On Pointy Hair

For anyone who’s read Dilbert, or knew someone who did, there’s the general concept of a “pointy-haired boss” (sometimes also called a “bogon”, or just “a suit”). Pointy-haired bosses are not just managers, but managers who seem to operate on a level totally disconnected from reality. Recently I read a post that reminded me of them, and, relatedly, why traditional interviews for software companies are unusually stressful.

Ben Hoffman’s The Quaker and the Parselmouth uses a metaphor of “Quakers”, who never lie and treat promises very solemnly, and “Parselmouths”, who lie freely, but never to each other.

Are there advantages of being a Quaker over being a Parselmouth? I’ve already argued that in particular cases there can be advantages in being trusted by the untrustworthy. A Quaker bank might not be happy to lend money to [people who lie freely], but it should be happy to have them as depositors.

But I don’t automatically get credited for my attempts to say what I mean and no more. If the people around me have no idea that this might even be a thing, then what incentive do I have to keep doing it? And yet, I don’t find myself smoothly adjusting to my circumstances – I find myself awkwardly trying to say only and exactly what I mean, even in circumstances when people are expected to exaggerate, so I’ll be taken to mean much less than I do. I suspect that it’s not quite possible for humans to completely fine-tune their honesty case by case. I suspect that it’s hard to learn that words have meanings here but not there, that justice is a virtue in this place but a vice in that one.

Instead, I suspect that for the health of the souls of those who are dispositionally inclined towards treating words not as mere reports of current inclinations, but as things designed to stand enduringly, monumental inscriptions meant to be true long after the time in which they were written passes away, these people need an environment where this is in fact globally the case.

There are purposes where being neither of the two is a good decision; politics, whether national or office, is one, and acting is another; let’s call people who use this style Actors. All are – most likely – durable inclinations. If you learn to keep your words close to the truth to avoid dangerous miscommunications about precise topics, it is harder to let your words move fluidly to persuade. If you learn to adapt your words to the situations at hand for effectiveness, and not worry too much about how long or how precisely they describe the truth as you see it, it is hard to switch to careful precision even when it’s critically important. It’s most likely possible to learn the “Parselmouth” style, with difficulty; the Marranos of Spain, or similar groups who must scrupulously present one face in private and another in public, may manage it. But it’s certainly harder. (There’s at least one more approach worth gesturing at, where words are treated as distractions and actions and physical presence are the accepted signs of truth, but I don’t know it personally.)

But communication between the two styles is difficult; with the very different approach to words and the truth, for many purposes you need as much translation effort as from two different languages. (Lullaby words create a similar problem.) Generally with a good working relationship and experience, most people in mixed environments of Quaker-ishness and Actor-ishness learn this translation. But it’s unnatural and frustrating, and so the Quakers call the managers pointy-haired bosses and the Actors call the engineers… actually, I’m not sure. “Autistic pedants”?

And if you’re a software engineer, this tension gets acute during the traditional-format on-site interview. There are technical questions, where precision and holding tight to the truth is critical and the ideal mindset is Quaker. But there are also ‘soft’ questions, whose goal is to see a frankly unrealistic level of enthusiasm for this specific company, description of your work on past projects framed to maximize your contribution and the scope, and generally presenting an image of yourself and your work that conforms to expectations. This is a very Actor-y mode, and frequently you’ll be asked to transition between the two in the course of answering a single question. There may be people for whom this is natural, but they’re a small segment of the population.

In short: interviews suck, and communication across the boundaries of truth norms suck hard.

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