The Conversations We Aren’t Having

Here are two stories about conversations I didn’t have this week:

BarCamp Boston is an unconference which was held at MIT last weekend. On a whim, I put up a session based around my blog post Hacking the Hackathon. Shortly before the session, someone tweeted at me “want a co-instructor?” Not wanting to be disobliging, I asked him how he thought he could help. I didn’t see a response from him before the session started – instead, our next interaction was when he got up after I’d finished my ten minute presentation and began talking about the successful hackathons he’d run. He put me in an awkward position: I didn’t want him to present, and I didn’t want him to stay at the front as a co-presenter for the rest of the session, but to articulate that feeling felt rude. Worse still, he altered the course of the discussion. He prioritized his response (essentially, “You are wrong that hackathons tend not to be successful, because mine is successful”) over other possible responses. I would have been happy to have that conversation with him one-on-one, but I’d hoped to brainstorm solutions with the large, diverse group of people who came to the session. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Separately, there’s been a lot of debate in the Hampshire College community over a band that was scheduled to play at Hampshire Halloween. The hiring of a mostly white Afrobeat band raised questions about cultural appropriation, in response to which the band’s supporters posted aggressive and racist comments on a Hampshire facebook page. The student committee which hired the band asked the band not to play, rather than risk such hostility and aggression during the party (they offered to pay the band the full amount). Watching the community’s response has not been heartening. The debate has been entirely about whether asking the band not to play is censorship/racist, with almost no discussion of the original questions raised by students of color about cultural appropriation. A few (white) voices have dominated the conversation, taking it where they want it to go:


What bothers me about these two conversations is not necessarily their content. It’s the space they take up – the conversations we aren’t having.

To adapt a familiar metaphor, this is Schroedinger’s Conversation. Before you open your mouth to speak, there are many alternative forms a conversation could take, many possible worlds. In some of them, minds are changed, and friendships are made. In some worlds projects are inspired, or critical pieces of theory deduced, or perhaps people come to blows, or everyone is very bored. But only a few of these things can actually happen. As the conversation progresses, it takes on a definitive shape. Some voices are heard, some ideas are shared – and some voices are silenced, some ideas are never born.

(And yes, in an infinity of alternate universes, maybe all of these conversations happen, but in ours we’re stuck with what we’ve got.)

     How the conversation ends in the darkest timeline.

How our conversation ends in the darkest timeline.

When conversations are left unstructured, certain tendencies emerge. Some kinds of conversations are more likely to happen, and others are less likely. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – it can be incredibly helpful to structure conversations so that those voices and ideas less often heard are able to come out.

Here’s another story from BarCamp: on Sunday, a (white, male) person who’d put up a session on “gender diversity in the software industry” approached me, through a friend, to help moderate the discussion. The turnout was pretty good – maybe 40 people, at least 50% of them women – but for the first ten minutes, the discussion took place between three men. Although these men clearly had plenty to say, and no other woman had indicated that they wanted to speak, I decided to alter the course of the conversation and said firmly, “I would like to hear from some women now.”

After a moment of awkward silence, women began raising their hands. My coop-living instinct was to take stack, which worked flawlessly for about three minutes, until the first woman finished speaking. At the same time as the next woman on stack started to speak, a man interrupted with questions for the first speaker. Predictably, the woman paused her speech, while the man kept on going – until I said, loudly, “Excuse me, we have an order established.” This happened several times throughout the session, and each time I was able to intervene with the interrupter (always male) on behalf of the interrupted person (in all cases but one, a woman). This frustrated several men – one left the session and tweeted angrily about it – but several people, both men and women, thanked me afterwards for my interventions.

The man who’d called for the session was very happy with how things had gone. We talked, afterwards, about the structure I’d used: taking stack. I told him that I thought it was especially useful in facilitating women’s voices because it disallows interruptions and men are significantly more likely to interrupt than women are.

A discussion on a list-serv afterwards elicited other suggestions for structuring conversation to be more diverse.

One person suggested a progressive stack, where members of marginalized groups are encouraged to “move forward” in the queue while more dominant voices are asked to “step back”.

Writer Elly Blue added:

I was part of a panel on women and bicycling a couple of years ago; for the breakout sessions at the end we decided to try to set a new tone. We gave participants two rules: The notetaker in each group cannot be a woman, and the first three people to speak in each group must not be men.

My group had a lot of trouble with this — of the three men, one flatly refused to take notes (“I’m not going to do that.”) and one said he couldn’t read his own handwriting. The guy who got stuck with the job did not seem to have ever done such a task before. (Interestingly, several of the women wanted to be the notetaker and one was sort of mad that I didn’t let her.) The guy who refused to take notes was determined to have the first three things to say.

Other group leaders reported that this all went smoothly for them. I’d say we have mixed success; if the session hadn’t been explicitly about gender, it’s hard to imagine it going as well.

From Natalia Oberti Noguera (Founder/CEO of Pipeline Fellowship):

Your email reminded me about my disappointment with the Q&A part of Nate Silver’s #ONA13 keynote. After eight or so questions asked by guys, there were finally two questions made by women–the last two questions before they closed the Q&A part.

I shared my frustration with #ONA13 keynote speaker Amina Sow and brought up how interesting it would be to integrate #shinetheory into systems. For example, what if the people with the mics had been instructed to not give the mic to three guys consecutively?

What I do when I give a talk, or sometimes when I’m on a panel, and the Q&A part is about to start is that I make the following explicit statement, “As for the first question, I would love for it to come from a woman and/or person of color, as generally, the first people with their hands up tend to be white guys.”

Obviously the needs of any given group will differ, and this sort of structure may be too much (or too little) for any one conversation. But I think it’s important to recognize the discussions we aren’t having when we let certain voices dominated unstructured conversations – and to realize there are ways to structure conversations to let those voices emerge.

3 Thoughts on “The Conversations We Aren’t Having

  1. Naturally, my thoughts go to technology. Is there a (relatively simple) stacking app that could be written, complete with a more fair or pluggable scheduler?

  2. Hi Barak. I’m not sure how useful such an app would be. Taking stack is not logistically hard – if there’s a lot of people on stack, you can just use a pen and paper. The difficulty is in making sure the individual taking stack can see everyone, which an app wouldn’t solve. Or in getting discussants to recognize the utility of taking stack, which is again something an app wouldn’t influence.

    Unless you meant an app that everyone in a discussion could individually use? That’d be neat, but I doubt it would see widespread enough adoption to actually be usable. Although I think it’s an interesting thought exercise to determine the rules one would make for a progressive stack auto-scheduler.

  3. Pingback: The Spherical Elephant In The Room | shauna gordon-mckeon | blog

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