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A framework to define and describe organizational culture

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Everyone knows how important culture is. The right culture is attractive to talent and gets you through internal challenges and external shocks. A toxic culture drives people away.

Culture can itself be a strategy, though not one likely to show up in a strategic plan. The best firms are usually acknowledged for their powerful, positive cultures.

Sounds like good stuff, right? Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of “culture”? The trick is, culture is a pretty squishy idea and notoriously tough to formalize. This post presents a culture framework that I’ve reverse-engineered from my 18 years of on-and-off efforts to formally define the culture of Atomic Object.

Defining Your Culture

Carefully defining your culture is work, often hard work. Yet doing this work makes hundreds of future decisions much easier. Definition helps you propagate culture through space and time — between long-time employees and new hires, for example, or between geographical locations, or over time as leadership succession takes place.

Every organization of humans has a culture, whether it’s been explicitly identified and defined or not. Changing culture is hard, but it may be easier if you can all agree on what it is you’re changing.

I’m going to spare you the dictionary definition and the many alternatives you can find on the web. Instead, I’m going to share what I think is an effective framework for defining culture. My framework has the advantage of utility: you can take it and try defining your culture against it.

I’ll give a short analysis I did to try and answer the question of the completeness of this framework. I tested it against various aspects of what most people would consider visible parts of Atomic’s culture. I also talk about the potential downsides of a formally defined culture.

The Culture Framework

I didn’t develop this framework in order to apply it. Instead, I pulled it out of thinking about its components that I’ve done over the years, including recent work with Mary DeYoung. In other words, I followed good software development practices and specialized a bunch before generalizing.

While I present the framework in what I think is a logical, top-down, abstract-to-concrete fashion, it’s certainly not the way the components developed over time. It only looks organized retrospectively. I’ve been pondering and writing on purpose (here, here, and here), values (here, here, and here) and culture maintenance (here, and here) since early in Atomic’s lifetime. I’ll use Atomic’s answers at each level in the framework to illustrate each element.

I believe the framework as a whole should be judged on whether each element is:

  • Clearly scoped and defined
  • Independent of and orthogonal to the others
  • Useful to run an organization

The elements of the culture framework are:

  1. Purpose – Why we exist, and why that matters
  2. Traits – Distinguishing characteristics of individuals and the organization itself
  3. Values – How we act; what we expect of each other and the organization
  4. Vision – What we want the world to be
  5. Mission – How we move the world toward our vision
  6. Goals – What specifically we want to accomplish

As I mentioned above, I didn’t figure this framework out in a vacuum then go about applying it to Atomic. Roughly speaking, I’ve taken 6-8 passes at purpose since our founding in 2001. I set specific goals now and then over the years, wrote up our core values in 2009, stated a highly ambitious long-term goal in 2013, uncovered the notion of traits and defined them in 2017, and filled in the complete picture with vision and mission in 2018.

While this history smacks too much of insider baseball, I share it to make the important points that the framework evolved organically, over many years, and we have found value over those years from individual elements of an incomplete framework.

1. Purpose

Why we exist, and why that matters.

Alignment with purpose is widely acknowledged to be a critical factor in employee engagement. It’s one of the 12 questions Gallup says is correlated with above-average organizational performance.

Your purpose should last for the life of the organization. It’s tied closely to the founder, assuming no drastic, existence threatening event and subsequent re-launch. Every aspect of the organization should align with the purpose. It should speak to and motivate every person in the organization.

I find Simon Sinek’s criteria for a compelling purpose and well-formed purpose statement useful. It must be:

  • A just cause
  • Stated in the positive
  • Resilient in the face of cultural, political, and technological change
  • Inclusive; accessible to all people and roles in the organization
  • Service-oriented; the primary benefit of the company’s work shouldn’t be the company

A just cause purpose is one of the things Simon identifies as necessary to lead when you’re playing an infinite game. A just cause needs to be something you’d make personal sacrifices for. Statements like “to be number one” or “to be the best” or the explicit agency theory purpose “to maximize shareholder return” fail as just causes. But so does “to provide the most value to clients.”

I strongly recommend Simon’s newest book, The Infinite Game, for more on this and for other valuable insights on organizations and leadership.

Atomic’s Purpose

To be a source and a force — a source of fulfillment for Atoms, and a force for good for our clients and in our communities.

We spend half our waking hours at work; we insist on more than a paycheck for that precious time.

We expect to

  • apply our skills and competence to create value,
  • form strong connections to people,
  • and exchange respect, recognition, and appreciation.

We want our jobs to give us the opportunity to live more fulfilled, satisfied lives.

Being a force for good is the moral foundation of our goal to be a 100-year-old company. We fill four buckets of good:

  • Product
  • Profit
  • People
  • Place

The first bucket above represents our “commercial purpose.” This is an idea (distinct from purpose in the framework) we developed to differentiate the “why” of our existence from the value we provide clients. The latter is crucial to our continued existence, but it will certainly have to change over the course of reaching our 100-year goal. It’s already changed significantly in only 18 years. There’s more on this commercial purpose in mission.

2. Traits

Distinguishing characteristics of individuals and the organization itself.

People in your organization demonstrate these traits through their interactions with each other and with outsiders. You are known to the world for these traits.

Your value proposition should be supported by these characteristics. To be authentic, your marketing, leadership, policies, and community engagement should be founded on them.

Like the values below, traits can help guide your decisions, priorities, and actions. The traits should give rise to your values.

Each individual in the organization does not necessarily hold all of these traits personally, or hold them all equally, but they should not have any that run directly in opposition to them.

You can think of these traits as the “personality” of the company itself.

Atomic’s Traits

Creative Smart
Curious Generous
Relational Tenacious
Disciplined Honorable
Trusting Unsatisfied

We also have a description of each of these traits, how Atoms show them, and specific behaviors exemplify them. For example, Unsatisfied is described as:

  • We are relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo.
  • Our dissatisfaction drives innovation.
  • We question the conventional wisdom.

Curious means:

  • We enjoy learning new technologies and businesses.
  • Our collective hobbies span a wide range.
  • We’re widely read

Honorable means:

  • We do the right thing, even when it’s costly.
  • Our actions are in alignment with our values; we show integrity.

3. Values

How we act; what we expect of each other and the organization

Values define behavioral expectations of people and the organization. They were the first element of this framework that I defined carefully, and they continue to be incredibly powerful and useful.

I think it’s significant that I didn’t make these up and tell everyone this is how we should behave. Instead, I looked around and gave names to what I saw. They are observational, not aspirational.

Values should have utility. You should use them on a near-daily basis to make decisions and judge behavior. We even use them in hiring and firing.

I think it’s best to keep the list short.

Atomic’s Values

  1. Give a shit
  2. Own it
  3. Teach and learn
  4. Share the pain
  5. Act transparently
  6. Think long-term

Our value mantras aren’t a comprehensive list of things we care about. We don’t, for example, have a value: “Be kind.” But we certainly expect that of each other. Our traits suggest other behaviors and expectations that aren’t necessarily codified as a value. Our website goes into some depth describing what our values mean to us.

The mantras are purposely short and pithy. We have intentionally put the focus on action by starting them all with verbs.

4. Vision

How we want the world to be.

This is what we hope happens as we live out our purpose. It’s the world–or the
change to the world–we want to make happen. Vision should be ambitious. Running out of a vision by either accomplishing it or having it become moot, is an existential challenge to an organization. Vision is something we can all work towards, consistent with our purpose. In the end/means dichotomy, vision is the end.

I’d love it if the world was just, peaceful, and verdant. (For those of you who don’t listen to NPR, that’s the purpose of the MacArthur Foundation.) I hope Atomic contributes in small ways to making our corners of the world a better place, but we don’t work directly to achieve a better world, so such a vision wouldn’t have much utility for us.

I suspect that vision is more useful to some organizations than others. As a service company with no products of our own, working in virtually every industry, applying our generalist skills of design and development to benefit our clients, it’s not obvious how we answer this question with something very specific.

Atomic’s Vision

We want more companies to be a source and a force.

There are clear ways we can work to achieve this vision; it’s quite logical given our purpose. And I believe the world would clearly be better off this way.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the element of our cultural framework that many Atoms shrug about. So far, it hasn’t had a very big impact at Atomic. It might be too disconnected from the daily lives of the majority of our maker Atoms to resonate.

5. Mission

How we move the world toward our vision.

In my experience, vision and mission are the most common words used in organizational definition work. They’re also frequently conflated and confused. Tight, clear, non-overlapping definitions really help if you don’t want to waste your time defining these two.

Mission supports vision. Whereas vision is usually ambitious and somewhat abstract, mission is hands-on and more concrete. It’s the things you do to achieve your vision, or at least move the world towards your vision.

Your mission can change as new ideas, new techniques, and new technology arise. New methods shouldn’t require you to change your vision or refactor your purpose. But they may very well have an impact on your mission. In the end/means dichotomy, mission is the means.

Atomic’s Mission

We strive to live out our purpose, be the best software makers, grow new offices, apply our model to new businesses, and inspire others.

The five clauses of our mission can be summarized as live it, be best, grow it, spread it, and share it.

Live it

We distinguish ourselves by living true to our purpose. That’s kind of sad, actually, as it reflects the reality that most organizations either don’t have a purpose or don’t have a purpose they actually live by.

Be best

Our commercial purpose is creating custom software products for other organizations. The only way to be competitive in that business is to have the best software designers, developers, and delivery leads. This, in turn, has lots of practical implications for how we recruit, retain, train, and support makers. It has implications for the technology we use, the nature of our engagements, the clients we work with, and the kinds of projects we do.

Grow it

Demand for our services consistently exceeds our capacity. Couple that with a moral foundation for our existence (our “source/force” purpose), and I have a hard time saying we shouldn’t allow the company to grow.

Spread it

I believe our purpose can be applied at other businesses. It’s not tied to software or technology or even service firms. We haven’t exercised this clause in our mission yet, though I’m personally doing it as a co-founder of a sawmill.

Share it

Through our success, our character, and our generosity, we can positively impact the world by inspiring and educating people and companies.

6. Goals

What specifically we want to accomplish.

The most concrete and mutable element of the framework exists across a variety of time scales. The most ambitious of our goals will take a century to achieve. We have office and company goals for one and three years. We set quarterly goals following the EOS execution framework.

Atomic’s Goals (A Few Examples)

To be a 100-year-old company.
To establish an office in Chicago in 2020.
To review and improve, as necessary, our employee manual.

Negative Aspects of Culture

Every organization of every age has a culture, whether it’s formally defined or not. Since every organization is a group of humans, culture includes both positive and negative aspects. One way of testing the definition of your culture is whether it covers some of the downsides.

For example, the trait of Unsatisfied at Atomic can show up in not celebrating our accomplishments, working past a healthy level, and never feeling you’ve done enough or done well.

The clause of our mission to be the best software makers can turn toward arrogance and sinful pride if we’re not careful.

If our desire to be a force for good in our communities starts to take over and over-shadow our commercial purpose, we put in jeopardy our very existence as a company (and thus, achievement of our purpose).

Our trait of Curious can lead us to explore and potentially apply technologies that may be fascinating but not right for a client’s project.

Generous can mean over-playing the Giver strategy that’s worked very well for us.

A Weaponized Culture

Culture, and cultural fit, can be weaponized to exclude people for irrelevant reasons, creating or preserving homogeneity and limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

And yet hiring people who will thrive in and respect the culture of your organization is not only smart business; it’s the only possible way to preserve your culture.

This is a complicated issue. My hope is that our culture is defined in such a way as to be independent of race, gender, orientation, nationality, class, etc. But given how much impact founders have on culture, and how very white, male, middle class, heterosexual, American, and educated I am (in short, privileged), I worry that I might not even be able to see where our culture may exclude others.

Testing for Completness

A common definition of culture includes habits, rituals, traditions, events, and shared language. I’m not sure my culture framework covers these things, so I thought I’d test it for completeness by picking some of these from Atomic and seeing if they fall somewhere in the framework.

  1. A lot of Atoms go to the neighborhood bar for the 30 minutes preceding quarterly company meetings.
    • Social connections are directly identified in the “source” part of our purpose. Covered.
  2. We have a peer recognition system that involves custom challenge coins.
    • Affirmation and recognition are also explicit in our purpose. Covered.
  3. Our offices are human-scaled, nice (but not fancy), comfortable, open, and flexible.
    • Space supports or hinders collaboration. It helps us work diligently and creatively. It reflects our transparency. It helps recruit the best makers. I see support for this in our traits, values, and mission. Covered.
  4. We spent $5,600 per person on professional development last year.
    • Gaining mastery is part of our purpose. Our mission requires investment in people. Covered.
  5. We designed and distributed Atomic branded rainbow t-shirts to celebrate Pride Month.
    • Being a welcoming and affirming employer gives us an advantage in having the best makers. That’s in our mission. Our relational trait requires us to engage each other as whole people, not facades. Covered.
  6. We carefully monitor for unintended salary inequality and won’t use negotiation on salary to our advantage when hiring.
    • This feels to me like the honorable thing to do. Covered.
  7. We organize an internal conference every 18 months.
    • Clearly a nice example of Teach and Learn. Covered.
  8. Our offices have a short, all-hands standup meeting every day.
    • Social connection, transparency, curiosity. Covered.
  9. We call each other Atoms, worry about FUDA, share “wacky” ideas, send “nice words,” and refer to potential projects as “opps.”
    • Our in-group lingo binds us together, defines us, and makes for efficient communication. Being part of something bigger than ourselves is part of the source in our purpose. Covered.

My testing of randomly selected aspects of our culture clearly shows they are supported by one or more elements of the culture framework.

I’ve noticed these habits, rituals, traditions, events, etc. come and go and morph over time. They arise organically and survive through their fun and/or utility. They aren’t documented anywhere.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my sample didn’t turn up anything unsupported by our answers to the culture framework. A tradition that was directly in conflict with the framework would presumably be rejected from the get-go.


Starting from scratch to thoroughly document each element will be a pretty daunting task. I suggest doing the hardest work first (purpose), then look around and simply record what you see for traits and values. In my experience, this work is never done. Count on regular maintenance. For an existing organization, being honest with yourself when completing the framework gives you a much higher chance of ending up with something that everyone relates to and finds useful. You may not like some aspects of your culture. Identifying those things can provoke conversation around why they exist and how you might change them.

You may wish you had characteristics in your culture that you’re missing. Clearly labeling those as aspirational will save you from a predictable, cynical response by your colleagues.

If you find this framework useful, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also appreciate criticisms or observations about where you think something is missing or unnecessary.

The post A framework to define and describe organizational culture appeared first on Great Not Big.

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4 days ago
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#1247 “I went no-contact with my mother and it’s turned her into a bogeyman”: Anxiety, Anticlimax, and the Aftermath of Estrangement.

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I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have a pretty damn good setup in life. I have an incredible and supportive long-term partner (he/him), we live together in a nice house, have stable incomes, and many wonderful friends and hobbies.

Unfortunately, I suffer from anxiety. It’s not crippling, but it’s got its claws in me pretty good. I visited a psychologist for a brief while many years ago, got diagnosed, learned some coping strategies and went on my way. During those sessions, he identified the source of my anxiety: my mother. Broadly, if I had to explain her, she has anxiety which manifests as explosive anger, she is obsessed with appearing “right”, loves to start fights and enjoys guilting and manipulating people through attention-seeking behaviour. She never physically abused me, but she affected me to the point where certain noises make my heart race because they’re strongly associated with her.

She and my father divorced, messily, when I was a young adult. I have a great relationship with my father, but we don’t talk about my mother most of the time because he can’t help but rant about her – I get it, but I don’t want that to be one of the hobbies we engage in regularly. After they divorced, I stayed with mum alone in that house for a while, but since I started sticking up for myself (which she hated), I realized I could move out and when I did, it was like a giant weight off my shoulders. I would still see her from time to time, but I limited it because she was “one of those people you can only handle for a little while at a time.”

We started to have more disagreements as I laid down additional boundaries in our relationship, and she would respond to my polite and calm requests with a mix of verbal snark and the silent treatment. The last time she ever rang me, it was to abuse me for one of these requests. I responded only with facts and she got extremely angry and hung up. I resolved to email her one last time, outlining how I felt with concrete examples of what she did that made me feel bad and what I needed from her in future if we were to keep having a relationship. Her response was a resounding “NO U. I’m here when you’re ready to apologize.”

So…we haven’t spoken for about a year. I haven’t seen her for even longer than that. I have her blocked on all channels – she can’t contact me unless she goes through someone else. My stress levels have greatly reduced since removing her from my life and I’m happy to say I’ve done so permanently. My partner fully supports this choice, but didn’t influence me one bit in my actual decision.

So finally, the issue with which I’d like to request some help:

If she were to call me, I’d hang up or not answer.
If she were to email or text me, I wouldn’t even look at it.
…but I don’t know how to deal with her if I see her in person.

We live in different cities, and while I used to be nervous about visiting her city at all, I no longer have this generalised fear. However, visiting shopping districts where she’s known to go, especially enclosed areas like supermarkets or other shops, fill me with cold dread and I’m on high alert and ready to flee the entire time I’m trapped in said stores. I keep expecting her to show up at any moment.

Thing is, I don’t ever think she’d attack me or even say hello (if she did it would be to look like the good, reasonable one). I think she’d ignore me, which is what I’d want. In spite of that, I’m terrified of having a breakdown if I see her, especially if I was alone. In those moments I can only see her angry face, bearing down on me like it did when I was a child.

I want to visit my friends in this city, so I can’t just never go there. I don’t want to fear major shopping districts just in case she shows up. However, I really don’t know what to do with the fear of bumping into her, or the possible situation of her showing up in person. I’ll definitely be bringing this up in my mental health check-up later this year, but I would greatly appreciate any advice you or the community may have.

Hello! We are going to call you Letter Writer #1247. Thank you for writing.

You’ve done so many good things to protect yourself from your mom and make a good life that doesn’t revolve around her, and I’m so sorry that the potential of visiting friends has this cloud of fear over it.

The truth about parental estrangement is that it rarely feels good, it just feels better than the horribleness that went before when the person had continued access to harm you and you were trapped in the cycle of trying to please someone who can’t be pleased. Having & enforcing boundaries doesn’t remove the tension or end the conflict or even resolve the feelings. What it hopefully does is gives you permission to stop trying to make a harmful situation different by grinding yourself up on a person that can’t be trusted to act in good faith.

Your question is a common one I see here, not just about family estrangement but about anxiety (both the clinical kind and the small a- everybody’s got some kind) and wanting to know: “How do I avoid a scary/upsetting feeling about something that might happen in the future?” The answer this type of question is, being excellent at planning doesn’t mean that you can avoid uncomfortable feelings and situations by sufficiently anticipating them, and there are no scripts or boundaries that ensure that the things you fear will never happen, sorry! You can practice scripts and you can run scenarios, like “If my mom calls I will hang up,”  you can remind yourself that both you and other people have choices (“If the thing I fear happens, what will I do?). And hopefully, with time and practice, you can stop leaning on yourself so hard to control the outcome of something that isn’t your fault and learn to be gentle with yourself about whatever happens. To that end, the best strategy or advice I can offer you is this:

If you were to run into your mom, whatever gets/got you through it in one piece is/was the right thing to do.

If saying “oh hello” and making 30 seconds of polite chitchat is easier than trying to blank someone to their face, then that’s what gets you through it. It doesn’t change anything about the decisions you’ve made or the reasons you made them, it doesn’t invalidate other boundaries that you’ve drawn. If she uses the encounter to bother you afterward, you don’t have to answer or you can say, “Nothing has changed” and continue as you are.

If avoiding her gets you through it, then that’s what gets you through it.

If you have a big emotional reaction to seeing her in the mall, then that’s what happens, it’s okay to be emotional about returning to places where – I am reading between the lines as a person who used to fear-pee my pants as a small child when my mom was mean to store clerks – a parent emotionally abused you.

If you need to leave a in a hurry to feel safe, or if you know that certain haunts are where you are likely to run into her, then planning around that possibility is what you need. You can let your friends know, “I am estranged from my mom and I have this strange fear that we’ll run into her, if that happens, can you follow my lead if I need to be out of there quickly? Or can we meet at the [venue] on the other side of town instead?” I don’t think you have to leave or avoid those places, mind you, you haven’t done anything wrong, but sometimes the thing we can control in a situation like this is “be elsewhere” so keep those options open if they help you.

Your mom won’t be doing anything wrong by like shopping or seeing a movie where she lives, and honestly, I wouldn’t even blame her for seeing her daughter unexpectedly and saying ‘hello’ (even for ‘the alternative is publicly weirder, so, let’s just get through this’ reasons) or having some feelings about it and not knowing quite what to do. I agree that she’s unlikely to assault you or scream at you or do anything actually dangerous, so as long as you don’t assault her, anything you do is the right choice if it gets you through that moment in one piece. Duck under outstretched arms to avoid a hug. Return “Hello” with “Nope!” and keep walking. Your mom will find axes to grind no matter what you do. Sometimes that knowledge is freeing, since, you’re already not speaking to each other, somehow “failing” to handle this moment with perfect grace (whatever that even looks like) isn’t going to make it worse or make your mom right about everything.

However things go down, one thing you can do is be very nice to yourself after an awkward encounter. Reward and congratulate yourself for doing well with a difficult situation:“Good job me for just saying ‘hello’ and getting on with my day” or “Good job, me, for knowing that I needed to get out of that store in a hurry and doing what’s necessary to take care of myself.” Treat yourself, do things that you know are comforting and pleasant, make sure you get alone time if you need it or surround yourself with supportive people like your spouse.

One thing that it’s hard to talk about with people who don’t understand toxic families or estrangement is the weird letdown of anticlimax, as in, what if you run into your mom and it’s actually fine?

(This is where I wave to the people who wrote me about dreading family holiday visits and then feeling incredibly weird and off-balance during the visits because everyone behaved themselves for once.)

Imagine you’re out shopping, you see your mom, she nods ‘hello,’ but does’t come closer,  you nod back, you both go about your business. This is what you wanted, right? Resetting the relationship to the vantage point of “polite stranger” rather than nemesis? But why is your heart rate elevated, why are you breathing so fast and hard, why is your body shot through with anxiety anyway, why do you still feel like you want to flee? It would be so easy to start second-guessing yourself: Were you overreacting, are you being fair, is this all overblown, why did you spend so much time strategizing and worrying about it, was it all “for nothing?” or “making a big deal out of nothing”? etc. I want to raise the possibility that anticlimax – a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated – can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.

This is definitely something to talk over with your therapist when you have your check-in (and if you do happen run into your mom, I’d schedule one of those sooner rather than later), but it’s worth noting that hypervigilance can be a result of trauma and sometimes “anxiety” is better described as plain old “fear.” Maybe your body remembers how your mom has treated you, maybe it remembers how bad it can get when she’s around, and it would rather be safe than sorry, so it amps up your adrenaline and your cortisol in case you need to fight or flee.

That mismatch between the body’s fight-or-flight reaction to remembered actual danger vs. a formerly very abusive parent’s mellowing with age [temporarily opting for polite behavior in public][convenient forgetting of the inconvenient past] can be incredibly jarring for adult children. It fucks with memory, perception, instincts – all things that abusers train their victims not to trust when it conflicts with the abuser’s reality and vision of themselves as a benevolent person who just loves their kid so much they had to do whatever they did. The coping methods to disarm anxiety often involve a lot of trying to match your fears with what is actually likely to happen (“don’t borrow trouble,” etc.) in an attempt to cut emotional reactions down to size in proportion to the actual threat so the outlier possibilities of your worst fears aren’t completely paralyzing. But the “you’re probably just imagining it, take some deep breaths” approach can fall incredibly short when (for example) there are  Incredibly Good Reasons To Be Worried, Actually, and it doesn’t necessarily account for trauma. I would argue that anticlimax, where the thing you worried about so much didn’t happen, doesn’t mean that the worry came out of nowhere.

People who weren’t there and who don’t know what it was like are very quick to throw around the term “overreacting” or probe a traumatic situation to make sure that everyone was reacting the exact correct amount – usually the amount that they assume they would react, as if it’s possible to perfectly anticipate and modulate one’s own reactions (it’s not) – or as if “overreacting” is the worst thing someone can possibly do (it isn’t).

Through this lens, behaviors like “rudely” walking away from a toxic family member in a public space even if the person doesn’t do anything overtly abusive in that moment are easy to classify as “overreactions.” When a perceived overreaction takes place, people observing the situation start walking around the place like emotional management consultants and trial lawyers with advanced degrees in second-guessing shit that is none of their business and that affects them the least of anyone in the situation and asking what they see as “tough,” “realistic” questions. “But wait, are you sure that your mom intended to abuse you? Right then? How could you know? But you said yourself she probably wouldn’t assault you, so, why did you run away? Isn’t that a little dramatic?*

This line of questioning fails to account for all the incredibly fucking real times we were trapped and couldn’t leave the room or shut a door or hang up the phone or say what was on our minds or call for help or yell back at someone who was yelling at us, all the times we just had to take whatever came, all the years we had to live with whatever they said and did to us and pretend it was love. When someone abuses you, you are the actual expert on what they are capable of, and someone who has never seen that side of the person doesn’t know what you’ve survived to be here or what there could possibly be to fear. They don’t know. They don’t know better than you about what to feel or what to do.

I mean, your anxious jerkbrain might be overstating the case to your limbic system and vice-versa, sure, and the goal over time with your therapist might be to fade how much your mom’s potential behavior occupies your fears, but having anxiety doesn’t mean you aren’t still the expert on your life. If you run into your mom and things get really weird and your inner critic starts beating you up for “overreacting,” see what happens if you rename it as a delayed reaction and make some soothing, gentle, comforting noises in the direction of yourself. “Hey body, I know you’re just trying to help me out, buddy. I appreciate you, let’s get the hell out of here to somewhere we can breathe.” Your body got you this far, I think it will keep getting you where you need to go, and I trust that if you run into your mom, whatever you do in that moment to be safe and kind to yourself will be the right thing to do. ❤

I can’t make the international press stop asking Meghan Markle’s shitbag abusive loser dad to comment on her life choices that are none of his business, but maybe I can tell you that your inner critic is not the boss of you, there’s a reason you feel so anxious about seeing your mom specifically in those places, and you don’t have to beat yourself up about either the fear or whatever reaction keeps you safe. Please also know you are not alone, there are a lot of us out there who are trying to reconcile our memories of the people who loomed so large over our childhood with how much smaller they look when we’re not the child in their house anymore and have grown – in spite of them – to be the adults in our own.

I hope that you can reclaim your hometown and see your friends, and I hope that each month and year you disengage from fighting with her or trying to get her to be the mom you need, her shadow shrinks and shrinks and shrinks to where it barely looms at all. 

*Note: I especially love when the accusation of being dramatic for having a boundary is followed immediately by an attempt to sell you on deathbed reconciliation, like, “Don’t be so DRAMATIC! But wait, what if the person DIES and you NEVER talk to them AGAIN?” Like, quietly avoiding someone you don’t want to argue with in a food court is the dramatic thing to do and chasing down someone to interrogate their reactions and demand they conduct their relationship with an abusive parent in a way that conforms to their fantasies of what that’s supposed to be like is the chill, reasonable path. Howabout no.

Comments are open. Be kind, do not try to diagnose anything or anyone, and don’t be one of those “It can’t be that bad, right?” assholes. The Letter Writer is the expert on her situation, empty reassurances or attempts to defend the mom’s POV from people who don’t know are pointless at best and cruel at worst.

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5 days ago
Love this idea for reframing the internal criticism of 'overreacting' in general: 'If you run into your mom and things get really weird and your inner critic starts beating you up for “overreacting,” see what happens if you rename it as a delayed reaction and make some soothing, gentle, comforting noises in the direction of yourself.'
Melbourne, Australia
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our boss told us to camp in tents when we travel for business

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A reader writes:

I started on staff at a small environmental/conservation nonprofit. My coworkers and I are PR, fundraising, and outreach staff. All of us are brand new due to turnover. Today we received an email from our boss that says:

“When we are traveling for work, we try, when possible, to stay at a state park — cabins in the winter, camping ‘normally’ in the summer since most cabins are booked for a week. The state agency responsible for camping fees provides us a waiver so that we stay for free. Print this waiver.”

(By camping “normally” in summer, she means outdoors in a tent. Although she has a camper and uses that herself when camping).

We are affiliated with a state environmental agency and although I can’t swear, because I haven’t looked into it, I don’t believe the governor requires state employees on travel to camp.

I know at least one of my new coworkers feels as I do — we’re not going to camp alone in a park in a tent.

I can’t believe this. Advice?!?!

P.S. Even if we book a cabin (which have limited availability), we’d have to take bedding, etc. And our boss has previously told us that many of the state cabins have bed bug problems.



It’s absolutely not reasonable to expect people traveling for work to camp rather than having standard business lodgings.

I get that you’re an environmental group. It’s still not reasonable.

You need to show up for business meetings rested, washed, and productive — which an awful lot of people would not be after sleeping in a tent.

Even plenty of experienced campers wouldn’t want to camp the night before work meetings. And beyond that, plenty of people — including even some environmentalists — don’t like camping. Or they want to do it once a year, with friends. And alcohol.

And then there are people with medical needs that make camping impractical or impossible.

This would be bad enough if it were some once-a-year, misguided team-building event for your whole staff. But as your routine lodgings for regular business trips?! It’s wildly unreasonable and out of sync with any business norm.

If your boss enjoys doing camping on business travel herself, that’s fine. But it’s not okay for her to impose it on others.

If the organization can’t afford to pay for hotel rooms, then it can’t afford to send employees on work trips, period. Just like if it couldn’t afford the airfare or train ticket, it wouldn’t be okay to suggest you hitchhike.

Say this to your boss: “Can you clarify the travel policy? You mentioned camping, but that’s not something I’d be able to do for a business trip. My plan is to book affordable hotels instead.” If she holds firm, feel free to say, “It’s really not an option for me and I’ll need to stay in hotels. I’ll of course make sure to choose budget options.” If you want, feel free to say, “There are lots of reasons why people wouldn’t be able to camp — including health concerns that people shouldn’t have to disclose in order to get standard business accommodations.”

Even better, get a group of your coworkers to push back and say “no, this won’t work for us.” There’s power in numbers.

Tents! It’s ridiculous.

our boss told us to camp in tents when we travel for business was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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5 days ago
haha early contender for worst workplace of the year
Melbourne, Australia
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NYT on Clearview, a powerful facial recognition database used by law enforcement

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the Peter Thiel-funded startup scraped over three billion images
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8 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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With your new sound, you don’t fear losing old fans?


Do you like Kanye? NAJA, LOS ANGELES, USA Dear Math and Naja, We love and respect our fans, both past and present, but, of course, they are free to come and go as they please. What The Bad Seeds are trying to do is to nurture our listeners, to challenge and confront them, to make […]

The post With your new sound, you don’t fear losing old fans? appeared first on The Red Hand Files.

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9 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Bug #915: solved!

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Yesterday I pleaded, Bug #915: please help! It got posted to Hacker News, where Robert Xiao (nneonneo) did some impressive debugging and found the answer.

The user’s code used mocks to simulate an OSError when trying to make temporary files (source):

with patch('tempfile._TemporaryFileWrapper') as mock_ntf:
    mock_ntf.side_effect = OSError()

Inside tempfile.NamedTemporaryFile, the error handling misses the possibility that _TemporaryFileWrapper will fail (source):

(fd, name) = _mkstemp_inner(dir, prefix, suffix, flags, output_type)
    file =, mode, buffering=buffering,
                    newline=newline, encoding=encoding, errors=errors)

    return _TemporaryFileWrapper(file, name, delete)
except BaseException:

If _TemporaryFileWrapper fails, the file descriptor fd is closed, but the file object referencing it still exists. Eventually, it will be garbage collected, and the file descriptor it references will be closed again.

But file descriptors are just small integers which will be reused. The failure in bug 915 is that the file descriptor did get reused, by SQLite. When the garbage collector eventually reclaimed the file object leaked by NamedTemporaryFile, it closed a file descriptor that SQLite was using. Boom.

There are two improvements to be made here. First, the user code should be mocking public functions, not internal details of the Python stdlib. In fact, the variable is already named mock_ntf as if it had been a mock of NamedTemporaryFile at some point.

NamedTemporaryFile would be a better mock because that is the function being used by the user’s code. Mocking _TemporaryFileWrapper is relying on an internal detail of the standard library.

The other improvement is to close the leak in NamedTemporaryFile. That request is now bpo39318. As it happens, the leak had also been reported as bpo21058 and bpo26385.

Lessons learned:

  • Hacker News can be helpful, in spite of the tangents about shell redirection, authorship attribution, and GitHub monoculture.
  • There are always people more skilled at debugging. I had no idea you could script gdb.
  • Error handling is hard to get right. Edge cases can be really subtle. Bugs can linger for years.

I named Robert Xiao at the top, but lots of people chipped in effort to help get to the bottom of this. ikanobori posted it to Hacker News in the first place. Chris Caron reported the original #915 and stuck with the process as it dragged on. Thanks everybody.

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13 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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