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).


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