Ramblings of a SQL Hillbilly

Or, the mad ravings of a data warehouse forklift operator

Harassment and Culture

When and where I grew up, it was far from uncommon to hear this phrase: “If I didn’t pick on you, you’d think I didn’t like you anymore.” I received and gave a lot of good-natured ribbing, which certainly helped with my sense of humor and my tolerance of others. It’s a philosophy that has served me well, but I’m also aware that it’s a philosophy that, taken to an extreme, could result in bullying or harassment.

This morning, Denise McInerny posted a blog post about the PASS Anti-Harassment Policy as a reminder of the kind of behavior that will not be tolerated at the PASS Summit in just over a week. I applaud the intent of such a policy while lamenting its necessity. I also don’t anticipate any violations – in my time in the SQL Server community I have met nothing but class acts.

With that in mind, though, I do want to comment a bit on some things that the AHP doesn’t specifically cover. In the past, I have had the opportunity to work with people from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, as well as a diverse set of ages and experience levels. The truth is that what is perfectly acceptable or even encouraged in one culture or amongst one generation is seen as impolite or even taboo in another. I was reminded of this last night at a non-SQL Server event when a young lady was recounting how some of her friends had spent quite a lot of time discussing the size of a part of her body in a way that was meant to be complimentary, but that would have been considered offensive when and where I was her age, and Denise’s blog post this morning served as additional reinforcement of the idea that perhaps it’s better to be overly explicit in what’s acceptable than to have to worry about charges of harassment being thrown around (merited or otherwise.)

With that in mind, here’s my personal checklist of things to watch out for in your own behavior if you’re attending the Summit (or even just interacting with others on Twitter):

  • Please refrain from comments on body parts (yours or those of others). What you mean as a compliment could very well be seen as harassment.
  • You want to sell yourself well, but you too much self-promotion is often seen as bragging.
  • If someone else has done the work, do not try to pass it off as your own. In American culture, there exists a fairly strong ethic that copying the work of others and passing it off as your own is bad – we call it plagiarism. This isn’t a concept that exists as strongly in some other cultures, but it’s important to be aware of it when dealing with professionals from a multi-national perspective.
  • Don’t force your presence on others. There are hundreds of professionals attending PASS – you want to network as much as possible. If someone doesn’t seem overly interested in your attention, excuse yourself and find someone else to talk to.
  • Try to limit your use of ‘acceptable’ stereotype humor. I’m a hillbilly from Missouri, and I make plenty of jokes about people from Kansas, Arkansas, and Illinois. I’ve run most of by people from those areas, so I’m fairly comfortable telling those jokes. My mother, who is naturally blonde, tells more dumb blonde jokes than anyone else I’ve met. This topical humor is alright for the places I call home, but I’ll be leaving these jokes home when I go to the Summit.
  • Don’t make the mistake of looking down on someone because of where they come from, what they do, or how long they’ve been doing it. We all had to start somewhere, and people will pick up on disdain more easily than you think. If you’re friendly with me but harsh with others, we won’t become fast friends.
  • Be very, very careful about physical contact and personal space issues. Americans tend to stand further apart and speak louder than in some other cultures. Some people enjoy physical cues of affection like patting or squeezing the shoulder, others don’t. When in doubt, don’t.
  • Never assume that the interactions of others can be emulated by you. If two old friends slap each other on the back and call each other names, that is not an invitation for you to do the same.
  • Above all else, prepare to have a good time and meet lots of neat people who also want to have a good time. Just don’t let your good time become someone else’s bad night.