy of appeasement leading up to World War II in which he sought to dampen the aggression coming from the Axis powers by essentially “befriending” them. In this particular video, Chamberlain, the project manager, is presumably along to bridge the gap between the non-subject-matter-expert customers and the total-subject-matter-expert protagonist (and whose expertise makes the video eponymous). That’s not really why he’s there (though he doesn’t realize this), and I’ll get into that later as I’m describing tactics.
Chamberlain perceives that his best interests are served by simply agreeing to whatever is happening on the other side of the aisle, improvident though this may be. On some level, he’s probably aware that this strategy is stupid, but, hey, that’s a problem for later. He thinks his boss will skewer him if they don’t get the contract, so the fact that it’s going to be hard or impossible to deliver (what Expert is trying to tell him) just means he’ll later throw someone (i.e., Expert) under the bus.
The “design specialist,” Justine, is a mildly interesting character. She generally looks at Expert with some degree of respect and looks slightly uncomfortable when the rest of the characters make fun of Expert. At one point, to Expert’s delight, she even understands his point, and she visits him after the meeting out of genuine interest in the project and what is probably a “one pro to another” kind of overture. She’s the only character in the room that sees any value in Expert, and she probably recognizes that his subject matter knowledge exceeds hers and has value. If it were just her and Expert, she would probably listen attentively. I call her Dilettante because she seems to be the type of person you encounter with a bit of knowledge in a variety of fields and a genuine interest in improving.
The client’s boss is a classic MacLeod Clueless, and a simple idiot that isn’t very interesting. She’s the classic archetype of an over-promoted middle manager whose value is clearly wrapped up in company tenure. She spouts nonsensical jargon, torpedoes her firm’s own interests throughout the meeting, and serves up her position and her firm’s money for easy pickings by any MacLeod sociopath that happens along. She’s demanding something that she doesn’t understand in a way that makes no sense, and she’s willing to pay any huckster that comes along and sells her the magic beans she’s seeking.
Big Boss Man, to whom Chamberlain reports, is a classic MacLeod Sociopath. He likely has a fairly good handle on the situation and is of the opinion that the clients are idiots, but he has an intuitive understanding of the politics of the situation. Expert is flummoxed by the stupidity of the client proposal, and Chamberlain is simpering in an effort to show his boss his value as a diplomat, believing that the customer is always right and believing that Sociopath also believes that. Sociopath doesn’t. He knows the clients are idiots, and that Chamberlain is also kind of an idiot (for evidence of this, look at his expression at 6:14 where he clearly thinks the discussion of cats and birds as lines is dumb and simply ignores the client).
This doesn’t result in him rushing into defend Expert, however. That’s counter to his best interests, which I’ll address as a tactic, but he also finds Expert somewhat distasteful. Sociopath has navigated his way ably to money and power and a position atop the corporate hierarchy, but it is probably a slight annoyance to him that he may not be the smartest guy in the room. He knows that in Expert’s area of expertise, he’s nowhere near Expert, and while that’s fine, his inability to compare their relative intellectual worth across subject areas is a source of irritation.
So, the ostensible point of this meeting and no doubt many in which you’ve sat is to define the parameters for a project and then successfully launch that project. But, if you were to read the subconscious goals of the players, they would go something like this:
- Chamberlain: I want to get the client to sign off no matter what, and I want Sociopath to think it was my heroics that made this happen.
- Buffoon: I want to order people around and show off.
- Sociopath: I want this to be over quickly so I don’t have to listen to Buffoon and Chamberlain.
- Dilettante: I want to learn on the job without it being apparent that I’m doing so.
- Expert: I want to define parameters for this project and successfully launch it.
Sociopath knows that getting Buffoon to agree to the project is a veritable certainty going into the meeting, and he knows that Chamberlain’s presence is valuable, but not for the reasons that Chamberlain thinks. Chamberlain thinks he’s there because he’s a “straight shooter/smooth talker” that “speaks Expert” but Sociopath just wants him there because he understands how to butter Buffoon’s bread — by causing Buffoon to think she’s won an exchange and humbled an Expert. He’s there because Sociopath knows he’ll team up with Buffoon to laugh at Expert. Dilettante is just window dressing.
So what are the tactics by which this happens? What makes this so cathartic for engineers and programmers to watch? Well, there are a number of things occurring here.
Seizing on the only part of an explanation you understand
There’s nothing to level the playing field quite like ignoring most of what someone talking to you says and seizing on some minor point. This has two advantageous for purveyors of rhetorical fallacy. First and foremost, it lets you pivot the discussion in a way that you find favorable, but secondly, it implies that your opponent has babbled on and on and over-complicated the matter (ala Reagan countering Carter — folksy and relatable countering egg-head). Near the beginning, Expert gives a detailed explanation, avoiding saying that it would be impossible to draw red line with green ink by talking about color blindness. It’s a long-winded, but technically accurate way of saying “that’s pretty much impossible,” and all Buffoon takes away from it is “so, in principle this is possible.”
Talking down to the expert because you don’t understand
When Expert asks Buffoon to clarify what she’s talking about with “transparent ink,” she patronizingly says she thought that he’d know what “transparent” means and that he’d better know what “red” means if he’s an Expert. A little later, she doesn’t understand what perpendicular means and when Expert accidentally exposes that, she blames him for not understanding her nonsense. It’s a relatively standard approach to strike first in blaming the other for a miscommunication between two parties, but it’s especially vitriolic in a case where the party in the driver’s seat is covering inadequacy.
Begging the question (and perverting the role of experts)
I’ve encountered this myself, in my travels, and it’s certainly on display here. People assume (from ignorance) that a certain outcome is possible/feasible, and then seek out an expert to make it happen. When the expert explains that they’re misguided or trying to do something ill-advised or impossible, they adopt the stance, “I thought you were an expert, and you’re telling me you can’t do this?” Chamberlain does this throughout the clip.
This mostly comes from Sociopath and somewhat for show, but this is the tendency of those unskilled in a subject to assume that the subject is pretty simple and to generally devalue the knowledge of experts in that field. As more knowledge is acquired, so is respect for experts and humility. Sociopath dresses Expert down, particularly at the point where he says, “look, we’re not asking you to draw 20 lines — just 7.” Buffoon also does this once when she draws a triangle as an example of three perpendicular lines (“move — let me do it!”) Being the only Expert here and thoroughly outgunned and unaware of the real agenda, Expert is absolutely buried in an amplified echo chamber of Dunning Kruger.
These players and these tactics are painfully relatable. People in our line of work look at this ruefully and laugh because someone finally gets it and understands how silly the players seem to them. But introversion, lack of interest in office politics, and professional integrity are what hamstring us in such situations. I mean think of it this way — you cringe because you’re right there along with Expert, wanting these idiots to understand that red pens don’t draw green lines. You want to speak rationally to them and use analogies, diagrams and metaphors to make them see your point.
What you don’t do is turn the Dunning Kruger around on them and start telling them that they’re really going to need pure red lines if they want to maximize their verticals and strategize their synergies. You don’t tell them that kitten lines were so 2011. You don’t interrupt Chamberlain when he says “any fool can criticize” to say that you’re okay with the clients’ criticism and how he dare he call them fools. You don’t ask Chamberlain, if his title is “project manager,” why can’t he “manage” to define a clear spec.
You don’t do any of these things. Neither do I. Neither did Expert. Instead, we all do what he did in the end, which is to say, “sure, whatever buddy, I give up.” Extroverts extemporize and thrive in situations like this fueled with BS and beyond their control (though, Sociopath, who is controlling it, may be an introvert). We find ourselves at a loss for words, and utterly demoralized. Our credentials, our competence, and the validity of our very profession called into question, we bleakly resign ourselves to the madness and go home for a beer. We do that for a while, at least, and then, eventually, we Quit with a capital Q.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find myself laughing while watching this. Poor Anderson, the Expert, isn’t having an experience that he’ll submit to the Daily WTF and move on — he’s figuring out that his professional life is miserable. And the reason it’s miserable is because he’s realizing that expertise, ideas and results aren’t really the backbone of good business; in the land of the extroverts, egos and social capital are king.