We are in a symbiotic relationship with society. The people we know and the environments we operate within and around shape us as much as we shape them. We put things into the world, and we get things out of the world. Some might call it karma, but it goes deeper than stacking up good deeds to exchange for happiness or peace of mind. One of – if not the – most important thing we can give to the world is our thoughts. Our ideas, our criticisms, our reaching out for connection and understanding. In putting our thoughts forward, hearing how they sound when packaged for consumption outside ourselves, we become open to the opportunity of reaction and change.
In feeding the world with our thoughts and being fed by our world, social media is an invaluable tool. Movements have been born and have died within and due to social media. The Black Lives Matter movement started as a hashtag and transformed into protests and a renewed public demand for reform. #NotAllMen, a nearsighted exclamation that not all men go on murderous rampages, was sparked in response to Elliot Rodger’s hate-fueled murders at UCSB. Almost as soon as #NotAllMen started trending, it was snuffed out by #YesAllWomen, which gave birth to millions of voices rising up to show that all women face some form of abuse at the hands of men. In #YesAllWomen replacing #NotAllMen exists a perfect illustration of the opportunity for our understanding of the world to be burst wide open and for a new narrative to take its place. We breathe and grow with society, for society, and at the hands of society.
A few months ago, I was the center of a massive media storm. While the conversation started as a reaction to a single voice sharing some realities within the tech world, the conversation quickly morphed into a new focus, branching off from a direct recognition of the point I was trying to make and diving into unexpected waters. Soon, the conversation shifted from how terrible the tech world is for underpaying their non-engineer employees to how terrible I am, how terrible millennials are for their so-called “privilege.” The cause of this shift is so simple, I can’t help but laugh at it: I hadn’t packaged my message in such a way that would have made me the ideal messenger for the cause. I didn’t scrub my social media to look like a Model Citizen before hitting Publish. That was the foundation of all major criticism against me: “I respect the cause, but she has no business leading the charge.” My response is, naturally, Then who is? I know arguing against the ghosts of criticism is beside the point I’m trying to make today. But it still gets to me — the desire to indulge in the seemingly unlimited ways I could rebuff every criticism against me. I’m convinced that there’s still some hidden corner of my experiences I still don’t fully grasp, solely because I still carry a lot of frustration surrounding these criticisms.
Alongside this frustration that tries to eat away at me has grown, almost imperceptibly, a massive garden pulsing with a reminder: the words we say – and don’t – have a much deeper impact than just the words themselves. It’s an incredibly simple concept so it’s easy to underestimate, but its roots go far deeper than we often care to realize. And somehow, despite its simplicity, it’s something that constantly slips to the back of my mind.
As I went viral and my letter and life were ripped to shreds for public entertainment, I was too overwhelmed with notifications (and bronchitis) to keep up with every single thing someone said. To this day, I still find Facebook messages, Medium comments, emails, and direct messages people sent me back in February that I completely missed. But one comment has stuck with me, as a perfect snapshot of both how easily people who want to be mad can find something to be mad about, as well as the simplicity of a minor slip-up that can and will explode spectacularly in your face.
I distinctly recall someone going on a mild tirade about how terrible I am. The cause being that I had said, in describing my job’s perks, that “I’ve got vision, dental, the normal health insurance stuff.” This person pinpointed this moment, and only this moment, as proof that I’m spoiled and reek of entitlement. But what had happened was I just unintentionally flipped the syntax. I ended up saying that I think vision and dental are “normal” parts of health insurance. And you know what? Fair point. Even though my intention was to list having normal health insurance plus options for vision and dental, I didn’t phrase it like that. And because I didn’t phrase it like that, I gave at least one person out there the gun, ammunition, and drew a big target on my forehead for them to take aim. I write this not as a person, but as a very thick block of swiss cheese, riddled with holes created by my own neglect to edit my words more carefully. I put an irritated, sarcastic, pleading thought out into the world, and the entire world responded. The only reasonable response – and the only option available – was to keep quiet.
I was given the gift of silence because I genuinely couldn’t reply to every single person contacting me – I would’ve needed a team of people to do that. I did a handful of interviews which answered the bulk of the questions aimed at me and I shared those. If people chose to ignore them or didn’t see them, I figured that was on them. But every so often, after seeing the same criticism a hundred times, I’d pluck someone’s tweet or email or message out of the stack and respond to it, having already spent plenty of time quietly cycling through immediate frustration, condescending logic, and petty rants. The natural stages of #discourse. I was forced to take my time, choose my words carefully, and build up the strongest defense I could muster. Miraculously, every time I chose to shut up and wait, the response I’d inevitably send out was like an atom bomb compared to my critics’ bullets.
Let’s be clear: I opened up the door for this criticism. I expected it (to a lesser degree than what I received, but expected nonetheless). And in sifting through the myriad of voices, one thing became very clear: How and when you say something matters infinitely more than what you say as quickly as you can say it. If the packaging of my letter had been more refined – if I’d waited until after I had slept or had a full stomach, the prickly parts of my letter would’ve been much more subdued. This fact scares me because it requires me to acknowledge two things: 1. If I had put more into being as clear and soft and sympathetic as possible, the letter wouldn’t have gone viral. 2. Nobody would have cared enough to rip me to shreds. My coworkers would still be earning half of what a two billion dollar tech company should be paying its employees. I probably still would’ve lost my job, despite the fact that the firing was illegal no matter how you slice it, but nobody would know who I was or why I’d been fired.
As far as I can tell, this leaves us all at a tricky junction. We need to feel empowered to speak up when we disagree with something, and we should feel confident in what we say regardless of how others choose to twist it. But at the same time, that empowerment can’t come from constantly talking about every single thing you hear about. I hit publish on my letter impulsively, but I started writing it only after spending time quietly observing and absorbing information around me. My critics reacted impulsively, more eager to go all in adding their voice to the trending topic than to wait until all the cards were on the table. Did I get burned for speaking up? Absolutely. But did I come out on top of the whole experience? Absolutely. Where are the critics who rushed to tear me down? Ah, well, they’re living their lives, blissfully unaware of what’s happened to me or my coworkers, falling over each other in a fruitless race to criticize and comment on the newest story they saw on social media.
I said before that we’re in a symbiotic relationship with society. I put an open letter out into the world. The world responded. As convenient as it would be to leave it at that, as a simple one-to-one karmatic transaction completed, the global chatter and criticism against me and my former employer served to intensify the importance of the original letter. The Monday after my letter, while I was still trending on Facebook and being written about all over the world, managers set aside time to have one-on-one meetings with all of the customer support employees to find out what they needed. In exchange for speaking up, I lost my job, I was smeared and harassed far and wide, and my former coworkers got exactly what they’d been begging for for months. In exchange for my choice silence, I garnered the respect and support of incredible people. We live in symbiosis with society. You see someone speaking out against something and your reaction to them reflects your opinion on poor people, or millennials, or [fill in the blank] as a whole. And taking the time to observe the chaos before joining it can tremendously impact the strength of what you say when you choose to say it. We could all do well to take a step back, save it as a draft, and listen a little bit longer before we put a part of ourselves out into the world.