If you’re in the tech world and you see the acronym “API” you assume the discussion is about software known as an Application Programming Interface. And though I heard about this acronym on a podcast by Sam Harris from a founder of a large tech company (WordPress), it actually has nothing to do with programming. The podcast aired in late March, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when people around the world were already “sheltering in place” and many employees were learning the ropes of home-based work. As a company, WordPress already had a work-at-home culture for most its 1,000+ employees and Matt Mullenweg, a founding developer of the company, was giving advice on how to navigate some of the hurdles involved in running distributed workforces.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins an intense 10-day period of reflection and introspection that culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when people repent for misdeeds of the previous year. A large focus of this repentance involves less-than-ideal behavior between us and our fellow humans. And some of that misbehavior is related to how we interact with those in our social orbit, those closest to us. How often do we think or speak ill of someone, even someone we care about, because we assumed bad intent on their part? How easily can a Social Media, WhatsApp or Email conversation and even a real-world relationship degrade because we misinterpreted a word or phrase and assumed the worst? And what does this have to do with a high-tech company and its distributed workforce?
One of the areas Mullenweg focused on was the problem of dealing with the “flatness” of the two-dimensional text communication that’s a critical component of working at home, e.g email, chat, etc., vs. IRL (in real life) discussions in an office. As he pointed out, and as we all know regularly occurs in our day-to-day interactions, important work discussions get side-tracked and time gets wasted because people misunderstand the intent of a few terse words in an email. And that’s where he introduced the concept of API.
Mullenweg’s version of this acronym stands for, Assume Positive Intent. In the work environment it means to assume that you’re all on the same team and everyone’s intent is to do what’s best for the company. This attitude helps employees look past a seemingly hurtful phrase and see the bigger picture.
We can also use API to help us in our interpersonal social world as well. When we read a comment on Facebook, a message on WhatsApp or an email, we can work on assuming that this person, who’s probably a family member, friend or at least a friend of a friend, is not evil and most likely has good intentions… even if they don’t see things exactly the way we do. Assuming positive intent can help us reframe our mindset and respond in a way that lowers tension and avoids misunderstandings.
Mullenweg made clear that this is a two-way street. People on the sending side should be more careful to make sure their true intent is clear. He even suggested the prodigious use of emojis to help unflatten and humanize the communication.
This can be extrapolated to our real-life interactions as well. Especially during this time of dealing with a pandemic and what seem to be insurmountable political and social differences, assuming positive intent can help us better see the motivations of people who seem to be thinking and behaving in ways that are completely and diametrically opposed to our thoughts and behaviors.
If we can use API to ratchet down ill feelings and associated rhetoric, maybe next year at this time we’ll have a few less interpersonal sins to atone for.
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year.