February 25th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; "politeness" protocols online.....

kelathefinn posted a query for me:
"Could you make a comment on the 'comment'(on something in my own LJ) below, in terms of 'violations of politeness norms' in different cultures? Evidently I've been out of the USA too long. There was absolutely no intention to offend in what I wrote. I genuinely haven't a clue about how to get something published. I'm considerably taken aback by the comment - obviously I don't know the rules to avoid being percieved as 'snarky' (not sure exactly what that means, actually, but can guess), and I think I ought to learn. I'd appreciate being enlightened. Here's me, the trained linguist, hurting the feelings of someone I care about, without meaning to, and I still don't know what I did so wrong as to be perceived as being nasty. The bit about 'this is why I rarely respond' implies this is not the first time I've hurt her feelings. I'd like to learn how NOT to do this. Your comments would be appreciated, and if you post them in your LJ, I'd read with interest the comments made by others. Thanks."

I'm sorry kelathefinn is having to go through this episode right now, at a time when I know (from reading her journal) that life has not been handing her a steady stream of sugarplums and rainbows. And I don't know that there's anything useful I can say. Consider, for example, that in just the past week or so I -- also a trained linguist, and an elderly one -- have (a) run one longtime commenter out of the discussion space entirely, with the parting observation that my stated opinions were "beneath contempt," and (b) have so seriously offended another longtime commenter that my three attempts at overt and explicit apology have been met only with silence. In the second instance yet another commenter found what I'd said so offensive that he (or she) felt obligated to come to the defense of the person I'd said it to and express support. This hardly makes me an authority on how to maintain discourse harmony online; I seem to be sowing discord far and wide. However, I'm willing to open the discussion here; in my experience, people participating in this journal have a great deal of good advice to offer, and are willing to provide it.

There are two separate issues that have to be brought up, and I don't think either one of them has anything to do with being "out of the USA too long." First, there's the question of how to avoid being perceived as offensive in the first place. I went to kelathefinn's journal and looked at the material that provoked the angry comment, and the only thing I saw there that I'd advise against is writing words (in this case, the word "published") in all caps. Words in all caps are heard as being yelled rather than spoken, and I think it's unwise to put words in all caps unless your specific intention is to yell those words. The all-caps format adds extra emphatic stresses to what the reader "hears," and for American English those extra stresses are always going to be dangerous. I would have assumed that peppering your posts and comments with obscenities (not something kelathefinn does) would be offensive -- but from my reading of other LJs, that doesn't seem to be true. I do think that openly aggressive stuff -- like "Every single one of the comments you people have posted is beneath contempt!" -- is going to be offensive; surely that's obvious, and easy to avoid. It appears that making any claim not supported on the spot by links to evidence is a good way to be perceived as offensive. But from what I've observed in the time I've been doing this journal, the basic principle goes like this: No matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try to avoid it, some of your posts and/or comments are going to be perceived as offensive.

Whether you intended to give offense is irrelevant; the only useful meaning a sequence of language has in the real world is the meaning the listener/reader understands it to have, and that is the meaning that will be acted upon. The only way to avoid giving offense is not to post. I assume that's why so many writers have blogs where comments aren't allowed (or at least aren't posted publicly). Public blogging, if you do very much of it and you don't restrict it rigorously to a single subject, means being extremely vulnerable; it seems to be built into the medium.

The other problem -- and to my mind the far more difficult one -- is what to do after the miscommunication has taken place. Suppose that offline you spoke to someone at the office and said (as I said in the LJ miscommunication I'm struggling with at the moment), "Pat, you're not easy to please." You were tired or you were sick or you were in a hurry or any number of other things may have been going on; whatever the reason, you said that, and Pat took exception to it. There are all sorts of things you can decide to do to fix matters, assuming that you care about fixing them. You can pretend it didn't happen, and assume that as time goes by and you and Pat continue to see each other at work the incident will eventually be forgotten. You can face Pat directly and publicly and say "I didn't meant to offend you and I'm sincerely sorry that I did; please accept my apology." You can send Pat flowers or candy or cigars, with a card expressing your apology for giving offense. You can find a way to meet with Pat privately and try to thrash it out, starting with your statement that you didn't mean to offend and with your apology. (Which may of course set off a shouting match. "You did TOO mean to offend me!" "I did NOT!" "Oh, yes you DID!" And similar delights. But you can work your way through that.) You can do any or all of these things, and eventually the situation will either be repaired or you will have lost Pat's friendship forever and you'll have to settle for that.

Online, things are very different. My own attempts at repairing these sorts of things have, so far as I know, always failed. (That is, there may be scores of times when I've given offense and people have not objected, so that I didn't know that any attempt at repair was needed, and the whole thing has blown over without my ever becoming aware of it.) I've tried saying that I didn't intend to offend and that I apologize -- for all I know, that's perceived as unseemly smarmy groveling and only makes matters worse. I've tried suggesting that Commenter X and I could just agree to disagree; that seems to only annoy people. Offline, when you genuinely want to repair a communication glitch, you have steady nonverbal feedback in response to your attempts at repair, so that you can constantly try to calibrate and adjust your own messages on the basis of the information you're getting about the emotions in play. Online, very little of that feedback is available, and you have no way of knowing whether the feedback you do get is genuine. If there is a solution for this, I do not know what it is, and I think that we human beings are just barely getting started at developing that solution, and that it is of great linguistic interest that we're bothering, instead of just stalking off and never posting again.

The hopeful thing that I see -- and I see it constantly -- is that people online do seem to be willing to extend enormous amounts of patience and offer a great deal of help if they think you are genuinely trying. I see more of that online than I ever saw in the Real World, and it encourages me.
ozarque figure

Linguistics; political language and rhetoric; abortion

Well .... I suppose there's no way to avoid this particular national war of words any longer, thanks to South Dakota. I suppose it's time to get it over with.

God help us all.

I am dreading this uproar more than I can say, but am not quite cowardly enough to refuse to discuss it. Those who have pointed out that in the United States it is equivalent to the war of words over slavery, and that that one led to the Civil War, are right. I suppose George W. Bush must be thrilled about it, regardless of his convictions on the subject, since it will be the most overwhelming of all distractions.

I can tell you what it meant, when I was a child, that abortions were only available to "save the life of the mother." It meant that if you were a pregnant female who had enough money, you would always be able to find two or three doctors who were willing to swear that your pregnancy was putting your life in danger. If you didn't have enough money, that wasn't available to you.

It seems to me that it adds a whole new dimension to the question of whether a woman could now be president.