Thursday, December 22, 2011

To be mean, or not to be mean--that is the question

Actually, it's not usually much of a question for me. It's rare that I feel an intention to be mean* in what I write. When I do, I'd like to believe that I leave no room for a reader to doubt my feelings about the subject at hand. For example, when I have written about cheating and cheaters in poker, or Richard Marcus plagiarizing poker bloggers, or Phil Hellmuth's embarrassing ego and antics, or several other topics that get my dander up, I do my best to deploy my limited rhetorical talents in a way that gets readers to share my disgust and/or outrage. If anybody running their eyes over those posts fails to grasp that I despise the people or actions that are in my crosshairs, then I have failed very, very badly. After all, when I check the thesaurus to make sure that I have exhausted every synonym of "stupid" or "wretched" or "evil" or "contemptible," I certainly hope that the point has been made.

But far more often, even when I'm criticizing and/or disagreeing with something or somebody, I feel no malice; I simply think that something that was said or done was wrong, and wish to explain why I think that. I have previously compared my sense of mission in such instances to that of the robot "Nomad" in an old Star Trek episode: to find and eradicate error. (As the currently popular joke puts it, "Somebody is wrong on the Internet!") My goal is to convey information, not to condemn in any moral or personal sense, nor to arouse any negative emotion in a reader. If I'm not feeling outrage, I don't have any motivation to trigger it in my readers.

Just before I left for a week's vacation with Cardgrrl, I wrote a post responding to something Very Josie had written about counting outs and estimating probabilities in poker. My intention was to set the record straight, not to be insulting or condemnatory--or, to return to the central word in today's post title, to be mean.

Shortly after publishing that post, I read an article in a poker magazine that made exactly the same mistake as Josie had, and so I whipped out a post about it just a couple of hours before I was to be leaving for the airport for my week away. Even though the error was the same, I was much harsher on the magazine columnist, for several reasons: He was writing for publication, which, in my mind, requires more care than a personal blog. He presumably has at least one editor, who should have noticed the problem. He describes himself as a poker teacher or coach, and says that he emphasizes the importance of math to his students. Finally, he took a rather haughty tone toward those who don't see basic poker math as being important. To have such a fundamental error of understanding of poker math under those circumstances strikes me as a far worse sin than having the same misconception as a recreational player, and my language reflected my sense of indignation and condemnation.**

I think that the sarcasm, the snarkiness, the sense of meanness in the latter post is self-evident. But I also think that the absence of such qualities in the first post is equally self-evident. In fact, I reread it just now and still don't see it as mean-spirited.

It was, therefore, quite a surprise and mystery to me when I started getting complaints about how I had been, well, mean to Josie. Commenters used words such as "painful," "harsh," and "crime of courtesy." Josie told me she felt I had been--here's that word again--mean, and that I had ridiculed her. She said she had received a number of emails sympathizing with how she had been "wronged." Even Cardgrrl mentioned that she was surprised Josie was still talking to me.

It's hard to describe how confused this makes me feel. How could I write something that to me felt completely neutral and dispassionate, lacking any of the markers that I deliberately include when I want to be mean, yet have it apparently come across to so many people as being vicious?

It's true that I didn't pad my criticism with softeners, such as starting with compliments then gently bringing up the points of disagreement, or qualifiers like "maybe" and "I think," nor did I hold open the possibility of this being a matter on which reasonable people might disagree, with language along the lines of "my opinion is..." or "I see it differently." I just said, in essence, here's what's wrong and here's what's right.

I don't see that as being mean. I neither felt nor intended readers to feel anything negative about the person who made the mistakes. I even started the post with an admission that I've made a whole bunch of mathematical errors in my posts--and I might as well expand that to having made all kinds of errors, not just mathematical ones. My readers point these out to me, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly. When I see that I've been wrong, my usual response is to acknowledge it, either in a comment or an addendum to the post or a whole new post revisiting the subject. I don't see this process--either having my mistakes pointed out or issuing some form of mea culpa and correction--as any big deal; it's just the way I've been taught that one should communicate in public forums.

One might certainly take issue with whether I should ever inject meanness into posts, even when I think the targets deserve being blasted with both barrels. I remember when I was a teenager and had one of my first letters to the editor published in the local newspaper. I was slamming somebody who had written about the evidence for UFOs, which I thought was ridiculous, and my language left no doubt about my feelings. My father, upon reading it, didn't commend me for my superior facts and reasoning, as I had thought he would. Instead, his reaction was, "You could have made your point just as well without being insulting." So if I were to be charged with being rhetorically heavy-handed sometimes when it isn't necessary, I'm afraid I would have to plead guilty to a very long roster of offenses.

But that's an aside, and fundamentally a different issue. What I'm talking about here is being perceived as having been mean when I had no such intention. That, too, is hardly unprecented, I'll admit. I have many times ruffled feathers when that wasn't my goal. It happens much more often in written communications than in person, perhaps because I'm at least averagely able to sense from nonverbal cues that something is amiss when I'm face to face, and can right away try to figure out where the message went wrong. In writing, though, I don't get the feedback telling me that I've accidentally stepped on a toe until the damage is done.

I'm sorry that I injured Josie's feelings and ticked off some of her friends. It was not my intention to either hurt or ridicule. I didn't even realize that my words could be read that way, since hurt and ridicule were not in my mind when I wrote. It should be clear from my previous posts that I genuinely like Josie (see, e.g., here and here and here and here and here). She's smart and funny and fun to be around. I hope that she will continue to consider me her friend, in spite of my failings and missteps.

*The word mean has several possible definitions, even when dealing with it solely as an adjective. I'm using it herein to broadly refer to the set of concepts in Definition 5b and 5c here, i.e., "characterized by petty selfishness or malice," "causing trouble or bother; vexatious."

**The second post also mentioned Josie in passing. The juxtaposition of seeing the same error in two places so close in time made me wonder if they were connected--specifically, I wondered whether Josie had read the poker magazine article, and that is why she had the same misunderstanding as its author. This speculation on my part annoyed her even more than my first post had. She commented, "Really? Now you think I'm plagarizing a dumb magazine article?" Not at all. Had I thought that the connection was suspicious of being conduct that I would find unethical, I would have said so explicitly (as I did when I wrote that I thought Josie acted more unethically than she was aware of when she agreed to soft-play a friend). For example, when I discovered that somebody had flagrantly plagiarized a friend's published column, I called the violator a "low-life scumbag" and a "scummy thief." That's not even remotely what I thought about the connection here. Even if I had known for sure that there was a cause-and-effect relationship, I would not have labeled it plagiarism. Learning for the first time some widely recognized concept and then restating it in one's own words without specific attribution is not, in my mind, plagiarism. If I assert that a flush beats a straight, I don't need to footnote where I first learned that. I also don't remember with confidence where I first learned the "rule of 4" shortcut that was the subject of both posts under discussion here. Maybe Phil Gordon in his commentary on "Celebrity Poker Showdown," but I'm not sure. It doesn't matter. The more widely known something is, the less need there is to point to any particular source when discussing it. Josie says that she never read the article in question, and I believe her. But even if she had, and even if that had been where she first learned that rule of thumb, I would have thought nothing wrong with not bothering to mention that fact when she decided to post about it.


Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of yours - ben reading this blog for a long time. Just remember what ended up happening to Nomad. It's all about perception. If she thought you were mean, you were mean. No amount of explaining will change that. Apologize and move on. Do you want to be right and lose a friend or apologize and keep a friendship. You are quite a smart guy especially as it relates to the math of things. If you felt an obligation to point out her error, maybe a private message would have sufficed? Just my two cents...
Take care

lightning36 said...

I think what happened here is that she felt like a friend held her up for public ridicule. Specifically, these lines stood out for me:

"Lord knows I've made more than any blogger's share of mathematical mistakes in the course of five years of writing about poker. I kind of doubt, however, that I've ever made as many in one post as my pal Very Josie did earlier today."

"It appears that being an accountant is not enough to get it figured out correctly."

"Josie's post said that she is twice as likely to hit one of her outs on the turn as on the river. A moment's reflection should reveal that that is an absurd conclusion."

Another factor, I would guess, is that Josie's posts rarely venture into the more cerebral side of poker and she was taking a risk. The result: BOOM!

I tried to tell her that the post was just you being you, but the hurt was there regardless. As much as Josie attempts to act tough, she is in some regards a sensitive soul. Fortunately, she is often able get past her hurt feelings and has even been able to let a sometimes insensitive clod like me off the hook.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

You Prick!
Just Kidding, I read both of your blog's everyday. I felt you were like a teacher correcting a student on her poor math test.
Not mean at all.


edgie212 said...

I think the only place where I bristled upon reading that post was where you used the word 'absurd' in relation to her reasoning - it sounded too personal. There was also a tone that just wasn't especially kind or thoughtful, like some of the phrases Lightning highlighted. There was an instance where you criticized how she played tournaments a month or so ago, and while it was an astute observation it might have felt like a one-two punch. I wasn't going to post anything about it but what the anonymous person said is correct - if someone perceives that you were mean, then you were. It does seem that you attempted to apologize (though you even drag out the definition of mean as if to prop up the contention that you did nothing wrong), and while that's fine, I hope you took the time to send her a private note on your own to hit that home. For what it is worth, your attention to detail and interesting posts are why people like myself read and enjoy your blog. No one wants to see that go away.

Wine Guy said...

I personally find your writing exactly the way you described. No malice was intended, and I agree that the author in the publication (and Josie as well) should check on their facts before publication.

No one is perfect and you have always been the first to admit when you've made a mistake or been wrong. So why do friends of Josie take this so personally? Your article spelled out what was wrong and explained it to the point where even I understand it now.

Could you have sugar coated it? Sure. If the perception by Josie and her fans felt you ridiculed her/abused her then, as was written, nothing you can change about that. People love to "read" things into thought/musing/spoken word all the time and nothing will change that.

I, for one, felt the article was well written, concise and factual. Maybe that's what irks some people..Many don't like being proven wrong by logic.

Keep up the good work and I am sure Josie, and the every lovely Cardgirl, will forgive and forget.

Anonymous said...

Grump, a wise man once said, "If you are going to sing it, you better bring it." If you choose to blog and express yourself, you choose to have your opinions critiqued and corrected. People that know you, know that you did not intend to put Josie on blast, rather point out some commonly held poker concepts that are wrong. Unfortunate for her that her analysis followed a poker "coach" that makes the same errors. Don't feel bad, you were a gentleman. Andrew just wants to ride the white horse.

- Your friend in SC

VegasDWP said...


When a gentleman hurts a lady's feelings, whether intentional or not, the appropriate course of action is to apologize.

Technically, you've said you're sorry ... buried within the other 95% of the post which seems to justify your actions.

For an apology, I give this a C-


Grange95 said...

1. Grump did not intend to be mean in his post about Josie.

2. Grump does not perceive his Josie post to be mean.

3. Josie (and others) perceive the post to be mean.

Guess what? Logic doesn't apply to emotions. It's entirely possible for all three statements to be true. We all know folks more callous and more sensitive than we are. Funny things, human emotions. All we can do is attempt to consider our known audience and pitch the tone of our statements appropriately. If we miss and unintentionally offend, we need to apologize and file it away for future reference.

(Yes, there are times when a statement is unambiguously offensive or non-offensive to 99.99% of folks. But most human communication is much more muddled.)

Anonymous said...

When I read the initial post I thought to myself the entire post...... "don't do anything wrong around this guy or he will make sure the world knows you're an idiot." It is still mean even if you were not trying to be mean.

rice moorehead said...

First off this blog is called Poker Grump, not "Poker nice guy" or "The swell fella's blog". But (to me) I could easily read a distinction between the two posts.

With Josie I get more of a "Hello my friend, I like you but your a little wrong here" vibe (I felt a bit of a playful slap from the soft playing friends post).

As I read your post on the Ante Up article I feel you soundly bitch slapped that fool. Which is just what was needed.

Keep it up Grump!

Anonymous said... are fully and definitively in the wrong here on the friend/emotion front as you are right in the logic front. The correctness and conciseness of your math arguments hit home as well as the callousness of your act of outing her mistake in a public forum. Friends tend to overlook other friends' weaknesses, not put them up on public blogs.

And I agree with the previous comments...your apology is rates a D-...get off your high horse...put up a sincere apology and get on with the 99% excellent content on your blog.

Brendan said...

I think there's a very simple explanation of why Josie thought your post was mean. You impersonally ripped apart a post of hers in public, when you really should have alerted her to the errors in private. You shouldn't blog/criticize friends or friends' posts in such a public and clinical manner. Soft touch, Rakewell, soft touch.

BigD said...


I think you've missed the mark on this one as to why the post was mean. It isn't that the specific prose you used was particularly mean (although it was quite insensitive), rather the "meanness" is born from the choice to critique a peer in a socially unacceptable way.

It's generally considered socially "mean" to:
1. Dress down a subordinate in front of their peers;
2. Criticize friends or colleagues in front of other friends or clients;
3. Expose a friend's flaws in a public way.

I don't know what the motivation behind your post was, other than to show your readers that you're fairly adept at poker math. Certainly your post didn't reveal any new insight or provide your readers with a compelling story other than a blow-by-blow account of Josie's mistakes. As you say, perhaps you do have a burning desire to "find and eradicate error", but you need to weigh your actions based on that desire properly against potential damage to your relationships.

Certain things are better done in private. You probably should have contacted Josie in relative private and allowed *her* to write a mea culpa herself. At a minimum, you should have at least given her a heads up that you were planning this and didn't mean it as a personal attack, but rather as an educational lesson for your readers. Instead, you outlined her mistakes in biggest public manner available to you for no reason other than your compulsion to "eradicate error". That's not a nice thing to do to a friend, all stop. It doesn't matter quite so much what you wrote, but moreso that you wrote it at all, and that's your big mistake on this one. As such, IMHO your mea culpa missed the mark.

ccndd said...

Also a huge fan. I didn't think the post was mean in the least. This from another female perspective. You lead me to Josie's blog. I enjoy hers as well but usually only read her when reminded by one of your posts. If she was hurt hopefully she is now over it. If anyone apologized to me more than you just did in this post I would think something was wrong with our relationship.

bellatrix78 said...

Math can't be mean or kind. It can only be proven or disproven (or be proven that there is no proof :p)

However, once you have the correct answer it is up to us, the communicators, how to present it. This is a dilemma I continually face as a scientist. Eg, opposite views get equal time even when they are rudiculous (as your UFO article). It is a fine line to walk. In a week where C Hitchens died sets the example perfectly. He was mostly right and very intelligent, but the way he said things polarized many people. Of course, it is also what got him noticed.

As a teacher I feel the need to point out mistakes, as a coach, I feel the need to let the person correct them, but as a fellow human, I have to try to try to remain humble in the process, as I am a student in the game of life, too.

Josie said...

Grumpy Baby, that's all you had to say!

I know you were just being you and the last thing I want is for you to feel you have to treat me with kid gloves. I do not want that at all. I love your blog because it is the way it is, but me being me, I got hurt and offended. I'm glad to know there was no intention of malice behind it. I appreciate this post very much because along with a definition of the word mean (damn, you're analytical) deep within this post are the two words "I'm sorry" which means alot to me because it tells me you care that you upset me.

Oh and I had to laugh about your paraphasing of my words to you because you took out ALL the f bombs. :) I should hire you full time as my editor. You should explain to CardGrrl that I wasn't actually talking to you so much as swearing at you, and for that I do apologize. :) I tend to be a bit passionate.

I really appreciate this post....and you. You've done a lot for me Grump, and I haven't forgotten that.

Thank you to all who commented and I do mean all. There are certainly two sides to this and the comments that supported Grump's post provided clarity to me and I do appreciate that. Lightning36's comment (and grange's, edgie's, brendan's and anony's) probably explains my reaction best.

Ugh enough about this - I'm coming to Vegas this summer for the wsop and YOU are buying me dinner - and baby we're playing poker, as I still regret that we didn't spend nearly enough time together last time I was in town.

Merry Christmas to All!


PS, That Cardgrrl must have the patience of a saint! :)

PPS Hi Grange!!!

Wolynski said...

If you weren't mean, I wouldn't be following your blog - there's enough bland out there.

Anonymous said...

Finally, a somewhat strange apology, but it is in there somewhere amongst the sea of thoughts where you can't imagine yourself being "mean"!

You may be up on your poker knowledge but you are way way DOWN on your knowledge of people and their feelings away from the felt. A poker nerd if you will.
Nice attempt but you still seem like you have no clue what you said that was so wrong right?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, its pretty sad if Grump does not still realize exactly what he did wrong. People make mistakes...but what is worse is rationalizing to yourself why it was not meant to be mean. Couldn't really figure out from the LONG apology post...Does Grump still think he was not mean?

@ApolloAVP said...

My brother is much like Grump. He's very direct, he expresses his opinions pretty freely, he applies logic at all times, and seriously rubs people wrong at times while having no idea he's doing it.

I'm like that too, but to a lesser degree. I'm not quite as "afflicted".

People who know us come to realize this and stop getting quite as annoyed by it eventually (or they flee from us). And I've had friends explain to people I've upset "oh, that's just how he is--he doesn't mean anything by it and he's about the nicest guy you'll ever know, if you can just put up with this sorta thing from time to time."

I see several things in Grump's post that trigger my "beyond informative" warning. Lightning36 summarized those sections that should have been left out or worded differently. It comes across as rather snarky even if the goal was more toward humor.

As well, there's just the basic problem of taking someone's post and making an example out of it. And not a good example. People love to be quoted when folks are giving 'em a pat on the back. The emotional response is quite the opposite when someone points at something you've written and says "that's a perfect example of how NOT to do it".

I wouldn't have done things as Grump did. But my brother would, and he would be just as puzzled by why Josie is upset.

Grump deserves a break. But I also hope I don't ever give him cause to pick apart the random silly things I sometimes write. One of the great things about Twitter is you can't get too very "mean" in 140 characters.