Competence vs. Tribalism

There is a sometimes tangled relationship between what we can do and how we think of ourselves.  I’m going to look at a part of this below.

I can’t do X because I’m a Y

Have you heard someone (or yourself) ever say something of the form “I can’t do X because I’m a Y“?  For instance, “I can’t use vi because I’m an Emacs user” or “I can’t do all this Windows Command Prompt stuff because I’m a *NIX user.”  (If you’re unaware of the vi / Emacs beef, ask your parents.)

Which bit is more important?

My feeling is that people usually get hung up on the “because I’m a Y” bit.  This is the bit to do with identity, which group or tribe you belong to, and so on.  This is the justification for the other bit  – “I can’t do X” – as if doing X would invalidate their membership of the tribe.

I think it’s worth pausing here.  The supposedly less important bit of the statement is about competence or its lack – I can’t do something.  I realise that “I can’t do X” can often mean “I don’t want to do X“, but often it does actually mean “I can’t do X” or “I’m not good at X“.

Try chopping off the tribe part, and see how the competence bit sounds on its own:

  • I can’t use vi
  • I can’t do Windows Command Prompt stuff
  • and so on.

Are those OK?  Are they less important than belonging to a particular tribe?  Is there a different tribe you could be in, that would let you be less incompetent?

Frankie says learn each other’s key strokes

By Source, Fair use,

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be able to do everything, just that you should have a grown-up and thought-out reason about why you can and can’t do things.  Also, it’s not all or nothing: It’s possible to be T-shaped – depth of expertise in one area, but limited expertise in many.

For instance, at my first job there was a vi tribe and an Emacs tribe, working on the same code base and sometimes sharing computers such as production servers.  We weren’t expected to convert to the other tribe, or to be expert in both, but we were expected to be able to quit a session of the other tribe’s editor with and without saving changes.  This would let us work together efficiently on shared computers.

Being a better man

This spills out into non-technical things.  “I can’t cook / use a washing machine / mend my own clothes, because I’m a man.”  To me, that’s not manliness, that’s a lack of competence.  Gordan Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal are masters of a skilled craft that brings joy to others – that fits with my idea of manliness.  Using tools (a washing machine is a tool) and mending things are traditionally tasks that men do, so why can’t that include a washing machine and darning?

I don’t think it matters what your gender or sexuality, it’s worth seeing how your sense of identity is acting as a filter on what you think worth being able to do.  In fact, try flipping it around and see how that sounds: Because I’m a man, that’s why I can mend my jeans.

One thought on “Competence vs. Tribalism

  1. 100% agree, even though I do often have to refuse to do things (only so t-shaped).

    I’d even go as far as to suggest there is some gatekeeping tribalism keeping some people from giving solid feedback. For example “Convention over Correctness” which is a slogan that makes my blood boil. If it is correct, then it being convention shouldn’t matter. If it is not correct, roadmap away from it rather than making slogans. Couple that with “Correctness needs context”


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