And Not But
We all know Bob at work. Bob is a brilliant colleague. Bob does a great job on every project and is an amazingly sharp thinker. But Bob can be rude sometimes and working with him is a mixed bag. Someone who doesn’t know Bob and just got placed on a project with him asks: “Is Bob good to work with?” You sigh and repeat the words above. The new person comes away a little worried.
All they’ve really heard is that “Bob can be rude sometimes”. Now, you know there’s more nuance there. Bob really can be amazing learn from and can be a boon to your professional growth. Bob has value, but…
It’s been said that whatever comes before the word “but” is meaningless, and although there are exceptions, it’s a good rule of thumb. What you said about Bob is reduced to an either/or framing that emphasizes the words after “but”. Consider an alternative three-letter word: and.
“And” embraces the nuance you are trying to convey. It lets us look at situations from a different angle and reach new, valid conclusions. It helps highlight the (sometimes uncomfortable) truth that there are more than two ways to think about everything in the world.
The Best Tool for the Job
A different example: Software development is generally thought of as a pretty “hard” science, in that there is a “correct” way to accomplish a problem. This is false. We all have our favorite way to solve a problem, but there is no one way; only endless tradeoffs. “I like the idea of using a typed language, but an untyped language will help us code faster.” That’s a false choice, or at best there’s a lot more to take in to account. Use the word “and” instead, and the statement reveals a lot more of the ambiguity that was hiding. Why do you liked a typed language? What about an untyped language makes coding faster? Answering these will help you think through the actual constraints of whatever you’re trying to accomplish so you can make a better decision for your specific goals.
All in the Family
“I love my dad, but I hate how he guilts me into coming home for Easter every year.” Family is complicated and fraught. There’s a reason why the stereotypical therapy question is “tell me about your mother”. Consider again replacing “but” with “and” here. You can absolutely love people and feel conflicted about them. People contain multitudes. It’s healthy and okay. People aren’t fully good or bad. This is life, not a movie plot.
The Art vs the Artist
Many people my age grew up with and loved the Harry Potter books, but many of us are incredibly disappointed that J.K. Rowling is demonstrably transphobic. What do you say to a parent that asks “Should I get the Harry Potter books for my kids?” Flip that “but” in the first sentence to an “and” for them and have a conversation about it. J.K. Rowling can be a fantastic author of amazing books and a bigot. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s true.
So, give “and” a try next time you’re thinking about a coworker, or seeing someone you revere being ripped apart in the headlines. Be allergic to think pieces titled: “Is X a bad idea?” or “The real problem with X”. Take a more nuanced view and consider the tradeoffs instead of rushing to an easy conclusion.
Let’s Break it Down: What Can We Learn When Queen Bey Uses an Ableist Slur? by Dr. Evelyn Carter is a great article that touches on a lot of these concepts and has even more advice on how to work through them.