Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bonus Blog: Safewords and Beer

Undercover agents use safewords to determine that they are in trouble/something is about to happen. Some couples (or groups, etc.) also use them in a more intimate setting.

The concept behind a safeword is that it is a word that means more than what it says. All parties agree on that word having the additional meaning, and, further, tend to agree on the importance/severity of that additional meaning. So, for example, two undercover agents come upon a box. The first agent can either say their safeword, "Mexico," which will cause the other one to immediately pause, or he can say "Stop! I've seen that type of box before, it's a bomb!"

A lot of people, you'd think, would hear "stop" and, well, stop. How many times have you heard "No" or "Wait!" but your body had already started in motion? Safewords, because their connotation is only one in case of emergency/urgency, tend to override whatever is going on in our heads--such as, for example, scanning for bad guys by agent 2 while he's reaching for the box--better than common, regular words, most of the time. This is because of the agreed upon additional meaning, and the fact that the word is really ONLY used in those cases; you might shout "stop" to get someone to come back for their phone, just as much as you might shout "stop" to persuade them to not be hit by a car they haven't seen as they try to cross the road.

Now people will occasionally say your safeword--traditionally they come up in random conversation eventually--but in addition to the word agreement itself, you are also agreeing to when it will be used and when you will pay attention to it. So, for example, both agents at their desks at the office talking about a trip to Mexico is unlikely to trigger either of them, as it is not the agreed upon scenario when that word triggers what it triggers.

Aside: If you've been paying close attention, I have avoided the more intimate connotation of safeword examples like the plague. This is not accidental."Professional Blog" starts with "Professional" and I have no idea how to make that sound managerially professional and not HR-is-coming-to-take-you-away professional.

In my very first blog post on this site, someone mentioned my very first safeword introduction.

I was working at a company in the tech industry that created websites to sell products for various companies. I was the quality assurance lead for a project, and there was a senior developer (SD) and a senior project manager (SP) on the project, too.

We all enjoyed the best type of problems to have on a team: we all wanted to do what was best for the project, from meeting customer expectations to designing the darn thing from a technical perspective. This, however, created conflicts. Traditionally I wasn't a primary operator in these conflicts; I'd hear the SD and SP bellowing at the top of their lungs in the next (very large) room, and wander over to see what could be done (this is not to say I never argued with them, as that would be untrue. But rarely did my co-workers get the other one of them when I was talking to one of them to sort things out before they came to blows, whereas I was frequently summoned to help "resolve" the situations with these two extremely passionate people).

We were a Silicon Valley start up in the 90's and I was on my way to the zillionth such conflict when I wandered past the breakroom. As we'd had a party earlier, and we were a freaking start up (and that's what you did back then), the fridge was full of beer. Knowing that both of them enjoyed beer, I grabbed the opener and two of them, heading directly to SD's cube where the throwdown was occurring.

Nothing has stopped those two from fighting faster than handing each of them a cold beer and not giving them the bottle opener. They immediately became civil, thanked me, and before I could reap the benefits of the sudden cooperation and happiness (and turn over the opener), SD provided one and opened SP's beer first, then his own. And thus a tradition was born.

While you might think providing beer to two people whenver they fight would train them to fight more, this was not the case; they both knew they got the reward for no longer fighting. It was also a bonding experience between all three of us (even though I don't actually drink beer).

When our company shut its doors, we were acquired by another company and the last 13 people came to work there. It was a warehouse place, so absolutely no alcohol was allowed on the premises. Through the genius of bad judgment, our boss had decided to place SD and SP's cubes right next to each other. We weren't there a day before it started, again.

Stuck, I rummaged around and wandered over with chocolate. This did not even pause the debate. I walked back to my desk dejected, then had what I hoped was a brilliant idea. A quick web search later, and I had emailed them both an image of a frothy mug with the simple subject "BEER!"

Both their machines pinged (well, SD's went "Doh" like Homer Simpson), and, in the middle of the fight, they both checked their mail. Then they busted up laughing. Our safeword was now set and everyone agreed on the meaning "Calm the heck down and laugh a moment."

Eventually, I would hear them going at it and then just send them an email with the single word "Beer" in it, hear them laugh, and then things would be back on track. Many a time I got silly email back. Our HR department might not have enjoyed the methodology, but it worked. And I'm a big fan of doing what works (provided it doesn't hurt anyone or make them uncomfortable).

Because I was able to reinforce the good emotions around the word "Beer," it could cut through bull-headedness and stubbornness because we all agreed to it. Sometimes, when you're working with people the normal things don't work; you have to get a little surreal, say things a little differently, name things differently than how they've been named to move forward.

The constraints of how you think about things constrain what you think about, so every once in a while, you want to stretch your legs and your mind and think of another way to get across your meaning.

In the interim, for SD and SP who read this blog, I say to you "Beer!" because you totally deserve the concept and the beverage.


  1. heading to the fridge right now for said beverage :).

  2. I still wish SP & I were was working together, there's just not enough beer in my life. My waistline, however, is glad of that fact.

    On a similar note: I was recently told by a VP that before I could have any champagne I had to watch a movie.