Dear Miss Manners....

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Mon, 17 Oct 1994 06:41:23 +0800

Ms Manners:

I'm in REAL desprate need of advice and I'm touching base with you to see
if you can help.

I'm a subscriber to a computer mailing list which has been havnig a really
long and pretty heavy discussion about all kinds of things WRT other
people (the mailing list is pretty big and most of the subscribers are
anthroplogstis.) The stuff posted is usally pretty cool and has to do with
anthoprlogy, but sometimes I think people just seem to mess up the public
postings to the list with personal replies. That's pretty easy to do, and
maybe has something to do with the problems. What do you think?

Trouble is, stuff even seems to have turned to a REALLY LONG discussion
about whether we should even discuss the thread any more. This looks like
its gonna turn into an even bigger thread! It's gone so far as to chats
about all the dangers even including *LAW SUITS!* :-(

So, anyhoo, what's the proper rules for discussing other people on a
computer network?

IMHO, I think we need some help! I'm thinking of maybe setting up a list
to sort it all out, but thought I would try you first.

Confused in Cyberspace


Dear Troubled Reader:

Though I reply to you in my neat italic hand, using tasteful
blue-black ink and my gold-nibbed fountain pen, I must confess that of
computer systems and networks, no less the location of "Cyberspace"
(despite consulting a Gazetteer) I remain decidedly uniformed.
Nevertheless, I believe I can reassure you from the beginning, distressed
as you obviously are, by noting an obvious, indeed self-evident, fact:
Despite the appearance of new fora and media of communications, the
underlying principles of good manners remain unchanged. It is quite
unthinkable to imagine that the intervention of a mere machine could
influence the nature, no less the importance, of mannerly behavior.
However, I hasten to add, neither should we expect technological
intermediaries materially to affect the temptation occasionally to stray,
nor alter the fact that regrettable lapses in good manners will on
occasion occur. The appearance of such an event within your computing
machine seems to have occasioned your concern. Did you actually expect
otherwise? I may be mistaken, but I was led to believe that people were
involved, at least in some manner, in these machines, as well as their
"out-puts," "in-puts," and other neologisms.

Based upon what you have written, it appears that the bitter-sweet
confection of gossip has come to be served up alongside the normal,
nutritious albeit occasionally dry, scholarly fare you expected from this
computing service. That this should have happened, I am sure, occasions
no great astonishment, or is it that I am somehow misinformed of the
workings of your computing machine? I assume not, or at least not in
terms relevant to issues of taste, whether good or bad.
Gossip, as we all know, provides the occasional tasty titbit of useful
information, and, properly done, causes minimal harm whilst providing no
small entertainment to those involved. But in the pursuit of gossip, as
in all other such things, the guiding principles of good manners must
remain firmly in mind.
Etiquette does not prescribe, no less (horrors!) proscribe. Instead,
it serves to guide us in choosing the appropriate time and place in which
properly to indulge our own particular tastes. Hence, it is perfectly
appropriate to eat with one's fingers at a Fourth of July Picnic. It is
likewise quite proper for adults, should they so desire, to indulge in any
number of a large variety of physical activities and personal intimacies
behind closed doors. Problems arise, however, when the latter activities
occur at the former event.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to indulge in our gossiping, like
all other examples of those (properly) seldom discussed yet often performed
expressions of our personal tastes, with both style and verve. This, of
course, means such activities should be only performed in the company of
other consenting adults; which is to say, adults who are also willfully
indulging in that selfsame, publicly inappropriate, behaviour.
To impose one's personal predilections, even those which are quite
proper and enjoyable in private or amongst friends, upon others in a public
forum is the equivalent of bringing uninvited and possibly uninterested
guests to a "by invitation only" party. This, of course, has the
immediately obvious, and decidedly negative, effect of interfering with the
pleasures which one might normally obtain. But, of far greater concern, it
also brings with it the potentially discomforting possibility of making
other people voyeurs against their will. This is tasteless at best, and
indeed, under certain conditions, may be so tasteless as to have been
judged quite illegal; and quite properly so, I would add.
(I further note in this context, albeit solely in passing, that any
discussion of the details of such legal matters outside of their proper
public venue, the Courtroom, provides us with a near-perfect example of
both bad manners and good gossip.)

Assuming I properly understand the point raised at the end of your
second paragraph, I believe it important to maintain that most lapses in
normally good manners, arise from unintentional error. When confronted
with such happenings, I most strongly recommend that you assume, in the
name of good manners itself, that a regrettable, and indeed immediately
regretted, totally unintentional error of some sort has in fact occurred.
Please, I beg of you, do not feel obligated to point out said, now
sadly public, error in a similarly public way. Such an action will only
serve to further embarrass the person who has made the error. You should
first consider the fact that he or she is already, no doubt, embarassed
quite enough. Furthermore, no matter the proximate means by which said
lapse might have occurred, your reply, should it be the least intemperate,
could rather easily implicate you as having manners no better than those
of whom you might seek to complain. Good manners are also good guides to
the tactics of self-preservation, and no shame arises in the recognition
of this little fact.

You also speak of discussions generated about the gossip itself. Such
discussions, in my experience, usually entail gossiping at one remove (one
is tempted to speak of "meta-gossip," but from that I will refrain in the
name of linguistic good taste). It is probably best to recognise these
discussions for what they are -- gossip pure and simple -- and apply the
same standards as would have been applied to the original gossip itself.
Hence, in most cases, I would also recommend avoiding such discussions
in public fora, though I will admit that by use of proper distance and
appropriate terminology such discussions may occasionally be productively
pursued, else your humble correspondent would be quite lacking employment
herself. I assume an analogous observation may be made regarding those
who normally participate in your discussions, especially given the field
of their academic pursuits. Perhaps a gentle reminder to that effect
might not be amiss?

Please allow me to remind you, Dear Reader, that good manners have
never been meant to exclude bad manners from our lives. Indeed, those who
believe they are obligated to prohibit others from exhibiting bad manners,
even in private or in the company of likeminded adults, themselves exhibit
the worst manners of all. For, in seeking, publically, to dictate the
personal and private lives of others, they do far more injury to good
taste than that done by those who are the objects of their disdain. This,
of course, is not to be confused with a gentle reminder of the difference
between public and private, something every child must learn, and the
adult, at times, be reminded of anew.
Hence those who would forge refined public gossip out of the raw
gossip of others, gossip which in fact may have arisen by means of an
error in judgment, set themselves above those whom they judge and perhaps
may even be seen as having gone so far as to permit themselves the right to
indulge in that which they would prohibit to others. They thereby become
shining exemplars of that which they profess to disdain. Were the irony
not quite so delicious, and the justice not quite so swift, I could
imagine myself becoming rather annoyed.

I note in closing that I have replied, in some haste, despite the fact
that you have written me using a typewriter obviously in grave need of
repair or replacement -- it appears that either the cylinder or the
striker keys themselves have worn down to the point that the text looks as
if it were somehow produced by means of minute dots. I can only assume
that the sadly inadequate recognition and recompense given those in
Academia is at fault, not you. Of your punctuation and other minor
matters of style, I only note that haste leads to errors, but such is
understandable given your clear distress. What, pray tell, however, are
the meanings of the acronyms such as "IMHO", if acronyms they be?

With best regards,

/signed in a flowing and elegant,
possibly even white-gloved, hand/

Miss Manners