There’s a lot of strong personalities in cyber security, which often means people who are a bit arrogant, obnoxious, and elitist because of their self-perceived level of skill or knowledge. All you have to do is read through some mailing lists, forum threads, or chat rooms to find some heated argument laced with insults and profanity. As you’re learning or working with others in the cyber or tech field, dealing with people like this can be quite a challenge, especially when they say things to make you feel inferior and beneath them. In this video, we’re going to go over some of the most common types of arrogance you’ll encounter in cyber security, reasons people act like this, along with some actionable ways you can use to deal with and even win over these kinds of people.
In fields where athleticism or physical prowess is the primary currency for respect and reputation, it’s not uncommon to see stare downs, muscle flexing, and even fights occur between participants. Brawn is a primal form of power that requires little explanation, reasoning, or legitimacy to understand. But as societies shift more towards a knowledge-based economy, having a sharp mental prowess takes more of a center stage, since knowledge is indeed another form of power, after all. And those same “measuring” contests transform and reappear as trolling and trash talking in playing fields for eSports to intellectual arrogance in the office. Some common examples you’ll encounter might include grammar nazis, cert bragging, mansplaining, telling people their method isn’t the best, or arguing about how things work. There’s also the “I know someone who’s better than you” line of reasoning as a last resort.
There’s sexism too, especially towards women in the tech field, with guys joking about physical traits or stereotypes to discredit their credentials and qualifications. That’s a nice score for a girl. For high-arrogance individuals on the blunt side, they might tell you to simply shut up and stop talking to them because you’re a waste of their time. On the passive-aggressive side, they might just ignore you, avoid eye contact, or exclude you from projects and decision-making processes. Whatever the style, they’re all ways of signaling mental superiority in some shape or form. In the cyber security world, knowledge flexes are aggravated even further by debates over software choices, technical trivia, and style conventions. I mean, I do not get why anyone would use spaces over tabs. I mean why not just use Vim over Emacs. I do use Vim over Emacs. Oh God, help us. Since cyber security is one of those fields that takes a tremendous amount of dedication to achieve mastery, it’s easy to develop a big ego as you increase in actual or self-perceived skill. Here’s an illustration.
When people see themselves on the lower side in terms of skill, they tend to be more humble and malleable in their views. Folks like this are just starting off in their journeys and are eager to learn. After a few years of experience, they no longer see themselves as newbies and start to think of themselves as leaps and bounds better than others just starting off. The truth is that these hotshots are still a bit junior with a few minor accomplishments to flex about. In the upper-reaches of skill, people may fork off into one of two directions, depending on the work environment. For people in a decent developmental environment surrounded by other capable peers, it’s easier for egos to balance each other out within the group. For people who are used to being the smartest person in the room, their ego outpaces their actual skills and tends to follow them to other work places too. Over time, they mellow out into seasoned professionals who are reliable and talented although a bit elitist and hard to work with if they don’t think you match their level of expertise. Among the rarest group of people are experienced masters in the high-skill but low arrogance zone.
They often will have experience teaching students at all levels and interface with non-technical people on the business side of the house. People in this zone are extremely comfortable with what they know and don’t know, and can communicate and correct others in a down-to-earth, non-condescending way. One thing to note is that being skilled and capable does not necessarily mean that you’re more or less arrogant, since there’s other factors at play as well, which tend to fall into three general categories: competitive personalities, underdeveloped people skills, and the illusion of knowledge. Let’s start with the first. Having a healthy dose of competition is pretty natural. And since you’d like to compare how you rack and stack against others in the same camp, it helps you in the learning process and is a great way to get better at any skill. It’s just as how having a workout buddy can challenge and motivate you further than just exercising going solo. But for people who like to constantly compare and compete with others, “one-upping” and showmanship can be their way of life.
In cybersecurity, this might be someone who can’t resist contradicting or critiquing other people, particularly on technical matters, to appear as the smartest and most knowledgeable person in the room. It’s over a 150 million million million possible settings. Very good. 159 if you want to be exact about it. 1-5-9, with 18 zeros behind it. Possibilities. Every single day. They see everyone else as intellectual conquests to contend with. If you’re using Windows, they’ll lecture you for not using Linux. If you use Ubuntu, they’ll scoff that it’s not Debian, or Gentoo, or some flavor of BSD. If you happen to be very skilled yourself, they’ll begrudgingly acknowledge you as a worthy rival but take opportunities to snipe you on technical facts and other trivia to discredit you. A friend once told me that during a technical interview, he was asked how the Linux grep command worked. He said it used regular expressions to match text patterns, at which the interviewer straight-up interrupted him saying, “Wrong answer, it uses globbing.” My friend responded with, “Doesn’t it stand for the GNU Regular Expression Program?” at which the interviewer immediately opened up his computer for a few minutes, then continued to ask him other questions, completely unwilling to admit his mistake.
With people like this, there’s no winning, even when you’re right. A second common source of arrogance in tech and cyber security is poor people skills. Most of us are familiar with the concept of IQ, or intelligence quotient, which measures your aptitude for analytical, abstract, and logical reasoning. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, popularized the terms EQ and SQ as well, referring to your emotional intelligence and social intelligence. EQ is more intrapersonal, having to do with your own emotional self-awareness and self-confidence. While SQ is more interpersonal, having to do with how well you cooperate in a group, which requires empathy, kindness, and patience. How much of these intelligences are formed by nature or nurture is up for debate, but I’m in the camp that you can develop them over time, which is much easier to do when you’re young. When I was growing up as a kid, I really didn’t have any friends since instead of hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood, I preferred to spend time indoors reading sci-fi books and tinkering on the computer. Whether it was hacking games or configuring Slackware Linux, where you have to compile all the packages and dependencies from scratch, I leveled up my IQ at the expense of social intelligence and people skills. When all the other kids would give class presentations on stories like their beach vacation, I would explain how societies could reorganize into futuristic, technocratic utopias, with no clue that doing so made me come across as the arrogant social deviant. I always thought the problem was other people not being able to understand my ideas, when in reality it was my inability to socially contextualize them with others that was the real problem. Without regular interaction with other people, it’s easy to become self-absorbed in your own ideas and interests. People lacking interpersonal skills tend to place their own cares and needs over those of the group, and are even blind to this behavior.
When they do want to socialize, it’s usually on their terms, which is often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Without proper tact, these folks give off an overall impression of being haughty and abrasive. The third and final reason people can be arrogant in cyber security is something called “certainty bias.” In the book, “On Being Certain”, Dr. Robert Burton describes human thoughts as having two portions: the thought itself and an assessment of its accuracy. When the two aren’t congruent, like when you look at an optical illusion, you get a really uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. For instance, in this Müller-Lyer illustion, the two lines are actually the same length, or in this checker shadow diagram, the squares in A and B are both the same shade of gray, but the illusion messes with how accurate you think this conclusion is. So when it comes to knowledge in general, we’d much rather take a chance at knowing something and be wrong rather than feeling unsure and looking ignorant. It’s what causes us to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. People abandon nuances in favor of absolutes because our brain’s reward system activates when there’s a “feeling of certainty”, in the same way that it activates from cocaine, alcohol, exercise, and gambling. It’s so powerful that rats with an electrode in the pleasure part of their brain will continuously press a switch to self-stimulate to the exclusion of food and water, or even cross electrified wire to get a hit of dopamine. Certainty bias and the illusion of knowing is something that can transform the kindest, warmest people into the most obnoxious arrogant know-it-alls out there! As people get older and more experienced, we become more entrenched in our pre-existing ways of thinking, since it’s much easier to dismiss ideas that don’t align with your own to save mental energy. But the same certainty bias that makes us fall prey to social engineering and phishing emails also exhibits in the form of intellectual arrogance in the cyber world, just like my friend had experienced with his interviewer. As Mark Twain says: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” We’ve all experienced this before. In grade school you take facts about science as if they were true and universal. But as you grow more sophisticated in your education, you start to learn more and more exceptions to the rules in cases where they don’t apply. The best and brightest cyber practitioners I’ve met in the field have both the flexibility and intellectual humility to draw these distinctions. Because the truth is, it’s really hard to be certain until you’ve deeply examined all the possible considerations. When you’re dealing with intellectual arrogance, there’s many different approaches that can help you manage situations better. For those with hyper-competitive streaks, take a “Blue Ocean” strategy approach, which means differentiating yourself in a tangential area the of expertise as the competitor. If someone sees himself as a Linux guru who knows everything there is to know about Bash, you might have a hard time discussing the command-line together without butting heads or getting into technical debates about how things work. Rather, you could try investing some time to get dangerous at PowerShell and Windows administration instead. Differentiation is one way to earn respect, and gives you an opportunity to approach the relationship as a collaborator rather than a direct competitor. To diffuse a tense situation, here’s an easy three-step formula to try: first, acknowledge that you understand their opinion or idea, even if you don’t necessarily agree. This way you’re not being confrontational but it also doesn’t weaken your own position. Second, ask them a probing question to evaluate the clarity and consistency of their thinking. Humble questions full of curiosity is a great way to disarm any antagonism and measure the depth of what they actually know. And then, just listen. Intellectually arrogant people often like to swing facts and opinions around like a battle axe, so it’s usually better just to indulge them with good listening, then continue to ask questions as needed. This process allows you to better understand the other person and keeps you in a non-reactive mode, in which you’re the one with greater maturity and humility. But best of all, it puts you on the path towards winning friends and influencing people, which happens to be a book by Dale Carnegie which I highly recommend everyone to read. You can get a lot more done winning over people rather than compelling others through debates and “measuring contests.” Habits like becoming genuinely interested in people, talking in terms of their interests, and letting them do most of the talking are all approaches in this book that can make you more likeable, even by those who seem the most tough to get along with. Because when you’re dealing with difficult people, keep in mind that you might be just as difficult. It’s easy to fall victim to certainty bias yourself, and always assume the worst in others based on the tiniest bit of data about them. So before you judge and criticize others for being wrong, take a moment to question if you might actually be missing the bigger picture yourself. When you sense that things might get heated, it’s usually better to avoid escalating them into arguments altogether, since they almost never actually change anyone’s minds and presuppositions, especially if in the process you insult and hurt their dignity. The last thing I want you to walk away with is to remember that people are much more than their beliefs and ideas. They have hobbies, dreams, and experiences just like the rest of us. As soon as you self-identify with an idea and become part of it, it’s really hard to then meaningfully discuss it anymore because any kind of judgment or critique becomes personal attacks on your own ego. So don’t self-identify with the beliefs and ideas you hold, since they’re only going to change over time. Always recognize that people come from different backgrounds and are on all sorts of paths and are on all sorts of paths in their cyber journeys. Treat them as you would want to be treated, with dignity and respect. So that’s it for this video on dealing with arrogance in cyber security. Remember to hit that like and subscribe button with notifications. Really hope you enjoyed this video and learned something worth sharing with others. Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see you soon!