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Maybe it's just my personal experience, but I associate with varying different groups and types of people and it seems to me that an oddly large percentage of programmers I have encountered are "not nice" or for an attempt at a better definition:

  • Condescending
  • Snarky
  • Negative in the way they talk about people

If you have noticed the same thing, any theories as to why? Any suggestions on how to politely or not so politely let one of these programmers know how they are acting and suggest they correct it if they want to be perceived as professional one would want to work with?

Or perhaps I've just come across a bad sample and there are bad seeds in every group of people one can name.

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closed as not constructive by Mark Trapp Nov 5 '11 at 19:23

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"Maybe it's just my personal experience" It is. "Negative in the way they talk about people"? This question is not negative? Or are you a programmer and are claiming this habit as your own? –  S.Lott Jan 28 '11 at 19:02
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I have not encountered this in programmers in a disproportionate way. Do you know other people who have also noticed this? –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jan 28 '11 at 19:04
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Off topic, people are like this in all walks of life! –  jmo21 Jan 28 '11 at 19:04
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@Macy, I agree with S.Lott. You are one pathetic, presumptuous code monkey. If you do not read this book, you truly are an idiot: amazon.com/Dealing-People-You-Cant-Stand/dp/0071379444 –  Job Jan 28 '11 at 19:06
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I think he's probably trying to ask a delicate question without coming across as a jerk. It's no secret that a lot of IT guys are lacking in the social skills. –  Brian MacKay Jan 28 '11 at 19:16

20 Answers 20

up vote 47 down vote accepted

I definitely agree with Mason Wheeler, I don't think that a disproportionate amount of programmers are actually not nice, but to those that they work with it might just tend to seem that way.

The social mannerisms common to the personality that it takes to be a programmer (being extremely rational, being pedantic, needing to be right) often make a programmer seem abrasive to others.

As a programmer that has always worked on teams of programmers I can say that by and large all of them have been nice people, but it might be accurate to say that they had a disproportionate amount of conflict with other groups in the company.

In other words, good intentions, but sometimes it comes out wrong.

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Over the last couple of decades I've worked with only two or three guys who were genuinely unpleasant to be around, one of whom was full-blown Asperger's. Everyone else just had ... different priorities from non-programmer types, which lead to some unintentional interpersonal conflict. –  John Bode Jan 28 '11 at 19:36
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I find that most programmer's warm up to you once you "prove" your competency to them. At first they are resistive but if you prove your level of awareness and knowledge they warm up much quicker. Programmers (myself included) want to talk technical from the start and when we don't get our way we get grumpy. –  Chris Jan 28 '11 at 19:49
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Agreed, it's not that we're "not nice". We tend to call things as we see them. We're rather blunt. And we tend to care more about the system being correct, than playing politics. In our eyes, the final, polished, working system will represent our worth, not who's ass we kiss in the meeting. –  CaffGeek Jan 28 '11 at 20:08
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@Chad if more management simply understood that, there's no telling how much more efficient their development departments would be. –  NickC Jan 28 '11 at 20:10
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That is one thing that programmers learn early. An answer or opinion is either right, or it is not. A program will only work if it is right. This bleeds into other areas of thought and makes it difficult for some programmers to accept that other people have valid, different opinions. –  Zan Lynx Jan 29 '11 at 0:23

Spend some time with Rands in Repose. He's thought a lot about what makes technical people unique, difficult, rewarding, and frustrating. Start with The Nerd Handbook. He notes nerds may come off as not liking people:

When your nerd is staring at a stranger, all he’s thinking is, "I have no system for understanding this messy person in front of me".

Then move on to Managing Nerds. One tidbit:

There are chronically negative nerds out there, but in my experience with nerd management, it’s more often the case the nerd is bitter because they’ve seen this situation before four times and it’s played out exactly the same way.

Obviously, he paints with a wide brush and you don't want to make assumptions about any single individual. Still, his opinions aren't off-the-cuff. He's considered how to best solve unique problems with nerds (or geeks or whatever you want to call us) and has come to a few very interesting conclusions. Take a look and see if he makes sense.

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There seems to be a relationship between weirdness and brilliance. I see it every day. Whatever it is, I wouldn't want to take the weird away because you might also lose the brilliance.

But as to the mechanics of that weirdness...

  • A lot can be chalked up to social anxiety.
  • We tend to be unique and rebellious people who are okay with being what we are.
  • Some of us turn to arrogance as a defense mechanism because we're smart and in most high schools loving code doesn't generate as much social capital as it should (although it does general lots of actual capital later on, which, let's face it, is a decent consolation).
  • I suspect a good number of us have at least borderline asperger's syndrome.
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Nope, we're just a bunch of a-holes. –  ChaosPandion Jan 28 '11 at 19:08
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Hey, speak for yourself, a-hole! –  Job Jan 28 '11 at 19:11
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I'd say "whatever it is" is a simple matter of definition. Weird is that which is noticeably different from the normal, and brilliance definitely fits. –  Mason Wheeler Jan 28 '11 at 19:59

All technical people, be they programmers or engineers, are used to working with logical systems and equipment. People are illogical.

Add to that the fact that our companies need our expertise to keep running, so to a degree our coworkers put up with it.

After 20+ years I am much more mellow then I used to be. I don't let other people's illogical behavior bother me. I do my job, very well I might add, help people who ask for help and are willing to learn, and pretty much ignore those who know it all, don't ask for help and are doomed to failure. At least they are amusing to watch.

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I wouldn't call it disproportionate. There are a whole lot of people who are just, well, not nice just about everywhere. Yet another manifestation of Sturgeon's Law.

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That's awesome, and I learned something new about Science Fiction which is also awesome. –  Macy Abbey Jan 28 '11 at 19:09

I'm pretty sure the effect you're talking about is present to some degree, not just a manifestation of Sturgeon's law. The fact is that to be at all good at programming, you need to care a great deal about correctness.

A fair number of people will "go along" with things they know perfectly well are wrong to avoid hurting other peoples feelings. With programming, that pretty much doesn't work -- if you've done something wrong, there's not much chance the compiler is going to decide to keep the problem to itself in an effort to spare your feelings -- and most of your co-workers probably won't (and usually shouldn't) either. Simply by eliminating the people too nice to tell you when you've screwed up, the average gets moved over towards the "not nice" side.

I suspect there's a secondary effect as well. Although we cover it up pretty well, and often sound cynical about things, to persevere long enough to become a decent programmer, somebody just about has to be an utterly incurable optimist. No matter how many compiler errors we see, we have to remain convinced that we can overcome them all. Long before you finish even one small project, you'll have given up forever if you're pessimistic at all. The effect of that is that comments a lot of programmers think are funny are ones that most other people would consider horribly negative and often downright nasty. Even though most of us won't admit it, we're sufficiently incapable of pessimism that most of us really have no concept of how negative our comments can (and do) sound to most other people.

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I'm going to guess that most of the "not nice" programmers are male, and most of those are single.

My experience - for which there's biological justification - is that men who've been bachelors a long time tend to be selfish and inconsiderate.

So here's a little background. Take our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos. The males of both species are violent, competitive and selfish by nature. Chimp females are solitary, and chimp males force sex on the females and commit infanticide to bring them into heat.

However, bonobos operate differently. Younger males try those kinds of aggressive tactics - but bonobo females are social and protect each other. After a male has had the sh-t beaten out of him by gangs of females a few times, he usually figures out that a better approach is the bonobo equivalent of candy and flowers. But of course, each new generation of male bonobos has to learn that the hard way.

When you get to humans, things are pretty much the same. I love kids and was a popular and successful babysitter when I was younger. But as cute as little kids are, they're also amoral little savages who have to be taught to be civilized. And when we hit puberty, all vestiges of civilization go out the window when hormones come in. There's also been a lot of recent scientific evidence about brain development and the fact that teenagers are often crazy and reckless because the parts of their brains that contribute to good judgment don't complete developing until about 25 or so.

And let's face it: most young guys are jerks. Really and truly. When I think of all the guys I know who turned out to be reasonable people, and where I know the details of their lives, every one of them started out as an inconsiderate jerk. Most of them fell in love with someone, acted like a jerk, got the "shape up or ship out" ultimatum, and decided they loved that person so much they would change their evil ways. I certainly did. Another guy I know came home from an evening of drinking to find his bags packed in the front hall - he never did that again, and he's been a great dad and husband for many years now. And every guy who turned out well who didn't get the ultimatum had some other life-changing event that made them reconsider their priorities, like having someone close to them die unexpectedly, or having to take care of a loved one who became seriously ill.

I knew a guy who was part of a hippie commune in the 70s called The Farm. They recognized this, and had a cure. It was a special dormitory for single guys called "The Tumbler" - as in rock tumbler. A single guy who acted like a jerk had to go live there with the other jerk guys, and he had to keep living there until the commune leaders judged his rough edges had been knocked off and was smooth enough to live around the reasonable people.

Anyway, our profession attracts a lot of single guys who've been socially awkward since puberty (aka "geeks"), and spent their time with computers or online rather than interacting with real people in person. So they have all those biological "I wanna be an aggressive inconsiderate chimp male" urges, and they haven't gotten a lot of the human social equivalent of gangs of bonobo females beating the bejesus out of them for being inconsiderate. After long enough, being inconsiderate becomes a habit, and then there you are.

This sometimes continues after getting in a relationship, too. I know quite a few jerk programmers who married passive women, and they're still jerks.

It's not just programmers, either. I've got a relative who's a confirmed bachelor and has lived alone for nearly sixty years. He's a really interesting guy in many ways, but he's so used to having his own way about everything, and so difficult when he doesn't get it, that some of my relatives contemplate family gatherings that include him with a measure of dread.

And I'm sorry if some guys are offended by this, but I'm a guy, I was an inconsiderate jerk until I saw it was to my advantage to stop, and I just haven't seen this happen the same way with women.

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-1: And let's face it: most young guys are jerks. Really and truly. - C'mon! Seriously? :) –  Jim G. Jan 29 '11 at 17:32
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@Jim G.: Yeah, seriously! Of course, not all the time, or in every way, but often enough to qualify. If you think I'm making this up, ask every adult woman you know you think would tell you the truth, and every dad you know with daughters over the age of 15. Like Mythbusters, man, put it to the test! Of course, I didn't think I was a jerk when I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I was a really nice guy. From my current perspective at 52, I look back and think, "Wow! There were so many times I was really a thoughtless a--hole!" –  Bob Murphy Jan 29 '11 at 20:47
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@Bob Murphy - +1 You paint an interesting picture. However, have you considered that many of these guys fitting the awkward type may be jerks simply because they have been severely beaten by bonobo females? Not for being jerks but for being too "nice"? Perhaps being crapped on for not being the bad boy is what brought on the bitterness... –  jmort253 Jan 30 '11 at 5:51
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@jmort253: Yep, you're right. I was pretty frustrated about that in my early-mid 20s. It seemed the frat boys and jocks got all the chicks, and "nice" guys like me couldn't get the time of day. What I've seen since is that, again due to biological urges, women want their children fathered and raised by who are self-confident and strong. But young guys who are really like that and communicate it are rare, and young women often mistake bravado for genuine self-confidence, and "nice" for weak. –  Bob Murphy Jan 30 '11 at 21:53

There isn't just one reason, but one of them is what I call C.E.S. (Cranky Engineer Syndrome). Usually caused by being kept out of the decision making process & then thrown in to fix the resultant mess from those decisions. This gets compounded by having people who shouldn't be in the industry, let alone being placed in positions of power over those programmers, asking them why it's not fixed yet. All while not being prepared to come at least a third of the way to gaining some understanding of the technical details of why there is a problem.

Most programmers after a few years will have experienced something like this, once if not several times. So when a situation that begins to look like that comes along again, they tend to get, well... cranky.

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A combination of introversion, social anxiety and preference of thinking over feeling would be a few factors that I'd think contribute to what you are describing though I'm not sure what percent of programmers have all of these properties. Another way to look at some of this is that programmers aren't necessarily concerned with how they come across and thus what one may see as nice is viewed as unnecessary in a sense. This is somewhat in alignment with Renesis' answer too.

As for trying to change this in some people, consider carefully what kind of reasoning you'd want to give for the person to make this change. While there may be a, "This is just common sense," kind of defense you may give, consider someone that doesn't get all the social niceties to which you have explain why such actions should be taken. Arrogance may also be a factor here as well as having a rather dry sense of humor at times.

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A lot of is about so much emotional baggage we carry over the years. So many times, dealing with people who drag us down in quality of work, our struggle's to master our skills in an environment that doesn't offer many examples.

I think so many of us become so very cynical after some negative experiences that just make us feel bad, about what we do, and who we do it with/for, that we can lose track of being civil.

Or it could be that years of flame wars over a variety of topic's can wear a person's niceties down.

Maybe there is no complete answer, just what can we do to treat each other better, even when we don't always agree. Maybe this is a sign we're all tired of being so alone, with so little comfort or support.

Who knows?

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I think a lot of that is miscommunication, I've had to train myself to not be perceived in certain ways by others. I'm crap a social skills, and have to make an effort to "fit in". Small talk for example, I'm terrible at it, I don't get it.

Maybe reviewing some Jung, Meyrs-Briggs stuff might help explain what you're perceiving as "not nice"

http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes2.asp

I test as INTJ.

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I am a programmer and I am not rude most of the day. I am only rude while I am at work.

That is because my company cranks up an air conditioner and brings the temperature down to 55F, be it summer, winter or in-between. As the result I am always cold, hungry, fat and pissed off. Now go back to work, a-hole!

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It's because we became developer for the same reasons. One common trait we have, us developers, it being unsafe.

Being unsafe leads to arrogance. Arrogance is a form of aggressivity triggered by fear of others. Yes, fear again!

So when you have to deal with such people, you have to reinsure their ego (probably hurt by years of bullying). The more you try to understand them and the more you are (honestly) interested in them (us), arrange will drop and social interaction with them will be good if not excellent.

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"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering"? –  user1249 Jan 28 '11 at 21:03
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@Thorbjørn, @Pierre - I believe it was Yoda. –  ChaosPandion Jan 28 '11 at 21:17
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@Pierre, if it does not sound familiar, you have some movies to watch :) –  user1249 Jan 28 '11 at 21:31

I've often wondered this myself, and I definitely agree with your general premise... that certain personality types tend to gravitate to various fields.

The thing that puzzles me is that programmers tend to be more negative and less personal even than the typical engineer or scientist. So, it seems analytical thinking isn't' the factor, though it could have some influence.

When I was in graduate school for mathematics (and later physical chemistry) I came into contact with students and professors from many different fields. My girlfriend was an English major which widened my exposure even further.

Within the sciences, the social and biological sciences definitely seemed to attract people who were more socialable. The math grad students were particularly quirky and unsociable. I took a couple of physics grad courses and I found them arrogant but friendly.

Arrogance definitely increases the more analytical the field, but the physics students and physical chemists (like myself), while definitely quirky, were not what I would consider rude, cynical, or mean spirited.

These traits were definitely more prevalent among the math students, and having now entered the work world, among programmers.

Perhaps it is a difference in world views. Math and computers is purely rational, whereas science is empirical and rational. People with this rational viewpoint often think the world should conform to their rational models, and when it doesn't they become cynical and frustrated. The whole idea of science is to rework your rational model in the face of contrary evidence, so this suggests they may be more flexible in their outlook. It isn't the job of the world to conform to your rational model, but rather your job to cook up a model that conforms to the world.

It's also possible there is some science and engineering envy going on. You have highly trained and analytical people, but who don't seem to be as appreciated by the public at large as engineers and scientists. I mean, that's why it's called computer "science", after all, or software "engineering"! Obvious professional envy there.

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Regarding the negative point, I think it has something to do in how we write code. Let's say that we have to validate a simple form, we have to make sure that it can't be broken with a large combination of user inputs. We always think of many cases that can break a code.

Use the same way of thinking in real life and you get a negative person. Can you imagine a very positive programmer's mindset to writing code? Maybe a negative programmer is just blurring the line between the programming environment and real life.

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We have to find the edge cases, the scenarios that can break the system. We need to see the potential disaster that can come from every decision we make. The more negative we think, the better we are at our job. The "happy path" through a program is boring, predictable, easy, we can code that up in an afternoon. It's the other 99% of the work that makes the job challenging. We put up guard cases in our code.

We don't trust any data until it's proven it's worth. And that trait, and way of thinking, that makes us great at our jobs, makes us come off as jerks in real life.

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Let's face it: a lot of us are kind of on the bottom of the social food chain.

Whether that's more of a cause or more of a result I don't know, but it's definitely part of a vicious cycle.

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Apparently many programmers think they are nice. Possibly we aren't and just don't know it?

I've tried to come up with a way to explain to people what programming is like. The closest I've come is to tell them to imagine you're taking a math and language final AT THE SAME TIME! Your time is almost up and someone comes by and asks how you're doing. You'll probably get a rude, snarky, condescending response. See me while having lunch, I'm a much different person.

At least to my face, most describe me as "often in a bad mood". I know cussing and complaining sounds like someone having a bad time (A case of the Mondays?), but the reward for solving a problem is worth being a little pissed-off (Better than pissed-on).

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I have experienced im telling solution. Person says its impossible couse everything will crash. Later we found out person doesnt know anything about programming just clicking. Then he hes mad and says that programmers are not nice and he wanted to learn but programmers wanted to say solution not teach couse no time for teaching. So thats missunderstanding and bringing emotions where theres no place for them. Programmers are precise and using facts.

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I'm totally confused. –  Rei Miyasaka Jan 29 '11 at 19:43

I think that some programmers are arrogant. They get paid well, and they don't need to be nice to nobody, and as a result they aren't. Just like over-paid sports stars or actors behaving like spoiled brats.

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