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