Communications Exemplar: Gender Shenanigans

I was delighted today to find that my friend Snipey (aka Alison Gianotto), whom I met last Defcon, was newly conspiring with her friend K2 to create a blog they’ve called Gender Shenanigans, which, as they describe it,

. . . is a library of non-discouraging gender political plays. What does that mean? That means people addressing gender inequality in unique ways, using humor, snark, and other methods to educate people in a way that doesn’t make them feel like crap, but does demonstrate that their words or actions reinforced gender inequality.

We’re highlighting brilliant, positive, unique and fun ways people are pulling this off. We believe these types of actions have lasting effects, and encourage both women and men to look critically at the world around them, and the stereotypes and roles many people have come to accept as accurate – or that they never actually thought about at all.

I was pleased to find an example so soon (and superb) of the coyote communications tactics I wrote about last week. In many ways gender politics and sexism are a stagnant, stuck situation. Perfectly polite-but-assertive professional communications are proving futile, even provoking some pretty insane backlash. I love that Snipey and K2 are stepping outside of the usual prescriptions and instead inventing and honoring creative ways to turn the conflict sideways and upside down. I don’t know K2, but I know Snipey, and she’s always been courageous, outspoken, irreverent, and funny. She’s a born coyote communicator.

You can read about the inception of Gender Shenanigans on Snipey’s blog [warning: expect Snipey’s usual lovable profanity]. Or you can visit Gender Shenanigans directly.

Advanced Communications Tactics: Coyote Wisdom

I’ve been thinking about coyote wisdom. Coyote is a main character in the stories of many North American aboriginal cultures; he is a trickster, a wise fool who shows up when everyone’s taking themselves a bit too seriously. He transforms through disruption and often humor and playfulness, pointing out absurdities and hypocrisies. The trickster archetype pops up in many different cultures in different guises, but I like to call him Coyote.

Communicating like a coyote is a powerful tactic, but not one that’s typically taught in schools and universities. Unlike writing a cover letter or a recommendation report, there is no set protocol. Indeed, coyote communications operate entirely outside protocol.

First, let me give you some examples.

The Oatmeal vs. Funny Junk’s lawyer

It’s no surprise that Matt Inman is a master of coyote communications, since he writes the popular comic The Oatmeal. Matt had contacted the folks who operate the website Funny Junk after discovering his comics had been repeatedly posted there without credit. He asked them to remove his comics from from their site, and when that proved ineffective, he blogged and cartooned about the dispute. Funny Junk’s lawyer responded with a letter claiming defamation and demanding money.

This is where the story gets awesome. Undeterred, Matt drew a comic of the lawyer’s mom seducing a bear, and suggested that, rather than spend money making lawyers rich, it would be better to call the whole thing off and donate the money to charity. He began a crowdfunding campaign called “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad” to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. He set the initial goal at $20,000, which had been the lawyer’s demand, but raised over 10 times that for the two charities.

After some additional comical and sometimes bizarre back and forth, Funny Junk’s lawyer dropped the complaint. He still claimed victory, but it was quite clear to everyone else who really won: Matt Inman, bears, the American Cancer Society, and The Oatmeal community.

Deescalating a domestic dispute

The first chapter of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, begins with a coyote story.

It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I had ever seen. I’d been a rookie cop ten days when my partner got the call. At two a.m. we were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas, notorious for drug dealing and random violence.

We could hear the couple’s vicious, mouth-to-mouth combat from the street. My training sergeant and partner, Bruce Fair, and I approached and peeked through the half-open door. Then Bruce just walked in without bothering to knock. I watched as he strode right past the warring couple, took off his uniform cap, sighed, and planted himself on the couch. Ignoring the argument, he picked up a newspaper and thumbed through the classifieds!

. . . Bruce kept reading, and the couple kept arguing, occasionally glancing at the cop on their couch. They had yet to notice me. As the man cursed his wife, Bruce rattled the newspaper. “Folks. Folks! Excuse me! Over here!”

The stunned husband flashed a doubletake. “What are you doing here?”

Bruce said, “You got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Can I borrow your phone? I know it’s late, but I don’t want to miss out on this. Where’s your phone? I need to call right now!”

The husband pointed to the phone, incredulous. Bruce rose and dialed, then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. “Can you believe they wouldn’t talk to me just because it’s two in the morning?”

By now, the fight had evaporated, the couple standing there as dumbfounded as I was. “By the way,” Bruce said pleasantly, as if just becoming aware, “is anything the matter here? Anything my partner and I can do for you?”

The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. “Not really, no.” We chatted with them a bit, reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Soon we were on our way.

Dealing with Internet Trolls

A few weeks ago I came across an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) transcript [warning: language]  on the channel for the programming language Haskell. The person who tweeted the link to the transcript commented, “It’s hard to troll the haskell community.”

Here’s how it goes down.

A young man (presumably) who calls himself xQuasar shows up and begins slinging homophobic insults at the chatters and touting the superiority of Javascript.

They respond in unexpected ways:

“Wow…I suddenly see the error of my ways and feel compelled to write Node.js!”

“you might be pleased to learn that you can compile haskell to javascript now”

“I don’t blame him, I’d be this angry to [sic] if I had to write javascript all day too”

xQuasar changes tactics, but no one takes the new bait. “This is sort of like a puppy trying to be angry with you…it’s just kinda adorable to see him think he has any effect :)”

Finally, xQuasar admits his true purpose. “i just want to get kicked out of a bunch of channels for fun. . . why is no one cooperating with me”

“We are cooperating with you,” someone responds, “you’re just not aware that your goal is learning Haskell.”

In no time, xQuasar admits defeat — “alright i’ll admit i lose” — and actually begins asking intelligent questions about the language.


First, you have to recognize that societal (and personal) prescriptions and habits have got you in a stagnant, stuck situation. There’s no rational way out, because all parties involved have taken a fixed position and no one is budging. Or the rational way isn’t feasible. Of course Matt Inman had every right to pursue legal means against Funny Junk, but resolving the situation in that societally prescribed manner would have come at too high a cost.

Second, you have to be able to envision the creative possibilities that exist outside these prescriptions, habits, and rules. A less experienced cop in our domestic dispute story would have followed procedure, separating the warring couple and calming them down. Indeed, Bruce and the rookie had done just that earlier in the evening with a different couple under different circumstances. But Bruce was able to see outside procedure to the opportunity that the newspaper on the couch presented him.

Third, you must be willing and able to set personal importance aside. If the person you’re dealing with is still pushing your buttons, you’d be better off writing that angry message and never sending it, or taking a walk around the block and then writing a nicely worded, professional response. But if you want to communicate like a coyote, you must be willing to give that all up and risk appearing crazy, foolish, even clueless. You have to let insults slide, as the Haskell chatters did. And you have to be willing to see conflict as not just a zero-sum contest of winners and losers, but as an opportunity for transformation.

It’s Usually Not Mother’s Day

Are there any people other than mothers who ever truly know that they have been the most important person in the life of someone else? I like this question, and ask some variant of it in most of my professional communications classes, on the first day, to explain why workplace documents should be as brief as possible (but no briefer). Unless you are a Mom addressing your young child (or, I suppose, a blessedly happy spouse addressing your partner), chances are excellent that you are not the most important person in the life of your reader. Respect that fact always, and don’t waste anybody’s time. Be generous by being concise.

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Complex Communications Solutions vs. Perhaps a Simpler One


From Paul Constant in The Stranger today:

Chris DeRose published an article at Business Insider addressing the fact that McDonald’s is failing at customer service, with a vice president of the company openly talking about the “rude or unprofessional employees” at some franchises. Here are DeRose’s suggestions:

  1. Create shared emotion around delivering a great customer experience. 
  2. Keep simplifying work processes and rules
  3. Invest more in tools and training.
  4. Reward and recognize great service.

What DeRose doesn’t suggest? Paying the employees a living wage.


h/t @atrios

Collage by David Scherer Water, used with permission


No More Memos

Delivered to my house this week was the instructor’s edition of Daniel G. Riordan’s stalwart textbook Technical Report Writing Today, 10th edition. I was thrilled, I have to say, having used the 9th edition of Riordan’s text in my upper-level communications classes for years because I loved its pristine prose, lucid organization, meat-and-potatoes examples, and writing exercises.

In the new edition Riordan has directly addressed changes in the way professionals write one another. Discussion of “Memos” is gone completely; the word is not even listed in the index. “People don’t write memos any more. They send e-mails with attachments,” Riordan notes. And the chapter on “Letters” is no more. Discussion of this topic is tucked into the chapter on Job Application materials.

Added are sections on social media (of course), presentations, and writing grants for non-profit organizations.

Regarding the latter Riordan notes: “Many of our students will be involved in such writing either because they work for a non-profit, or because as a community member they join a board that requires such work in order to facilitate the daily running of the organization. In addition this topic allows students a wonderful opportunity for a community service project. Whether you are in a major urban or a rural area, you will be able to find a non-profit organization that will be delighted to have your students help them with this important work. Creating a grant proposal will also place your students into the world where their writing ‘counts,’ not for a grade but to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

My students will find this new edition immediately useful. Almost all of them volunteer for one or more non-profit organizations and choose them as the basis for real-world term projects.

The book will be a handy addition to the library of any communications professional or academic as well. (Look at Riordan’s Table of Contents.)