When “a pile of shit” is a compliment — On context importance in remote communication

Pile of poo emoji

What would you do, if someone left a “Pile of Poo” emoji as a reaction to your photo in your team Slack channel?

This is exactly what happened to me a couple of days ago, when Sirin, my team lead, posted a picture of me talking to the Barcelona Machine Learning Meetup Group about data visualization.

Slack screenshot: Photo of me delivering a presentation. One "smiling poop emoji" attached to the photo as a reaction

Did I feel offended? Not at all. It was pretty funny, actually. To understand why, let’s talk about the importance of context in communication, especially in a distributed team.

The context

My Barcelona talk is titled “Three most common mistakes in data visualization and how to avoid them“. During the preparation, I noticed that the first mistake is about keeping the wrong attitude, and the third one is about not writing conclusions. I noticed the “A”, and “C”, and decided to abbreviate the talk as “ABC”. Now, I had to find the right word for the “B” chapter. The second point in my talk deals with low signal-to-noise ratio. How do you summarize signal-to-noise ratio using a word that starts with “B”? My best option was “bullshit”, as a reference to “noise” — the useless pieces of information that appear in so many graphs. I was so happy about “bullshit,” but I wasn’t sure it was culturally acceptable to use this word in a presentation. After fruitless searches for a more appropriate alternative, I decided to ask my colleagues.

Slack screenshot: My poll that asks whether it was OK to use "bullshit" in a presentation. Four out of four responders thought it was

All the responders agreed that using bullshit in a presentation was OK. Martin, the head of Data division at Automattic, provided the most elaborate answer.

Screenshot: Martin's response "for a non-native English speaking audience, i think that american coinages like bullshit come across funnier and less aggressive than they would for (some) American audiences"

I was excited that my neat idea was appropriate, so I went with my plan:

Screenshot. My presentation slides. One of them says "Cut the bullshit"

Understandably, the majority of the data community at Automattic became involved in this presentation. That is why, when Sirin posted a photo of me giving that presentation, it was only natural that one of them responded with a pile of poo emoji. How nice and cute!  💩

The lesson

This bullshit story is not the only example of something said about me (if you can call an emoji “saying”) that sounded very bad to the unknowing person, but was in fact very correct and positive. I have a couple of more examples that may be even funnier than this one but require more elaborate and boring explanations.
However, the lesson is clear. Next time you hear someone saying something unflattering about someone else, don’t jump to conclusions. Think about bullshit, and assume the best intentions.

Categorized as blog

By Boris Gorelik

Machine learning, data science and visualization http://gorelik.net.

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