On assuming good intentions

Posted on Mar 30, 2021

My days at work recently have been split with about 40% on Slack, 40% on Zoom and 10% reviewing code1. As an anxious soul I find it easy to read too much into a Slack message (or a lack thereof), a blank face on a Zoom call, or clearly ignoring your best advice in PR. Reading The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton recently, I came across this passage which struck me2.

It is tempting, when we are hurt, to believe that the thing which hurt us intended to do so. It is tempting to move from a sentence with clauses connected by ‘and’ and to one with clauses connected by ‘in order to’; to move from thinking that ‘The pencil fell off the table and now I am annoyed’ to the view that ‘The pencil fell off the table in order to annoy me’ … So we must endeavour to surround our initial impressions with a fireguard and refuse to act at once on their precepts. We must ask ourselves if someone who has not answered a letter is necessarily being tardy to annoy us, and if the missing keys have necessarily been stolen.

The Consolations of Philosophy - Alain de Botton

I think this sentiment is also captured eloquently by Goethe.

Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.

The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

But perhaps the pithiest summation is presented by Hanlon’s Razor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Imagine the person at the other end of the Slack thread, Zoom call or Git blame has had a terrible night sleep, they’ve just spilt coffee on their favourite jumper and their dog has been barking for the last hour. Whatever they have done or said to frustrate you is most likely not through malice, but rather misunderstanding or distraction. Assuming good intent unless proven otherwise will help quell those rising throws of frustration and calm those pangs of anxiety, so you can get back to rebasing everything from master to fix mimemagic.

  1. The last 10% is a pretty even split between making cups of tea, eating hot cross buns and updating YAML files. ↩︎

  2. The passage is drawn from a chapter looking at the works of Seneca, father of Stoicism. ↩︎