Miriam Ruiz
random thoughts on technology and life











{October 09, 2015}   Thick Skin (within Free/Open Source communities)

The definition of “thick-skinned” in different dictionaries ranges from “not easily offended” to “largely unaffected by the needs and feelings of other people; insensitive”, going through “able to ignore personal criticism”, “ability to withstand criticism and show no signs of any criticism you may receive getting to you”, “an insensitive nature” or “impervious to criticism”. It essentially describes an emotionally detached attitude regarding one’s social environment, the capacity or ignoring or minimizing the effects of others’ criticism and the priorization of the protection of one’s current state over the capacity of empathizing and taking into account what others may say that don’t conform to one’s current way of thinking. It is essentially setting up barriers against whatever others may do that might provoke any kind of crisis or change in you.

There are a few underlying assumptions in the use of this term as a something good to have, when it comes to interactions with your own community:

In the first place, it assumes that your own community is essentially hostile to you, and you will have to be constantly in guard against them. It assumes that it is better to set up barriers against the influence of others within your own comunity, because in fact your own peers are out there essentially to hurt you. Or, at least, they do not care a damn about you.

In second place, it assumes that changes are wrong, that personal evolution is wrong, and that the more insensitive you are to your peer’s opinions, the best, because they really have nothing to contribute to help you grow as a person. “I’m smart; you’re dumb. I’m big; you’re little. I’m right; you’re wrong; And there’s nothing you can do about it.” (from the film Matilda). Matilda’s dad is in fact the first reference that comes to my mind when we’re talking about really thick skin.

 

Scene of the film Matilda: I'm smart, You're dumb. I'm big, You're little. I'm right, You're wrong

 

When the main recommendation when the level of aggressiveness within a community is that someone has to make their skin thicker, they are assuming that a bullying environment will help the results. This is nothing new. It’s the same theoretical base that you can see in hazing and in other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation in college, when initiating a person into some groups. It’s supposed to build character, to make someone closer to the alpha male stereotype and, in essence, make us ‘better men’ (yes, I am using the word men on purpose, because insensitiveness is not usually seen as a positive trait in females). The assumption is that a community with a hard environment and individuals prepared for the war is more effective than a more civilized one.

Luckily, that’s not the point of view of most members of the Debian Community, and many other Free/Open Source projects. The Code of Conduct is very explicit when it says that “a community in which people feel threatened is not a healthy community”, and that is good. ” The Debian Project welcomes and encourages participation by everyone” (Diversity Statement), including those with a thin skin, and I’m happy about that. There are still a lot of things to improve, of course, but I have the feeling that -despite the occasional complains that having to be respectful to others take the fun away- we’re moving in the right direction.

“The best tip I can give you on thickening your skin = don’t.  That is, don’t thicken your skin.  Having a thin skin means you’re letting the world in, you’re letting what’s out there affect what’s in you.  It means you’re connected.  You’re open.  You’re considerate and you’ll consider it — whatever it might be.  Having a thin skin may be dangerous, sure, because you might take in so much that you pop, like that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka.  But life is dangerous. A thick skin protects you from everything, but it also protects you from everything — from the gentle touches of life, from the subtle emotions of others, the deep connections, the meaningful interactions.” (Top Ten Tips on how to Thicken your Skin).



uau says:

You’re grossly misrepresenting what people mean by “thicker skin” in the discussion. Of your alternative definitions, the most appropriate for the discussion is “not easily offended”. This does not imply any of the exaggeratedly negative connocations you’re trying to attach to the term. For example, having thick skin in no way means “ignoring anything that doesn’t match your current way of thinking”; in fact, thin-skinned people who get emotional or upset when facing opinions that conflict with their own beliefs are more likely to dismiss such opinions without considering their content rationally.

Having overly thin skin in the sense of getting very easily upset and incapable of rational responses or action is a negative personality trait, in the same sense as being stupid or incompetent is negative. It may be hard for some people to change their behavior, and there may be reason to try to accommodate their limitations to some degree, but that doesn’t mean it would not be an undesirable trait.

Saying that certain people in a community need to get a thicker skin is not comparable to saying “hazing is good”. The difference is like the difference between saying that people should be able to stay awake for a 8 hour workday without falling asleep on their desks, and saying that causing sleep deprivation is good.



Miry says:

I didn’t invent any of the meanings I have transcribed there, all of them are taken from different dictionaries available online, and can be easily found using any search engine. If you want to use your own particular meaning for the expression, feel free to do it, but don’t expect others to guess it.



Matti says:

False dichotomy. A thick_er_ skin does not mean you’ll have to some day explode and put your workplace on fire, just that you can walk through life without getting scratches and bruises as easily.



uau says:

It’s impossible to use natural language so that no word or phrase has any meanings other than exactly the one you mean. The meaning of “thicker skin” used in the discussion has not been the speakers’ “own particular” one, but a quite widely understood one. That you could find different meanings from online dictionaries is really not a reasonable argument against using it.



LorenzoC says:

I wonder how health a community is when people are constantly worried to say the wrong thing and upset somebody. How healthy a community is when you must be “diverse” otherwise you are a second class citizen. How healthy a community is when everybody0s life is hidden behind a courtain of pretending and lies and you must be always acting instead of being honest.



Miry says:

Everyone has their own opinion on what’s a better or a worse community, of course. But if you have a look at the healthiest communities, social groups, families, churches, etc. you will notice that they are supportive and they don’t require their members to thicken their skin or get continuously defensive towards their peers. If being honest for you means hurting everyone around, then you might have a problem, but that’s not true for most of the people.



Greg says:

I’m sorry Miry, but to me it’s very clear that you’re misunderstanding the term “thick skin”.

I mean, you have to deal with reality, right? So let’s deal with it:

> In the first place, it assumes that your own community is essentially hostile to you

No, it does not.

As others have pointed out, “thick skin” *just* means: “the most appropriate for the discussion is “not easily offended””.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t assume anything about any community, it is a personal quality that people have.

> In second place, it assumes that changes are wrong, that personal evolution is wrong, and that the more insensitive you are to your peer’s opinions, the best

This stuff has absolutely *nothing* to do with having a thick skin.

The ability to handle and cope with offensive comments has absolutely ZERO to do with any of this stuff you mention.

> ““The best tip I can give you on thickening your skin = don’t. That is, don’t thicken your skin. Having a thin skin means you’re letting the world in, you’re letting what’s out there affect what’s in you. It means you’re connected. You’re open. You’re considerate and you’ll consider it — whatever it might be. Having a thin skin may be dangerous, sure, because you might take in so much that you pop, like that blueberry girl from Willy Wonka. But life is dangerous. A thick skin protects you from everything, but it also protects you from everything — from the gentle touches of life, from the subtle emotions of others, the deep connections, the meaningful interactions.”

This is just… inappropriate. Totally not what these words mean. Completely and total misunderstanding.

Not being easily offended in fact helps you be more open, what in this quote is referred to as “thin skin”. By not being easily offended your emotions do not cloud your vision and understanding of the world. You do not lash out and react back at people negatively when they throw negativity your way. Having a “thick skin” helps you have the properties that are attributed here to a “thin skin”, or at the very least it certainly does not impede them.



Miry says:

“not easily offended” is the most positive definition of the term I found in a dictionary, indeed, but it’s certainly not the only one, and it definitely doesn’t account for the full meaning of the word.



Miry says:

And yeah, having too much of a thin skin can be certainly dangerous and even counter-productive for communication, but I have never seen a request in any community for people needing to be thin-skinned, and in most of geek communities it is certainly required to be thick-skinned.

And while we’re playing the game of definitions and meanings, I’ll add something to the mix that might help provide better insight: synonyms and antonyms:

Synonyms of thick-skinned: affectless, callous, case-hardened, cold-blooded, compassionless, desensitized, hard-boiled, hard-hearted, heartless, indurate, inhuman, inhumane, insensate, insensitive, ironhearted, merciless, obdurate, pachydermatous, pitiless, remorseless, ruthless, slash-and-burn, soulless, stony (also stoney), stonyhearted, take-no-prisoners, thick-skinned, uncharitable, unfeeling, unmerciful, unsparing, unsympathetic ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/thick-skinned )

Synonyms of thick-skinned: benumbed, callous, coldhearted, hard-as-nails, hardhearted, insensitive, seasoned, tough, toughened ( http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/thick-skinned )

Antonyms of thick-skinned: charitable, compassionate, humane, kindhearted, kindly, merciful, sensitive, softhearted, sympathetic, tender, tenderhearted, warm, warmhearted ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/thick-skinned )

Synonyms of thin-skinned: delicate, easily hurt, easily offended, hypersensitive, oversensitive, sensitive, soft, touchy, ultrasensitive ( http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/thin-skinned )



Max says:

Thank you Miry for this post. It has deepened my understanding of the problem and allowed me to connect some dots regarding my own experiences contributing to free software projects.



David says:

I love the post and do not agree with the commenters. I always interpreted “thick skin” as “deal with shit people say to you”. It turns out a) it’s pretty tough to do so, while the rest of the community is swooning for the shithead and b) there are communities where I don’t need to have to deal with shit, so I guess it isn’t me.



Adolfo says:

Thank you for your post, Miriam. I’m sorry that some people felt the silly need to argue on dictionary definitions to try to diminish your point. Blog comments really get on my nerves!



Miry says:

Well, so far the comments have been polite and respectful, and I thank everyone for that, even when some might see things differently.



zou says:

Thanks for this, Miriam. Very very very well explained.



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