Discover more from Normcore Tech
The art of the long goodbye
What happens when we leave but never truly leave
Quick programming notes: NormConf is a real, free conference and it is happening on December 15. See you there! Second, I recently had the distinct privilege of being interviewed by Peter Wang about a number of different topics in machine learning. Third, if you have been impacted by recent industry layoffs, there is a whole thread of job openings here (many data-oriented but also lots of dev openings) for as long as Twitter still exists.
A few years ago, I read the Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Van Der Meer. It’s an engrossing story about a group of four scientists who, backed by the government, form an expedition to explore “Area X”, an abandoned natural park somewhere in the wilds of Florida that seems to evolve on its own. The group includes a biologist, whose husband had been part of the previous expedition to the area, Expedition 11 and returned under mysterious circumstances. The trilogy of books revolves around uncovering the mystery of the area and why it alters the makeup of people and animals who wander into it.
One of the main concepts of the books is the idea of a terroir, a self-contained natural environment that shapes everything inside of it. Usually when we talk about a terroir we’re referring to wine: a wine from a given region tastes like wine from that given region should taste because of the grapes and the soil and the way the sunlight hits that particular spot. Since I left my last job, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of terroir as it relates to the workplace.
Every workplace, like every Tolstoyan family, is unique in its own way. When we start a job, we enter that terroir with the intent to shape it. But in turn, we are also shaped by it. If you are a thinking and feeling human being, it is impossible not to become at least somewhat symbiotically attached to a workplace and have it shape you.
Every workplace has its own unique culture, its rhythms, its acronyms, its main characters and side characters, that one piece of software that everyone hates, and that one engineer that everyone relies on. A job can be just a job, but, regardless of whether you love or hate yours, our jobs and their component environment becomes terroirs where we work, struggle, hate, love, and places that shape who we are as human beings. If you have been in a terroir long enough, you will come out of it, for better or worse, transformed.
But, what happens when we leave (or are forced to leave) the terroir? Usually, when humans deal with big transformations in our lives, we process them through collective ritual. Rituals at the boundaries of transformations are one of the critical parts of being human. It’s the way we relate to each other and once again understand our own role in society.
We’ve been doing this for thousands upon thousands of years. For example, here’s what Charles Segal has to say about ritual in “Singers, Heroes, and Gods in the Odyssey”, an academic book of essays re-examining the works of Homer: :
Passage, transition, change: this phenomenon is the most familiar of human life and also the most difficult to comprehend. It is no wonder that this theme, in one form or another, is one of the central concerns of Greek philosophy, from Heraclitus and Parmenides to Plato and Aristotle…. In most societies, changes of state are marked by rituals that define change, visibly confront its reality, and orient the individual in the world he or she has entered.
To help with this, humans have invented millions of rituals over the years: birth rituals, death rituals, yearly holidays that deal with seasonal changes, rituals for how to make sure you attract money, rituals for launching ships.
One of the most interesting documented rituals I’ve come across while researching for this post this is was “Reflections on Greetings and Farewell on a Visit to the Royal Court in Norway in 1302”, when some dude named Erik wrote a poem about what court life was like and included numerous points where women ceremonially wept in farewell (probably from relief that their business meetings were finally over.)
Seafaring transitions and spaceflight are particularly bound to ritual, because there they are so long and significant and there are so many things that can go wrong:
It’s customary in Russian culture, when you’re taking a long trip, to take a few minutes to sit in silence before you start the journey. Cosmonauts have a litany of similar rituals they follow before launch in Kazakhstan. They always visit the grave of Yuriy Gagarin in Baikonur in the days before they ship out. They also plant trees, to root themselves to the ground. They do not watch the Soyuz rocket being rolled out onto the launchpad. They never launch on October 24, because two accidents took place on that date.
Why did we create all this ritual-based infrastructure? First, for the individual, it’s important to stop at boundaries, and to process what happened before, leave it in the past, and then think about what comes next. And what helps with processing is the ability to do it collectively. When humans physically come together to perform a ritual, we experience something known as collective effervescence, which is an energy that only occurs when a group of people stops tending to mundane, everyday tasks, to celebrate or mourn these boundaries.
Humans coming together during times of transition is so important that when people were prevented from gathering during COVID, they came up with their own ways to circumvent this. In Italy, one of the countries hit the hardest during the first wave of COVID, people started singing together from their balconies. In New York, people stopped at 7 every night to bang pots to appreciate front-line workers. In China, during lockdowns, people started screaming.
One of the most tragic outcomes of COVID was people banned by public health measures in participating in collective mourning ceremonies for people they lost. In one of the most haunting pictures for me from the bleakness of the past two years, a nurse fully-dressed in protective gear helps a COVID patient connect with their loved ones over Zoom via iPad.
We’ve only just started trying to measure and understand this, but it appears that early results are showing even the importance of ritual as measured on a tangible, scientific scale. Leaving a job is also a transition of change, of parting, and one that needs to be processed both as an individual, and as a group. In the pre-COVID days, this was all mostly fine. If you weren’t working remotely, leaving a job was a very physical ritual with a finite end: the email to your boss to meet and give notice. The meeting with HR. Physically telling all your coworkers. The goodbye lunch, the goodbye drinks, then finally leaving the workplace with all of the things you collected over the years - cards, old XML manuals you haven’t opened in years, plants, pictures. And finally handing over your laptop and badge and walking out of the building, free as a bird.
This ritual has been performed millions of times, and yet, usually, we don’t examine its importance at all. The closest I’ve seen is this study from the 1980s, called, very morosely, “Functions of Parting Ceremonies in Dying Organizations”. The study was performed in 1982-1983, during the height of a recession, in Michigan, in hospitals, retail stores, car factories, and a research organization.
I wish I could quote the entire paper, it’s that good and that relevant to what’s happening in tech today.
It’s clear that people need parting ceremonies in the context of work, and when they don’t happen, they make them happen on their own, and in very predictable patterns.
In the new COVID/remote work-era, particularly over the last couple months of extremely cruel tech industry layoffs, all of our physical group parting rituals are gone, lost in the digital ether. Nothing has proven this as much as the very painful and very public Twitter layoffs last week.
For the job I left before this one, also during covid, the extent of the ritual was a quick 10-minute chat with HR, followed by the arrival of an envelope where I was to send my laptop. At Tumblr, this ritual was a steady stream of Slack DMs over my last two weeks in exchanges of contact information and a group pre-scheduled 30-minute Zooms where everyone tried very hard not to cry. On my last day, after shaping the terroir of my work and being shaped by it for almost two years, I left a final message on Slack, turned off my laptop, took a minute beat, and left my desk - it was time to pick my kids up from school and daycare.
What happened to me was not unusual, and insanely trivial compared how people have been told to leave jobs over the past two years in layoffs across the tech industry.
When you fire someone, you not only cut off their livelihood and dignity and affect a crisis situation in their life, you also add a second layer of cruelty in that you deprive them of the importance of ritual. From the sidelines, I have watched pretty incredible things happen, such as 900 employees being collectively fired over Zoom.
The recent round of Twitter layoffs has been the worst, the most public, and the most heartbreaking as employees, left swirling in the chaos of the Musk acquisition, tried to make sense of what was happening. On Thursday, there was an email letting employees know that the next day, Friday morning, they would receive either an email to their work address if they were spared, or to their personal address if they were being cut.
Ahead of this chaos and left to their own devices, Twitter employees started creating their own rituals in Slack. Employees first flooded Twitter’s Slack with blue heart emojis.
They then started posting the salute emoji as a sign of respect and farewell, which is how I first found out that layoffs were actually happening: a single salute emoji on my timeline.
And finally, once all the emotion had been spent, they started finding out, about 12 hours before the email was supposed to go out, that they were fired because they were locked out of their Gmail accounts, their Google Cloud Access, and Slack itself.
The other thing about rituals is that they are meant to act as a point of severance between your last world and the next one and leave you clean and whole to proceed. But because our bosses live in our phones, and because we are constantly connected to everyone all the time, we don’t get that anymore, either.
For me, as I was on my way out the door, full of Feelings, I got a Slack notification about a service alert on my phone. My work email was still not disconnected, and I had forgotten to turn off Slack on mobile and I wasn’t disconnected yet. Ten minutes later, a friend from work texted me. I left by choice, but when I did, I didn’t really leave. I was still extremely connected to friends by text, in alumni Slacks, on Twitter, and a million other different ways which has been wonderful and I wouldn’t want it differently. But none of this serves the ritual.
For Twitter employees, it has been even worse: many reported still getting alerts from PagerDuty for web services they could no longer be responsible for, and in the ultimate you-have-to-laugh-or-else-you’ll-cry twist, many are now getting emails asking for them to come back and maintain the services that they were fired from because, just maybe, firing half the company over the course of a week means you lose tribal knowledge.
The tragedy and the irony of the world we have built is this: we have built a world made for connection, for immediate contact, for being able to reach out and achieve collective effervescence in some proxy way. But, as a result, we have no way to collectively grieve and we have no way to linearly separate and move on.
And, this brave, new world, even, for all the immensely numerous positives that remote work brings, this kind of way of working does not serve the art of the goodbye. And this is a problem. Because, even though we are gone, we are never truly gone, absolved, allowed to move on past the transition point, into the next thing. And even though we are connected, we are not truly bonded. We are simulatenously plugged in but unresolved, floating with our emojis and “let’s keep in touch” messages, which vanish into the ether as soon as our Slack credentials unceremoniously expire and we hit the login wall.