Arguments

I bet you thought I was turning into one of those people that only blog every three months, then eventaully abandon their blog and just do other, less self-centered things. Maybe you thought I started to find more satisfaction and fulfillment in interpersonal interaction and I was dieting from the Internet. Maybe you thought I died.

You are all wrong. I'm here to inform you I am not dead, still uninterested in speaking to anyone face-to-face if I can help it, and ready to spew some more casual prose onto the Internet. I haven't been writing much in my blog, but I have been coding. I've spent the last week completely rewriting this site. Although it may not look like a ton has changed - save a few widgets moved around, I reworked a lot of the plumbing. Things are still kind of drippy, but as always we are working through it.

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Figure 1: If any of my friends were wondering, this is how I would define you. The 'classy' ones anyway.

This week, we are CC'ing our HR department, passing around the talking totem, and plunging headlong into an exploration of the human mind, heart, and amygdala. You had better leave your id some place safe, reader, because things are about to get speculative and vaguely informed in the department of armchair psychology. Conflict week!

Do like middle-children do

I have been undergoing premarital counseling over the past few weeks. Since the topic of conflict has been on my mind, I decided to turn the looking glass inward. How do I handle conflict?

It might disappoint some of you to learn that my most resolvable depiction of how I handle conflict is as the typical middle child. You can read about it yourself, but there happens to be a lot of controversy around the idea that the order in which your children are born manifest certain types of habits. It saddens me to learn that it is not a popular idea, since I believe my family illustrates the theory quite nicely.

Siblings: chime in if I am off base here , but I think we illustrate almost the perfect birth-order-psychology family. According to the theory, Kelly (being the oldest), feels comfortable handling interpersonal conflict head on. She focuses on the confrontation from beginning to end, addressing issues as they are brought up. Kelly was always the best at talking to adults. Although we are only two to three years apart, I always depended on Kelly's ability to pay the pizza guy, answer the phone, and explain to the baby sitter why I peed with the door open.

Sarah on the otherhand - being the youngest, would be expected to take a more community-oriented approach. Most decisions started with her friends and family. Let's take a vote, go around and share, take turns, and ultimately do whatever is needed to achieve the most equilibrium in the affair. I remember footage of Sarah's 4th birthday party where she is putting down a hissy fit catalyzed by a wicked game of musical chairs.

Me? Middle children avoid conflict. I read somewhere that a frequent staple for our people in achieving conflict aversion is poorly-placed humor . As you could imagine, a child that prefers jokes in tense situations will spend most days wandering between well-deserved schoolyard beatings and parent-teacher meetings. This was especially bad in fifth grade - which is like that magical eutectic between the lowest your intelligence will ever be and the highest your self esteem will ever be.

I like to think that I have gotten better and dealing with conflict more directly, or at least waiting until things have cooled down enough for a more low-calorie quip. I am happy to report that I pay the pizza guy myself now - albeit online - I still have do answer the door.

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Figure 2: I nominate this guy as our mascot

Girlfriends shouldn't be debugged

But leaving one nasty habit for another, I transitioned from the habitual Too Soon remark into a new, stranger way of handling conflict. I debug .

For the non-weirdos here, debugging is the act of fixing an error in a program. The best way I can describe it is like when you are doing math homework, and you discover that your answer doesn't match the answer in the back of the book, though in reality it's much more intense. Just take the math homework analogy and add a twist of Hunger Games animal instinct and you are basically there.

The truth is debugging is actually kind of a brutal process. When a programmer finds something conflicting in a program, they'll repeat the mistake hundreds, likely thousands of times - changing something small each time. We'll repeat it faster, slower, with a smaller window, in a larger window, in firefox, in chrome, in Internet Explorer, half in opera - half in safari - until we've learned as much information about the problem as we possibly can. Additionally, programmers will use what are called breakpoints - or a big red dot that we place on a line of code that sends the entire program to a screeching halt.

Doing this daily, I started to confuse people with permutations and find myself debugging my girlfriend. When a problem or conflict arises (like one of us has to pay the pizza guy), I often resort to the same animal sliver of my brain and resume debugging. I interrupt, break, slow down, and ask questions at copy-paste speed. Consequently, I come off as aggressive and manipulative, as if my determined scrutiny is really just a giant watchful eye waiting to catch her commiting to a fallacy.

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Figure 3: In other words, I'm a douchebag. Now which ladies haven't I debugged yet?

I'd imagine this kind of thing rings true for technical-minded people even outside of programming. People who spend all day mending garbled spreadsheets, dividing mililiters by microliters, and mapping billing codes may fall into the same trap, damaging important relationships. It's time to have that conversation with your pizza guy, perhaps. You guys' relationship is just too special to throw it away on a miscommunication unexplored.

The real reason I hate arguing

But diminished rapport pails in comparison to the real reason I hate arguments. They're repetitive. In what other area of life do we willingly partake in a semi-regular, mutual exchange of verbal sparring and hostility sometimes for hours at a time? Arguments are time consuming, costly, and I'd imagine they contribute their fair share of traffic accidents and shooting range mishaps.

I'd consider Marissa my best friend, but it can be no secret that Marissa and I get into conflicts sometimes. If we didn't, the doctor would have to check either of us for robot parts where our genitals should be. But I noticed that we were really only having three to four types of arguments. I started to log them in a little text file in my dropbox. We have one of them figured out so far.

We call it "I said thanks - just not in your language":

  1. Person A does something they consider selfless for Person B
  2. Person B does not notice because it isn't something they focus on
  3. Person A waits for a gesture of appreciation from Person B, but it never comes.
  4. Person A confronts Person B - probably wrathfully - much to the surprise of Person B
  5. Person B retalliates, defending numerous examples in which they were grateful for things Person A has done for them, followed by an explosive accusations of Person A for setting unrealistic expectations (ie, Am I supposed to be psychic or something?)
  6. Person A defends their need to feel appreciated, and is likely offended that Person B sees this as so ridiculous
  7. Persons fight until exhaustion overcomes them. Once the adrenaline subsides, the reach a placated thesis together.

Thesis: Person A needed to feel appreciated in a certain way for doing a certain thing - both of which Person B was unaware of.

Exhausting, isn't it? By the third time around this nauseating carousel (alternating who was Person A and Person B that month), Marissa and I decided to debug this. Any good programmer can take a series of tedious tasks and, after a few hours of sweaty self-doubt, turn it into a program. If it sounds ridiculous, think of it objectively - if the same thing happens everytime, why can't we just skip to the end?

Which is what we started doing. Here is how these arguments play out now:

  1. Person A does something they consider selfless for Person B
  2. Person B does not notice, because it isn't something they focus on
  3. Person A references the emerging ISTJNIYL , informing them on both what they did and how they were expecting to feel appreciated
  4. Person B calmly takes down the recommendation on a sticky note and remembers it for next time. Both parties simultaneously reach an understanding that neither of them were being negligent, ungrateful, or unrealistic.

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Figure 4: Then Person B commences Seinfeld rerun therapy

I'm not trying to be pious or anything. If it helps, I'll mention that we've only really figured out one type of argument - but I'll admit it's really gratifying when we come across 'ol ISTJNIYL and resolve the whole stink in thirty seconds.

That's basically my approach to conflict now. It doesn't work all the time, but I have had some successes in trying to find argument patterns - to really pay attention to how stuff resolves, then analyze to find out if we can just skip to that part next time. It can't be too hard to pursue. Everyone hates repeating themselves.