Why talk to other humans when you can spend days wading through these manuals?

It’s Time to Retire “RTFM”

Let’s Try These Compassionate Alternatives Instead

The culture of programmers and other technologists is plagued by toxic elitism. One of the manifestations of this elitism is an unrelenting hostility toward so-called “non-technical” people (a distinction that’s also ready for retirement), beginners, and ultimately anyone asking for help.

Notes on Terminology

It’s more than just RTFM

RTFM is one of the more blatantly rude examples of hostility toward people asking for help, but it’s certainly not the only one. “Just look it up” and “Google it” are examples of milder, but also problematic variations. There’s even the entire website letmegooglethatforyou.com. In this article, I’ll use RTFM as shorthand for any of these declarative variations of the expression.

Compassion is not politeness

I mentioned that compassion will be our guide, so I want to clarify its meaning: Compassion is not the same as politeness or good manners; compassion involves understanding suffering in ourselves and in others and actively desiring to alleviate it.

So, what’s wrong with RTFM?

Problem 1: It is devoid of empathy.

When someone comes to you with a question, that human being is experiencing some form of suffering. Perhaps it is extreme suffering in the form of frustration, confusion, or fear. Perhaps it is mild suffering stemming from the desire to satisfy curiosity. In any case, there is some level of suffering.

Problem 2: It assumes negative intent.

When someone asks you a question, how can you be certain that the person hasn’t already read the manual (or other documentation)? How do you know that the person hasn’t done extensive research before approaching you for help?

undefined method `posts’ for nil:NilClass

Problem 3: It promotes shame.

The implication of RTFM is that the asker could have found the answer to the question without asking, and is therefore violating some social law by asking. This can easily stir a sense of shame in the asker.

Problem 4: It discourages learning.

Usage of RTFM discourages learning in a number of different ways.

Problem 5: It’s inefficient.

Until a few years ago, I had internalized the idea of “RTFM” so deeply that I was terrified to ask for help. I would spend hours—days, even—doing independent research to solve a problem.

https://xkcd.com/385/

OK, OK, but what about…?

Hopefully at this point, you’re willing to admit that RTFM can be harmful. But maybe you still think that in some cases, it’s acceptable. Let’s look at some common defenses of RTFM, and the compassionate alternative in each case.

Defense 1: “Engineers should be able to help themselves.”

Perhaps you use RTFM because engineers should be able to help themselves. After all, you figure out your problems on your own, so others should have to as well.

Defense 2: “I want this engineer to develop stronger problem-solving skills.”

Now let’s suppose you consider yourself a mentor to the asker and genuinely feel that it is in the person’s best interest to learn to look up information and troubleshoot problems independently.

Does a teacher answer questions with “Read the F***ing Textbook”? One would hope not.

Instead of manipulating the person into wanting to improve research and problem-solving skills, why not explain your reasoning directly? “I understand you are frustrated by this problem. I don’t want to give you the answer directly because I’ve found that people learn better when they figure out problems on their own. In this case, if I were you, I might start by checking the documentation for X. I also would probably try a web search for Y.”

Defense 3: “It’s not my job to help this person.”

You may feel that it’s not your job to help the person asking the question. In this case, you may feel RTFM is appropriate.

Defense 4: “The asker isn’t showing enough empathy.”

You may believe that certain questions demonstrate a lack of empathy on the part of the asker. For example, you may believe that the person asking isn’t respecting your time.

A Final Request

When someone comes to you with a question that you think is “stupid” or “lazy,” please pause for a moment and consider what they might be feeling—and what you’re actually feeling.

  1. Clearly communicating boundaries
  2. Asking follow-up questions

About the Author

April Wensel is the founder of Compassionate Coding, a conscious business on a mission to transform the tech industry by training technologists in emotional intelligence.

Footnotes

  1. The StackOverflow community technically discourages RTFM; however, you’ll notice their Ask help page links to this document, which encourages using RTFM. Also, as discussed throughout this article, this is part of more general practice of shaming, which happens frequently on StackOverflow.
  2. Yes, there are milder versions.
  3. I accept no responsibility for what he did with this knowledge. :-P

Speaker | Founder, Compassionate Coding | compassionatecoding.com