Mailing List "Rudeness"

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Introduction

I am a member of a number of mailing lists, mostly dealing with genealogy/family history, and have noticed from time to time flame wars developing quite unintentionally.

The problem usually arises when an innocent, but perhaps rather naive, enquiry, usually from a beginner, gives rise to both the immediate answer and a suggestion of a readily available source to answer such questions in future, or when an experienced list member criticises the format of a message (Netiquette). Sometimes the original questioner, and always some other list members, take exception to the tone of the reply. The immediate result is a flurry of messages to the list accusing the person replying to the query of rudeness.

I believe I can see both sides of this argument, and in the following paragraphs I offer both an explanation and a suggested approach which both sides of such arguments can take to avoid the problem:

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To the "offender"

I have no doubt that in the majority of such cases no offence or rudeness is intended, and you are yourself hurt and surprised by the hostile reaction to your genuine attempt to be helpful.

The problem arises not from the advice you are giving, which is in every case I have seen very reasonable, but from the apparent tone of impatience or intolerance in which it is offered. I say apparent, because that is how it appears to the objectors, even though it was unintended.

Two examples I have seen recently illustrate my point. (I am quite deliberately not quoting precise wording):

  1. A questioner asked the whereabouts of a major city in a country foreign to himself. The reply gave the answer, but added that the questioner should have available a decent world atlas, which would answer such questions faster and without bothering the mailing list. Many people wrote in objecting to this "rudeness".

    If the reply had simply suggested that the enquirer, and other genealogists, would almost certainly find such an atlas invaluable in their research, and also that they would benefit from having access to detailed maps of the locality in which their ancestors lived once that was known, I believe there would have been no objections whatever. Even better if it had been acknowledged that there are places, remote from big cities, where it is not necessarily easy to obtain such material or access to it in a library. Web site alternatives could be mentioned.

  2. Another questioner failed to use good, grammatical English with accurate spelling and punctuation. Again the reply answered the specific question, but was highly critical of the failings in English, and of the lack of a useful subject heading in the message.

    It is undoubtedly true that the use of good English, short paragraphs and an informative subject heading to such a message means far more people are likely to take the trouble to read the message and so potentially to answer it, so the advice itself was excellent.

    Unfortunately, the reply was framed along the lines that the failure to do this was showing a lack of care in framing the message and a lack of respect to the readers. While this may or may not have been true (failure to simply think it through seems more likely to me, and it could be because to the questioner English is a foreign language), pointing it out publicly in this way is not the way to win friends.

    Such advice should be tendered along the lines that it will be helpful to the writer of the original query to encourage others, who are perhaps under time pressure to clear a large volume of messages, to read the message sent, and that the advice given is intended to help them achieve that. The point should be made in as polite a way as possible, including such phrases as "I hope you don't mind my pointing out that ...", showing recognition that you are criticising the individual's behaviour, an action that is particularly liable to cause offence unless done with great care. It should be explicitly stressed that the intention is to help, not simply negative criticism.

Particularly important is that when any message is being sent out that could be regarded (by the perhaps over-sensitive) as being critical of an individual, that message should be sent privately to that individual, not publicly via the mailing list.

I should perhaps point out that I used to make just this kind of mistake myself (in face-to-face conversations, long before the advent of email), until I learnt the hard way that it pays to add in a few extra words specifically to avoid possible offence.

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To the "offended"

Please try to distinguish between the tone of the message and the actual advice contained within it, which is in all probability excellent.

Look again at your original message, and try to imagine how you would have felt if it was one among several hundred you had received that day, perhaps at a time when you were not feeling too well, had just had a row with the boss at work and were being nagged at that very moment by your spouse to do some job around the house instead of spending so much time sitting at your computer.

Remember that the person who seems so rude to you probably isn't aware that he/she is rude at all, and is giving up his/her time voluntarily to try to help you with the benefit of his/her knowledge and experience.

It is also worth considering that if a person is habitually rude, this indicates a lack in upbringing and/or education. Rudeness in return will certainly not help that problem, but if anything will only make matters worse. They need very carefully advising that they have the problem (which they will not be aware of), with very specific advice on just what is wrong and how it could be improved. You could even point them to this page (if you agree with my advice to such people, given above).

If, after considering all this, you still feel that the person needs to have his/her errors pointed out, do it privately, not via the list; otherwise you are being just as rude yourself (as well as inconsiderate towards other list members and the list owner), and that is never justified.

Finally, no matter how disgusted you are at the rudeness of some replies, remember that the people responsible are only a small minority, and do not justify withdrawing from the list yourself. To do so is to deprive the other, innocent, list members of the benefit of your own knowledge and experience, and to deprive yourself of the benefit of that of others - and we all have something to contribute and something to learn from others.

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Some general points

John Harris suggested including the following email equivalents to body language:

Some simple abbreviations, such as ‹g›, ‹vbg›, IMHO and similar can be used in lieu of gestures and visual signals to help you communicate something closer to the meaning you want to convey. Smilies can have a similar effect. The basic one's are:

:-) The basic smilie. This smilie is used to inflect a joking statement since we can't hear voice inflection over e-mail.
;-) Winky smilie. User just made a flirtatious and/or sarcastic remark. More of a "don't hit me for what I just said" smilie.
:-( Frowning smilie. User did not like that last statement or is upset or depressed about something.

Shanna Jones sent me the following useful addition:

"One thing I saw on a list once was helpful to me. It said:
T-H-I-N-K
Answers to e-mail should only be written if they are:
T - True
H - Helpful
I - Important
N - Necessary
K - Kind"

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Final comment

If anyone feels I have got it wrong, or can suggest improvements to the above, please email me. I am always willing to learn, and have a very thick skin!

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Browser compatibility statement

I believe web pages should be accessible to all browsers, rather than surfers being browbeaten into switching to some particular browser to see a page. (How many people would be happy if popular TV programmes could only be watched with the latest model of one particular make of TV set?). I am currently going through this site trying to achieve this as far as possible, but I do not have any means of testing it with all the dozens of browsers out there. When I think I have managed it with a page I'll include this paragraph at the end and a suitable logo at the top. If you have trouble viewing any page on this site, especially a page including this paragraph, please
let me know), and tell me what browser (name and version) and what operating system you are using, so I can try to do something about it. Thanks.

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