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The Evils of Snark

Mark Mzyk | February 11, 2019

Snark, noun
: An attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Even if you’ve spent very little time in tech, you’ve almost certainly heard snark. It is the lingua franca of tech. We use it to communicate and bond about shared frustrations, especially about the everlasting struggle to get our code and systems to just do what we want.

Except this is the good interpretation. It doesn’t take much for snark to turn dark. That sarcasm that can bond? It also carries with it an undertone of contempt. Contempt for the code and systems we work on. But we don’t stop there. We carry that contempt to the person who wrote that code, who helped create the system we struggle against.

There is a reason the unhealthiest teams use the most snark. They’ve lost respect for those around them. They’ve lost their empathy. The expression of their frustration is now expressed in a way to make themselves feel better by showing how they know better. They have stopped trying to understand how everything arrived at this point. They have stopped trying to understand how those who wrote the code or work with them operate under their own constraints and their own struggles.

Snark is a way of giving up. Snark says I know better, but I’m powerless, so I’m not going to try and make things better.

If your team has a lot of snark, they are sending a message. They are struggling and need help. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to dig out of this. The goal is not to drive out snark simply by forbidding it. That’ll just drive the snark to back channels. Instead question it. Ask: what frustration is this snark expressing? What is in this team’s control to change? Redirect the team or person to figure out what about their situation they can make better. Then start taking small steps to change it. For those things beyond the team’s control, explain why the system is the way it is. Explain the possible constraints others are operating under. Explain the history that has lead to this point. Explain a vision of a path out. Give context and direction. Give agency.

Agency is the enemy of snark. Once there is agency the focus is on using it, on making the situation better. Slowly the snark will fade. It won’t be easy. Habits don’t disappear over night. Continue using the snark as a signal, finding the change you control in it. With practice the team will start to find what they can control themselves. Eventually everyone will forget snark used to be the norm.

What if someone just won’t give it up? Everyone else has moved on, but they continue to engage in snark. They are isolating themselves, setting themselves up for misery. They’ve had the opportunity to learn and move on with the team. If they simply won’t go down the same path, you’ll likely need to let them go. Snark still pervades tech. It’s not dying out anytime soon. They’ll be able to find a place that accepts it, even welcomes it.

Snark is currently ingrained in tech, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Empathy, context, agency. These are the tools you have to eliminate snark. These are the tools that lay the foundation for a positive and healthy culture.

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