Skip to main content

On Style and Social Openings

In the paper “Personal Style and Artistic Style”, Nick Riggle tries to get to the bottom of the contradiction in how we think about style: Is having style something admirable or something trivial that people shouldn’t waste their time on? People by and large seem to see it both ways.

It helps to get more concrete about what, exactly, style is. Riggle takes style to be those things we choose about how we act and present ourselves in service of the kind of person we aspire to. Those aspirations may not be admirable, but if they are, then style is the deliberate exercise of sharing one’s ideals with others.

Style is a matter of making one’s actions and appearance an expression of one’s ideals. Formulating and embodying ideals is a challenge and presenting them requires consideration of the range of ideals others can recognize and how they can recognize and respond to them. This is one source of the value of personal style: it concerns the pursuit of ideals that, to no small extent, define the kind of life one thinks is worth one’s living.

Others may not share our ideals, so having distinctive style can be risky. But in the best case scenario, using style to present your ideals in a compelling way could raise their esteem in your community.

So if “style” is a concept larger than what one wears, what are examples? I’ll throw out a few from how I work (I’m a software developer. Half of you knew that already. And have seen me do these things.)

  • Composing pull requests for work-in-progress. When I’m changing code I like to open a GitHub pull request before I’m done. I share my plan up front, state plainly what I don’t understand, and narrate with comments where I stopped when I close a session. Never to hoard knowledge, not to be fearful of what other people will think. If I’m wrong, let me be wrong where my team can see and set me straight.
  • Learning visibly. When I need to learn something to do my job, I make a point of reading, etc. where people can see me doing it. Software development requires a ton of just-in-time learning. It should be interwoven with the work, never crammed into the margin and treated like trying to “catch up”. A month in the lab can save an hour in the library.
  • Anchoring conversations with visual aids. In meetings, I stand at a whiteboard and write down keywords I hear, draw arrows between them, and improvise diagrams to capture how my understanding is unfolding. I could do it on a piece of paper, just for myself, but I want differences in understandings to be obvious to others. That way, we can repair the gap rather than talking past one another.

When I do these things, there is a performative element to it. But I prefer the deliberate choice to perform what feels right to me over being hedged in by anodyne and ineffective norms.

My introduction to Nick Riggle was the episode “Freedom and Hostile Design” of the Hi-Phi Nation podcast, where Riggle discusses his book On Being Awesome. In that book, he discusses the concept of a social opening: an occurrence where someone opens a space for others to recognize each other’s individuality in ways not required by the business at hand. Creating a social openings involves breaking norms in gentle ways that opens a path for a less rote interaction to flourish.

Reading Riggle’s work has helped me understand how I can act to support the culture I want: Using the social capital I have to create openings for others to join me in vulnerability and take joy in learning together. To quote his introduction:

The idea I develop in this book is that our love of awesomeness is an expression of our hope for a better social culture— one that is more imaginative, creative, and communal, and one that promises to bolster, enhance, and even help to realize the kind of free, just, equal, and diverse society we aspire to. Our love of awesomeness emerged from our collective exploration and slow discovery of ways to bring community and connection back into a burgeoning individualistic culture, but without destroying that culture—indeed, while promoting and celebrating it.

Yes, this is what I want.