Lessons in Empathy from Automattic Silent Disco

Silent Disco was among my highlights of this year’s Automattic Grand Meetup. I had a fantastic time dancing to the sets of our talented colleagues. Coincidentally, I was also among the people who couldn’t sleep that night because of the very same Silent Disco. My room was on the 7th floor of the 8-story dome stretching out above the dance floor.

This opened my eyes to how hard empathy is in practice. Our worlds are made out of incomplete information, but we act as if they were reality. We wouldn’t survive without this skill, but it makes it difficult to understand the world of someone who only has access to different pieces of the puzzle, despite best intentions.

When I was at the Silent Disco, I could swear we’re not disturbing anyone. No one asked me if that’s the case, so I had no reasons to suspect this. Through my headphones I could hardly hear anything, and even when I took them off the noise wasn’t anything out of usual. It wasn’t obvious that there were hotel rooms just above our heads, and even then I wouldn’t know how much the sound gets amplified in all that empty space. Besides, if someone had troubles with the sounds coming from the party, they’d surely let us all know, wouldn’t they?

Then I came back to my room, and noticed it’s just right above the dance floor. And while Silent Disco doesn’t sound like something that generates much noise, it’s actually a few hundred people wearing noise-cancelling headphones with loud music trying to communicate with each other. They might think they speak normally, but to an outsider they are screaming. In this particular venue, I heard much less noise dancing in the crowd than when I went up the dome, even behind closed doors.

To someone who stayed in the room for the whole night people who went to the party might have seemed inconsiderate and selfish. Why are they shouting so loud? We’ve pinged them in Slack so many times but they keep doing it.

To someone who spent all night at the dance floor, people complaining about the noise might have seemed as nitpickers. There wasn’t much noise right where they stood, surely someone 7 stories away heard even less of it?

Only because I got to experience both sides of the problem, I found a way to empathise with both sides. Even then, communicating my needs wasn’t easy. When I came back down to the party and tried to explain how much noise it made, very few folks believed me, as to them the noise wasn’t actually that much. With one of my Automattician friends I even got into a pretty unpleasant exchange. Dear Automattician friend, I hope you know I meant you no harm. I was just crazy tired.

I wish I had some solution to this, but I’m as biased as everyone. It’s easy to say we should “take a step back and consider other possible points of view”. It’s much harder to check the company announcements channel at midnight when you’re having fun, especially if you don’t expect there would be any problem.

But maybe thanks to this experience I will remember to take that step back the next time I feel like calling someone an idiot or doing something much worse. And maybe if we all try to do this, it will be enough.

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