« Scott Nonnenberg

Fear of the subjective

2016 Nov 08

There’s been a lot of controversy this year over issues like gay marriage, transgender rights, and even trigger warnings. Aside from the standard morality vs. individual rights narrative, I think there’s another theme tying all of these together: Fear of the subjective. Fear of that unique, individual experience we each have, and desire for some objective standard code.

Early Fears

I can relate to this fear. I was raised in a traditional, white, Evangelical Christian household. Sex was only acceptable in the context of marriage. The man was the head of the household and made money for the family, and the woman took care of the kids, food, and the logistics of the house. You should find a nice girl from your church to marry!

I had already started to discover a world outside those rigid rules when I started dating. But I hadn’t really escaped the rules, and I was still in my suburban California community, so I didn’t know what to expect. Dating was a scary new thing.

Layered on top of that was uncertainty as to what women might want from me. How were dates supposed to go? Did my date want the door opened for her? Or was that some sort of statement that she was weak, and that I didn’t respect her? Did she even care, one way or another?

I wanted a simple code I could follow.

Mental shorthand

Stereotypes, generalizations, best practices, and moral systems can all be lumped into a single category: mental shorthand. Each makes it easy to slot something into good/bad or acceptable/unacceptable very quickly. And that reduces the amount of mental effort needed in any given situation. Let’s face it: these tools are often very useful!

However, they have substantial consequences just as frequently. A mental shorthand can become a habit of mental laziness, and the net benefit will be erased. But the biggest impact from many of these systems is their impact on those around you.

Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. Someone who doesn’t fit into the world as well as you do. Every day, an inanimate, intangible set of rules takes priority over your own needs. Or, worse, it prevents those needs from ever being expressed in the first place!

Brushes with the subjective

Let’s look at some examples.


Let’s start with a simple, less emotionally-charged topic. I have a lot of allergies, discovered by both scratch and blood tests, when both young and old. I have no problem avoiding some of my disappointingly common allergens (corn, oats, strawberries) when I cook for myself.

When someone else cooks for me, especially someone who doesn’t know me very well, I do mention some of my more impactful allergens. And I see the resultant fear (what will happen if he eats some of it?) and frustration (it will be hard to change my planned dish!).

At restaurants I’m tempted to avoid mentioning any allergies, because I’d like to prevent that fear and frustration. The flash of emotion as I first bring it up. I try to rationalize it, that I usually can eat around anything I find. But things almost always work out for the better when I mention it and things I might not have detected or predicted based on the menu are handled for me.

It works best when the waitstaff understands my needs and helps me address them, even if it feels uncomfortable for them.

Cycling in traffic

I’ve spent a lot of time riding my bike around Seattle, a lot of it during rush hour. And I’ve encountered some pretty extreme responses from people, like yelling out of their SUV window while they gun their engine around me. I take a lane for greater safety.

The best I can figure is that this behavior stems from very similar fear (What if I hit them? It would be so easy to hit them!) and frustration (They are in my way and I’m late!). Those angry drivers are used to driving in the road at full speed with the whole lane available. A bike increases the risk of collision and (ideally) slows surrounding cars down.

I, as a cyclist, am requiring the drivers around me to take on some discomfort for my sake. And they don’t like it!

Gender roles

I’ve interacted with a couple people in the last year who have requested a non-standard set of pronouns. They instead of he or she, for example. And it was surprisingly difficult. I would regularly make mistakes, and so did the others around me. It was frustrating because it was hard to ignore that deeply-ingrained process of making a gender determination then choosing the appropriate pronoun. And I was afraid about the impact I would have when I messed up.

Gay marriage and the larger space of transgender rights take this further. It’s not just an expected label, it’s all sorts of behavior we are trained to expect based on how someone looks. We have mental shorthand about how a man looks and will behave, versus how a woman looks and will behave.

Encountering anything that violates these expectations is confusing: we’re afraid and frustrated because we’re not sure how to behave.

Trigger warnings

I was surprised at the 2015 Open Source and Feelings conference when I encountered people talking about and providing animation trigger warnings. I was alerted to the existence of people who easily get motion sickness, and their need for some ability to turn off animations in software. The next best thing for a captive conference audience is to warn them about upcoming animation.

Again, fear (Have I caused motion sickness for people?) and frustration (Removing it entirely, or adding an option? But I like animation!) arise. It’s easy to dismiss it as another thing you’d like to support fully but never get around to: accessibility, downlevel browsers, slow devices, etc. It’s business, right? At Microsoft, late in the ship cycle, we’d use a shorthand for this: ‘if the problem doesn’t affect a large number of users, it’s not worth fixing.’

But the more you get to know your real users, the more you’ll want to treat them the way they’d like to be treated. You’re already doing this anyway, right? You’re already spending a lot of time researching and accommodating user need, right? How else do you decide what features to build?

I think it’s easier to think about trigger warnings that way. It’s your audience, your users, telling you how they’d like to be treated. So you can help them avoid or properly plan for something. As in the other scenarios, this is a request to take on a little bit of discomfort for the sake of someone else.


Let’s look at some common objections. Reasons for not taking on that discomfort.

The cost

Perhaps you can feel echoes of that fear and frustration, thinking back to situations like this in your life. And you’re probably saying to yourself things that start with “I shouldn’t have to…” It’s true! You don’t have to.

To help justify those thoughts, you may also be trying to use some sort of calculation to determine whether it’s “right” for people to request changes in others’ behavior. But you are doomed to fail. It is utterly subjective how much cost and benefit there is in the situation. The result of your calculation will simply reflect your initial, subjective judgment.

The point is that each of these situations is one human being expressing their needs to another human being. “Respect my life on the road.” “Use this label for me.” “Help me deal with this thing I’m having trouble with.” Can you find some space for that? I find that when I start to make space for those things, I make space for more of myself as well.

Relax. Get creative. How can you accommodate both your needs and others’ needs? Start saying things to yourself that start with “What if I…”

The rules

The next objection you might have is that these requests are “just wrong.” This is an appeal to some sort of higher authority: laws, social mores, religious codes, professional codes, etc. You might even be worrying that some of these more subjective approaches would be harder to police. Certainly people attempting to police women’s bathrooms are having a hard time of it lately.

Yes, some of these very human requests are against current rules. But the new rules will be more human. Why do rules exist, anyway? Rules exist as tools of the people. And not just the ones they happen to work for naturally. All people.

Once you’ve accepted that the rules can be changed, the next argument is often “But where do we stop? No more rules! Total chaos!” The fact is that every single rule change is a judgment call. And I can’t think of any better rubric than:

  1. Is it motivated out of genuine human need?
  2. Will it have an overall net positive effect?

It’s easy to get stopped up by the practicality. Again, this is where we need to get creative. It’s time to move past specific rules, into the ultimate goals behind them. Are there other ways to accomplish the same thing? What does the data say about how the rule actually affects human behavior?

Eventually, we can remove most of these debates by changing the system itself. Remove the circumstances that put people in opposition in the first place.

The bad people

Yes, people are always trying to take advantage of the system. Like that person trying to collect donations on the sidewalk and their friendly-sounding “are you a nice person?” opening line. Yep, that person is using psychology to get you to engage. Then it’s hard to extract yourself without being impolite.

Over time, it’s common to start to close off. You become less friendly when you see these tricks being used on the street. You become less trusting when you see people getting scammed by mail or on the internet. You discard the idea of trigger warnings as a professor because it just seems to be students trying to get out of work.

But again we need to move past the mental shorthand of blanket conclusions. I haven’t become less friendly in general because of my encounters on the street - I can tell if someone is trying to sell something. I do my best to determine if the request coming from genuine human need.

Of course, maintaining that openness has a cost. You might be pulled into an uncomfortable conversation periodically. I think it’s worth it.

Accepting the subjective

Yes, living a life filled with subjectivity is harder than an absolute set of rules, telling you how to behave in every situation. But real life was always harder than that anyway: people had to mold themselves into the shape of those rules. Some found an easy time of it. Some found it impossible.

Let’s not allow mental laziness or abstract ideals to trample over people.

Accept subjectivity!

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Posted: 2016 Nov 08
Tags: ideas, empathy
On GitHub: posts/2016-11-08-fear-of-the-subjective.md


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It's me!
Hi, I'm Scott. I've written both server and client code in many languages for many employers and clients. I've also got a bit of an unusual perspective, since I've spent time in roles outside the pure 'software developer.' You can find me on Mastodon.