Why is the sky blue?

I recently told my mom that I plan to drive to Illinois next week.  An old friend is getting married on the 4th, my cousin’s turning 12 on the 1st, a 97 year-old great-aunt is in the hospital, and, well, my mom’s there.  But because of the timing, plane tickets were going to be unpleasantly expensive.  So I’m driving partway, staying the night, and continuing on, for half the cost of the airfare.  Deb did not like this.  I asked why, saying, “If I know what you’re worried about, I can either tell you why I’m not worried, or I can tell you how I plan to handle it if it happens.  And then maybe you’ll be less worried about it.”  And we worked it out.  I’m arriving Friday night, and I anticipate no big troubles other than being tired of my car (and Ohio) somewhere past Cleveland, and I know that my mom will be waiting for me when I get there, happy to see me.

But the conversation came back to me as I tried to think about what, if anything, I wanted to write about a conflict I had in an online community earlier this week.  From this side of the issue, it looks like this: I asked a question of a group of librarians, in short-form as suited the venue, and then began refining my question based on the feedback I was getting.  I also revised the information I was sharing, adding in details and clarifying others based on the questions people were asking and the assumptions they were making.  My initial question was a fast, vague summary of a three-page proposal that had been distributed to the library staff, and so was necessarily incomplete, and as people asked questions, I was filling in details.  And more than that, I was asking “Why?”.  The group was, on a whole, dissenting with my position, and I genuinely wanted to know why.  It didn’t make sense to me, and I wasn’t hearing compelling reasons that took into account the scenario I was trying to describe.  I kept adding details, and asking why they thought what they thought.

Or, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Several participants — people I trusted and respected — assumed I was “playing” the group, trying to compel them to give me answers that agreed with what I thought was best.  And accused me of such.  It went downhill from there.  I am no longer participating in that community until I can figure out my feelings about how the interaction went down.

But as I consider my own words and motives, I’m sure of one thing.  I still don’t understand why they were all disagreeing with me so strongly.  I still don’t see the connections they were drawing between their positions and the greater good of the problem I’m trying to solve.  I still don’t see the “why”.

And, like with my mom, I can’t offer assurances, make changes, or re-evaluate if I don’t understand the underlying issues that are rising to the surface of the argument.  I need to know why.  It’s part of how I understand my world, assign value to opinions, and make decisions.  I’ve done some soul-searching about my part in the social disintegration of the conversation, and regardless of what I did wrong, I still believe in this: I need to know why if I’m going to understand.  I won’t back down from that.  In most circumstances, unless you’re one of a very small group of implicitly trusted people, your word is not enough.  But I’ll believe you when you tell me why.

But the point is moot.  I walked away from the conversation because I thought it was the best thing to do, and at our staff meeting, no one advocated against the change I was proposing, though we made modifications to other aspects to suit the concerned reasoning of the staff.  The deal is done.


  1. Two points:
    1) Having grown up a bit in Kankakee IL, I can’t imaging driving there. 🙂

    2) People who are good communicators (or even just above average) constantly struggle with people who aren’t for exactly this reason (or are in general, but not at the moment). I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve cut with “if you can’t tell my why, your opinion is irrelevant”. It’s coarse (*waves*) but it’s essential to form logical opinions. I constantly engage the few people I know who hardly ever agree with me because I want dissenting opinions: and thankfully they are also good at explaining why instead of “Matt, that’s just HORRIBLE”.


  2. I think a great deal of that is understanding someone else’s perspective. Knowing how people will interact and knowing when a statement is serious. A concern can come from someone who worries too much and those concerns can be brushed off, or it could come from someone just being a smart-ass and can also be brushed off.

    Things get too heated too quickly online sometimes, that can be taken into account as well.


  3. I agree with Jeff that knowing the perspective of the people you were talking to is important. Also, there is the difference in reception at the online group and your staff meeting. If no one presented major objections at the staff meeting, there may have been power dynamics at play. Not knowing your relationship with the online group makes it impossible to determine.


  4. It’s also a pro-staff decision. You are trying to make things easier for them with reduced staff. So many directors would tell them to suck it up and “do more with less”. You are one of the few that looks at what the library should STOP doing.


  5. Having skimmed through the dispute in question after the fact, I solidly come down on your side. I think perhaps part of the “why” of the other side is that when you post a problem to a discussion group, it is natural, as a reader, to focus on the theoretical aspects rather than the realities on the ground (which only you and your staff know about). When they come to a problem with that theoretical aspect, they come with an unavoidable bias that helped filter out the ground level reality details you were providing. They got stuck on a “taking away any sort of service is bad” mentality, despite the logical reasons and mitigating facts you provided.

    Needless to say – please come back! – we need more SUNY folks on there. I can honestly say the community will be much less valuable without your witty, wise and gamers perspective on there…


  6. Dana, I’m not feeling wise, or like I fit the demographic right now. Maybe my job has changed my perspective too much. Maybe I can’t manage the stupid divide between librarians and admin in a public online space. Maybe this is a mood and it will pass. But, for now, i’m out. You can find me here or in my public feed.- I think I’m constitutionally incapable of going offline. 🙂


  7. I’ve been in situations like this before and I wish I could give you a big hug because I know it’s so dispiriting. I just read the thread (geez, I miss everything these days!) and I know how frustrating it is to feel misunderstood by people you normally feel a sense of kinship with. I’ve gotten into some nasty battles online with people I respect greatly and I know that most of the time it comes down to misunderstandings and overreactions on both our parts.

    All of the people I’ve met in person in that thread (which is most of them) are REALLY nice people. I think so much can get garbled and misunderstood online and people can jump to conclusions and react badly in the worst ways. I’ve been guilty of that and I’ve had it done to me. Usually, the best thing you can do is stop engaging and let it go, because you’re rarely going to change anyone’s mind. I say this fully knowing that I rarely do that (and how dumb I am for it).

    I think you’re making a smart move in stepping away for a while and I hope you feel comfortable coming back to things when you feel ready.

    On a brighter note, I absolutely can’t wait to see you in August! Yippeeee!!! 🙂


  8. Mer, I’m completely confident a f2f conversation would have gone differently, and I would have walked away understanding why my colleagues were so insistent. Online conversation is hard.

    Also, yes, Burlington in August, OMG yay!


  9. I still don’t see the connections they were drawing between their positions and the greater good of the problem I’m trying to solve.

    I only saw it after it was all over and am still a bit confused. But the why to that just looked to me that they weren’t responding to the problem you were trying to solve <insert blather about communication models etc> but rather to their interpretation of your question related to the problem you were trying to solve. And that their initial interpretation got so firmly stuck in their minds that when your later clarifications contradicted that interpretation, it felt to them like the clarifications were contradicting your initial question. And that confusion and frustration ensued.

    (I think face-to-face conversation has pros and cons – things can be resolved quicker, but things can also go south quicker. Certainly there’s been f2f conversations where I’ve had to shut up in order to avoid outright shouting, but have felt resentful about it, and hours later have worked out how I should be explaining my point of view, but by then it’s too late for whatever reason. “Too late” can sometimes happen online too, but mostly it feels a bit more forgiving of taking a break and coming back. <thinks> And I’m used to how online flamewars work – I’ve spent almost half my life watching, participating, and spraying flame retardant on them, so I’m actually more confident in online disagreements than f2f disagreements. I think both are hard, just in different ways.)

    Anyway I’m glad you worked out a solution that works for you and your staff!


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