The intersections of kindness, humor and privilege

On Mastodon this morning, as I sat watching football (aka soccer) and drinking coffee, I asked what I should write about. Amy came through for me:

You’ve always seemed to put a lot of thought into kindness and humor (you++). I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on that – not just as a something you decide to do as practice or ethic – but maybe a bit deeper as to why and how and how you receive kindness and humor from others too.

Amy van der Hiel

I think this post from 2019 explains some of the how, but definitely not all of it – and I wrote it almost 4 years ago, and I think things have evolved a little in how I think about the why of it all.

Before I get to the why, I need to talk a little bit about privilege.

Part of the process of accepting that I have privilege was deciding what I was going to do about it, which is constantly evolving and informed by the results of a lot of practice and trying new things. I am a middle aged, cisgender, heterosexual, white man. That’s a whole bucket of privilege – the entire modern world was made to work for people just like me.

I’ve also had a very long career, full of ups and downs, learning new things, failing a lot and learning from a lot of those failures.

That puts me in a place of even more privilege. I work at a very successful tech company, and am a very senior engineer, where I have a lot of influence and yep, a lot of privilege.

I’ve also realized (multiple times, because it takes repeating things before you really learn it) that because of that privilege, I get away with things that other don’t. I’m not invulnerable, but I know where my lines are and am really good at figuring out how to cause trouble in a way that doesn’t get me in more trouble than it’s worth.

And that brings us to why I am the way that I am, and why I believe kindness and humor are the best tools to do good work.

Pushing limits and making space

I have a big Pride flag hanging from the curtain rod in my office, and I wear chunky rainbow glasses when I work on the computer.

I bring up equity issues at work in the open and to leadership fairly frequently.

Why? It’s fun. It’s also important. But it’s really because it pushes the line of what’s acceptable and creates a space for others to do it as well. If I, the normiest normcore dad in the world, can wear rainbow glasses and fly a pride flag that’s visible in every Zoom call I’m on, then others can too. I want to derisk people being their full selves as much as possible – and if that means I get to be weird and a little silly, that’s a bonus.

Humor as humanity permission slip

It’s hard to be nervous or stressed out when you’re smiling. I work with a lot of people who are decades younger than I am, and I see huge confidence issues. Work is also sometimes full of stressful and unpleasant situations: software breaks, projects fail, people screw up, layoffs happen out of the blue, and it all feels terrible.

So, I make jokes. I used to make sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited jokes… it’s taken a long time to fix that. Now, I make terrible puns, jokes about software, or myself – anything to break the tension so we can recenter and get on with fixing whatever it is.

Humor allows us space to admit our humanity. It is a permission slip to take a second, find a little bit of joy, and recenter before we grapple with whatever fresh hell awaits us.

Kindness and humor are invitations

I don’t know quite how to put this part into words, but work is a community, and communities work best when people are comfortable, willing to express themselves, and play along.

Kindness and humor are the best ways I’ve found to help kickstart the vulnerability required to create great teams. I can afford to be vulnerable because I’ve got this super giant soft pillow of privilege, and I know that not everyone does. So, I need to be vulnerable first to show that it’s possible. I then also need to reward and celebrate vulnerability in others.

They’re also a great way to get people to take risks and get out there. Building people up to the point that they get out there and do a presentation or volunteer to lead a project is such a rewarding feeling – and the best part is that I can then praise them publicly, which reinforces feelings of safety and possibility.

A big part of the why for all of this is that I don’t want to be the reason that someone holds back part of themselves. I don’t want my overwhelming normieness to shut people down, make them withdraw or make them feel anything other than completely welcome and appreciated.

I think this might actually be the core of it: I love learning about people, about their loves and lives and what makes them tick. I want to work with people who, like Emile Zola said, “live out loud.” If there’s anything I bring to a situation that would keep them from feeling safe being around me, I want to fix it – and sometimes that means turning my own volume down.

It’s been a huge realization that sometimes, just because of what I look like (resting dad face), and my visible undeniable privilege, that might not always be possible. Just me being there might be enough for someone to withdraw, and I have to be OK with that. But, there are things I can do to make things better, to make people feel more safe, and I think the obligation of privilege is to make more room for people to be themselves, to make room for them at the table – especially the board room table.

And this is where I am today. I’m trying to figure out how kindness, privilege and humor can build equity. If I make other people feel safe, but that safety’s not actually there, I’m not really helping. But, if I can create actual safety, and create more space where people can be seen and rewarded for being their full selves, that’s worth it.

I’m still working on it. It’s still a “practice”.

By Kevin Lawver

Web developer, Software Engineer @ Gusto, Co-founder @ TechSAV, husband, father, aspiring social capitalist and troublemaker.