Skills Shaming Shames Us All....

1st Apr 2020

'Shaming is not the answer. It does not influence behaviour, but instead creates a dichotomy of us and them: the people who are doing it right and those who are wrong. This can quickly become exclusionary.'  Leave No Trace (Centre For Outdoor Ethics)

This Way Wrong Way Signpost

It was the final day of my Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor assessment (formerly known as MIC) and the week had gone really well.  There had been some constructive feedback from assessors and although I was aware a few mistakes had been made, I was feeling confident as I headed into my final client climbing day.

The conditions all week had been challenging and my chosen route for the final day was North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor.  It would be a safe choice in the conditions and would be ideal for my competent client. But by the end of the day any confidence that I would pass my assessment had evaporated.  

The day had gone well in many ways and there had been loads of great teaching opportunities, everything had been done safely and we’d had a great adventure, but still I walked out to the minibus with a sense of dread at the feedback I’d receive. The reason for my gloomy mood was simple - we were late. 

This might not seem a big deal and the situation was completely in hand, but there was no excuse for my lateness and I could have kicked myself for fluffing something I pride myself on. Being on time can be very important for safety, is important when you have a bus full of people waiting for you and shows efficiency, good planning skills and a good understanding of how long things will take.  It is rightly expected that mountaineering instructors are on time.

I sat quietly in the bus, sat gloomily through my assessors brief debrief and then went and balled my eyes out in my room.  As the week’s assessors pondered on who had passed or otherwise, I was licking my wounds and thinking how I’d messed up on such a fundamental after all my prep, my planning and my attention to detail.  Eventually I tidied myself up and went to join my fellow candidates to hear the outcome of our efforts.

One by one we were ushered into a room to hear from two of the assessment team.  Two people I really admired sat before me and I was steeling myself for the news that never came.  They mentioned my lateness of course, but their judgement was that over the full assessment I had demonstrated a good standard and the timing issue would need to just be something to chalk up to experience.  

As I thanked them profusely and headed for the door one of the assessors turned to me and, with a glint in his eye, said who of us doesn’t make some sort of mistake on every day we go out - an observation that I will never forget and one that had come from one of the most experienced mountain professionals I know.

Recently, as always, people have been making mistakes in the mountains.  I know they have because I’ve seen posts about it on social media.  Sometimes the posts come from the people themselves, those who have witnessed it or from media sources.  But all sorts of mistakes are being laid bare on a daily basis. Sometimes they even get picked up by the mainstream media and the exposure net widens.  

I have also seen that there are a lot of people trying hard not to make mistakes.  This I also know because of the posts I’ve seen on social media.  People asking for advice on equipment, techniques, route selection and for general guidance on the myriad of other components that make up a mountain day. 

Whether it is people sympathising with the mistake makers or offering helpful advice to the knowledge seekers, I am heartened by many of the replies posted. There are a lot of people in our special community who want to encourage, advise, assist and support. It is the best of what we are all in this for.

But in equal measure I find it heartbreaking to read what some choose to write.  In the age of fat shaming and parent shaming (to name just a couple of many shaming types that seems to be a growing phenomenom), we also seem to be in the era of ‘skills shaming’.  There are comments that criticise the poster who has made a mistake, that suggest the posters asking for advice are incapable of completing their objective because they’ve had to ask for advice in the first place and comments that mock or poke fun.  It is the worst of what we are all in this for.

I’ve learnt a lot through the internet and it’s an incredible resource.  I’ve also asked for and received some great advice.  From asking about headset compatibility on a biking forum to getting info about safe route options in marginal conditions.  We can all benefit from help and support at times and what a great way to share knowledge and guidance on best practice  

However, when this is turned on its head it can become a space where posts are at least negative and at times moving towards belittling. For many users the reasons some choose to take this tack is hard to fathom, but there’s probably a lot of reasons and the point of this blog post isn’t to start analysing why, it’s a plea to put ourselves in the place of the poster and to be nice to each other.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that people who’ve made poor decisions or who seem out of their depth shouldn’t be offered advice, but surely there is a tone to be struck and a way to offer that help.  Even a private message to a poster might be a good way to offer a more discreet response sometimes. Offering help or advice is a really positive thing to do, pulling them apart only reflects poorly on us all. 

I would like to think that this shaming culture doesn’t affect me beyond saddening me when I witness it, but actually I know it does.  I don’t want to be that next social media talking point and so it starts to inevitably dictates the content of my own posts.  A carabiner in the wrong place or a rope running over someone’s leg and I know I’m setting myself up to be skills shamed.

I have been around the block a while and it would take me many hours to retell all the mistakes I’ve made in the mountains over several decades of adventures. They are a part of my history and I learn from each and every one of them. I’ve put carabiners in the wrong place and had ropes running over legs here or there.  It isn’t always perfect for any of us. 

If I were much newer to the sport and had seen some of these media posts I would have to wonder what I was letting myself in for if I sought advice or information.  I suspect there are plenty of people keen for help and yet not comfortable to ask.  Surely this isn’t the community I know and the way we should be encouraging and nurturing those new to the sport?

In the end, I know this post will resonate with lots of like minded folk and they will carry on being the friendly and supportive folk they’ve always been.  My only hope is that, by raising the issue, some of those who are quick to comment might just think twice before pressing the post button.  

Posted by Paul