May 08, 2012

Well, actually...

This piece was originally posted on Medium on May 8th, 2012.

Have you ever had a great conversation with someone? You know the kind where there’s this incredible energy and both of you are feeding off of it?

And then you ruined it.

They said something that was almost correct and you replied with “Well, actually…”.

With those two words you’ve killed the energy by moving the focus of the conversation down some ridiculous technical tangent.

The Problem

The problem with “Well, actually…” is pretty self-evident. They serve no useful purpose other than to massage fragile egos. They add no value to a conversation and they take so much out. They genuinely hurt the other person. There is nothing as humiliating as being made feel like a useless idiot over something so trivial.

You inevitably feel like an asshole once you’ve realised what you’ve done, but it’s too late. Conversation over. And that person is now probably pretty reluctant to talk to you about anything that they haven’t written a formal correctness proof for.

Don’t worry, you’re not actually an asshole. Okay, maybe you were in that instance, but we all do it. Or so says Hacker School’s User Manual (the inspiration for this piece) who felt strongly enough about this to ban the phrase.

I’m going to be honest here, when I read that last week it hit a bit too close to home. I’m pretty sure I had well-actually’d a conversation on Twitter only 10 minutes before. I think I did it again later that day too. Woops. In my defence, I am studying for a degree in it - it’s called Computer Science.

In Tech

“Well, actually…” is endemic in CS. It’s a field filled with obscure trivialities that no single person could ever hope to retain. Someone else always remembers that Java doesn’t actually pass anything by reference, it passes everything by value. What you think you’re passing by reference is actually a reference being passed by value. Wow, an important clarification, right? For 99% of use cases, probably not. But you can bet your house that if you get that incorrect that someone will well-actually your ass before you even finish your sentence. CS is a shark tank populated with fragile egos and tiny technicalities are the food. For a field plagued by the Imposter Syndrome, we do excel at make other people feel like imposters.

Self-Awareness

The sad thing is that it’s so easily avoided. Once you’re aware of it, you notice yourself saying it instantly. How do you know that you’ve just well-actually’d somebody? Hint: You’ve probably just said “Well, actually…”.

The next time that you’re about to pull somebody up for not being entirely correct just ask yourself if you’re doing because it’ll help them or because you just like the sound of your own voice when you’re right. You won’t like your answer if you’re truthful - I know I wasn’t.