In various free software communities, I've come across incidents where people have been criticized inappropriately when they couldn't attend an event or didn't meet other people's expectations. This has happened to me a few times and I've seen it happen to other people too.

As it turns out, this is an incredibly bad thing to do. I'm not writing about this to criticize any one person or group in return. Rather, it is written in the hope that people who are still holding grudges like this might finally put them aside and also to reassure other volunteers that you don't have to accept this type of criticism.

Here are some of the comments I received personally:

"Last year, you signed up for the conference but didn't attend, cancelling on the last minute, when you had already been ..."
"says the person who didn't attend any of the two ... he was invited to, because, well, he had no time"
"you didn't stayed at the booth enough at ..., never showed up at the booth at the ... and never joined ..."

Having seen this in multiple places, I don't want this blog to focus on any one organization, person or event.

In all these cases, the emails were sent to large groups on CC, one of them appeared on a public list. Nobody else stepped in to point out how wrong this is.

Out of these three incidents, one of them subsequently apologized and I sincerely thank him for that.

The emails these were taken from were quite negative and accusatory. In two of these cases, the accusation was being made after almost a year had passed. It leaves me wondering how many people in the free software community are holding grudges like this and for how long.

Personally, going to an event usually means giving talks and workshops. Where possible, I try to involve other people in my presentations too and may disappear for an hour or skip a social gathering while we review slides. Every volunteer, whether they are speakers, organizers or whatever else usually knows the most important place where they should be at any moment and it isn't helpful to criticize them months later without even asking, for example, about what they were doing rather than what they weren't doing.

Think about some of the cases where a volunteer might cancel their trip or leave an event early:

  • At the last minute they decided to go to the pub instead.
  • They never intended to go in the first place and wanted to waste your time.
  • They are not completely comfortable telling you their reason because they haven't got to know you well enough or they don't want to put it in an email.
  • There is some incredibly difficult personal issue that may well be impossible for them to tell you about because it is uncomfortable or has privacy implications. Imagine if a sibling commits suicide, somebody or their spouse has a miscarriage, a child with a mental health issue or a developer who is simply burnt out. A lot of people wouldn't tell you about tragedies in this category and they are entitled to their privacy.

When you think about it, the first two cases are actually really unlikely. You don't do that yourself, so why do you assume or imply that any other member of the community would behave that way?

So it comes down to the fact that when something like this happens, it is probably one of the latter two cases.

Even if it really was one of the first two cases, criticizing them won't make them more likely to show up next time, it has no positive consequences.

In the third case, if the person doesn't trust you well enough to tell you the reason they changed their plans, they are going to trust you even less after this criticism.

In the fourth case, your criticism is going to be extraordinarily hurtful for them. Blaming them, criticizing them, stigmatizing them and even punishing them and impeding their future participation will appear incredibly cruel from the perspective of anybody who has suffered from some serious tragedy: yet these things have happened right under our noses in respected free software projects.

What is more, the way the subconscious mind works and makes associations, they are going to be reminded about that tragedy or crisis when they see you (or one of your emails) in future. They may become quite brisk in dealing with you or go out of their way to avoid you.

Many organizations have adopted codes of conduct recently. In Debian, it calls on us to assume good faith. The implication is that if somebody doesn't behave the way you hope or expect, or if somebody tells you there is a personal problem without giving you any details, the safest thing to do and the only thing to do is to assume it is something in the most serious category and treat them with the respect that you would show them if they had fully explained such difficult circumstances to you.