Etiquette in the Digital Age

writing_stylesIt happens whenever new communication technology comes into widespread use. Standard forms of behavior that worked well in the past are less suitable for the new medium. When the telephone was invented, people were unsure how to greet the caller. Thankfully Alexander Graham Bell’s proposed “Ahoy!” was not adopted. Similarly, recent technologies such as text messaging and smartphone internet access are challenging existing norms and creating new ones. This post describes some of those changes, but should not be interpreted as taking a position on which are appropriate.

One taboo is asking someone a question when the information is readily available on the internet. If you want to chide the questioner you might use lmgtfy.com, which stands for Let Me Google That for You.

Voicemails–a relatively new technology themselves–are on the way out, replaced by a follow-up text message if necessary. Caity Weaver has a list of when she considers voicemails OK and when they are unwarranted.

Personally I use e-mail sign-offs as if I was writing a short letter, but Matthew Malady wants to kill this bit of formality:

[E]veryone has a breaking point. For me, it was the ridiculous variations on “Regards” that I received over the past holiday season. My transition from signoff submissive to signoff subversive began when a former colleague ended an email to me with “Warmest regards.”

Were these scalding hot regards superior to the ordinary “Regards” I had been receiving on a near-daily basis? Obviously they were better than the merely “Warm Regards” I got from a co-worker the following week. Then I received “Best Regards” in a solicitation email from the New Republic. Apparently when urging me to attend a panel discussion, the good people at the New Republic were regarding me in a way that simply could not be topped.

After 10 or 15 more “Regards” of varying magnitudes, I could take no more. I finally realized the ridiculousness of spending even one second thinking about the totally unnecessary words that we tack on to the end of emails. And I came to the following conclusion: It’s time to eliminate email signoffs completely. Henceforth, I do not want—nay, I will not accept—any manner of regards. Nor will I offer any. And I urge you to do the same.

The difficulty with these emerging norms is the disparity in how different people use the technologies. My siblings and I text more than we talk on the phone and are OK with short informal messages, but when our grandmother texts us it is more like an email. Some workers use e-mail for regular communication in their office and may send and receive 100 or more messages a day, while for others it is a much less commonly used tool. It seems likely that different norms could emerge in these various settings, but this will require attention when you are talking/writing to someone outside your usual network. As these norms emerge it will give us a chance to observe the development of micro-institutions in real time.

Coughing at Classical Concerts

concert_2464934bNot being an opera fan myself I will take their word for it:

Classical concerts comes with a set of very strict rules for the public: you cannot applaud while the music plays (the only exception being after opera arias), you are supposed to dress up, and there should be complete silence from the audience during the performance. And that urge to cough should be repressed until an applause. Yet, it turns out that coughing is more frequent during the performance.

Here’s the abstract from Andreas Wagener’s paper on the topic:

Concert etiquette demands that audiences of classical concerts avoid inept noises such as coughs. Yet, coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette. Using the toolbox of (behavioral) economics, we study the social costs and benefits of concert etiquette and the motives and implications of individually disobeying such social norms. Both etiquette and its breach arise from the fact that music and its “proper” perception form parts of individual and group identities, convey prestige and status, allow for demarcation and inclusion, produce conformity, and affirm individual and social values.

Micro-institutions indeed.

See also: Miller and Page on the “Standing Ovation Problem”

Phony Rules of English Grammar

The phrase "to boldly go where no man has gone before," popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive--but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

The phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive–but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

You have heard the rules before: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t start with a conjunction. But who makes these rules? How did they become incorporated into English grammar?

One culprit is Robert Lowth, who advised against ending English sentences with prepositions based on an earlier Latin rule. Similarly, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Henry Alford popularized the prohibition against splitting infinitive’s in A Plea for the Queen’s English.

In Latin, sentences don’t end in prepositions, and an infinitive is one word that can’t be divided. But in a Germanic language like English, as linguists have pointed out, it’s perfectly normal to end a sentence with a preposition and has been since Anglo-Saxon times. And in English, an infinitive is also one word. The “to” is merely a prepositional marker. That’s why it’s so natural to let English adverbs fall where they may, sometimes between “to” and a verb.

We can’t blame Latinists, however, for the false prohibition against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, since the Romans did it too (Et tu, Brute?). The linguist Arnold Zwicky has speculated that well-meaning English teachers may have come up with this one to break students of incessantly starting every sentence with “and.” The truth is that conjunctions are legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.

This is a case where a little learning is a dangerous thing. Because the rules are easy to remember, snobs can readily point them out in writing or speech. There is also a desire for social acceptability: no one wants to look stupid, even if the reasons for the rule make no sense. Writers trying to stick to the letter of the law often contort their sentences, while the better practice is often simply to say what sounds natural.

Micro-institutions can seem so ingrained that we fail to question them. Just going with the flow can sometimes make sense, but looking a little deeper can help to expose senseless rules or useless norms. The key is to understand which rules fall into which category. I do not have an answer now. But it’s something I would like to know more about.

Punctuation Politics – The Curious Case of the Apostrophe

Apostrophe-manSome of the context is unfamiliar to me as a non-UK reader, but Michael Rosen makes an interesting argument that there is a politics of punctuation:

My position is that the apostrophe is on the way out. It’s an inconsistent item anyway; it was invented by printers – not grammarians or linguists – and like a lot of other ‘rules’ of punctuation is modified by use. No bad thing.

Like many other norms in everyday life, punctuation emerges through patterns of common usage. Declarations of these rules like the AP Guide to Punctuation and Strunk & White codify common patterns, but are not the source for them. Rosen uses the inconsistency of the rules to show how they have shifted and evolved over time:

We say as a general ‘rule’ that we use an apostrophe for ‘elision’ (when we leave stuff out) and for possessives (when we want to indicate that someone or something owns someone or something). So when we write ‘haven’t’ – that’s supposed to show we’ve ‘left out’ the ‘o’ of not. When we write ‘Michael’s writing’ that’s supposed to show that the writing is possessed by Michael. He owns it. So far so good.

But is all possession marked with an apostrophe? Oh no. So if we use what have been called the ‘possessive pronouns’, its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs – no apostrophe! Why not? er…well, no one really knows.Look at eighteenth century texts and you will find phrases like, let’s say, ‘the lands were her’s’. Even Mr Strict, Bishop Lowth, the inventor of crap grammar, used an apostrophe there. So, if it was a ‘rule’ then, when did it become a ‘rule’ to not use an apostrophe in, ‘yours’ or ‘ours’? Answer, it’s only a ‘rule’ if you’re the kind of person who thinks this sort of stuff is a ‘rule’ and not, what I would call a ‘convention’.

Rosen discusses apostrophes for elision–it’s, haven’t, they’re–in some detail. Two other use cases also point out historical irregularities:

By the way that complicated stuff about plural possessives ‘the boys’ caps’ – meaning two or more boys’ caps only became a ‘rule’ in the nineteenth century. Up until then, people like Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe managed to get by without worrying about it.

And in case you’re wondering if the decade was the 60’s or the 60s, the answer is, it all depends on the house style of the whoever is publishing it. Again, it’s a trade matter, not a grammatical one of rules.

And if you’re wondering why the possessive apostrophe came in in the first place? Because most nouns used to express possession with an ending ‘es’ with the ‘e’ sounded out. ‘dogges ears’ – with the ‘e’ heard. That sounded out ‘e’ started to disappear just as the first efforts to standardise orthography came in so with the ‘elision rule’ they reckoned that they ought to mark the ‘loss’ of the sounded ‘e’. So it wasn’t a rule of possession after all! It was the old elision ‘rule’. So when you hear people say that the apostrophe is for ‘possession’ as I did all through this article, I was talking nonsense. It was the ‘rule’ of elision but as with vast amounts of so-called grammar and information about language, we believe in the necessity of lying to children – or just foisting our ignorance on to them. That’s because the old idea of ‘investigating language’ rather than laying down the rules has gone out the window.

When we focus on rules as they exist in the present without regard to their historical record, they seem fixed rather than emergent. But the near future may show us how short-sighted this is. Rosen argues that conventional usage of the apostrophe is slipping away as we generate more and more text at a rapid pace in the form of emails, text messages, and the like. We are already beginning to see a sort of double standard for formal and informal written language. The difference is not yet as stark as between, say, colloquial dialects and Modern Standard Arabic (the codified version used by college-educated professionals and journalists) but it is growing. There you have it–political change at your fingertips.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Pedestrians

From The Economist, two researchers trying to understand how crowds behave:

Imagine that you are French. You are walking along a busy pavement in Paris and another pedestrian is approaching from the opposite direction. A collision will occur unless you each move out of the other’s way. Which way do you step?

The answer is almost certainly to the right. Replay the same scene in many parts of Asia, however, and you would probably move to the left. It is not obvious why. There is no instruction to head in a specific direction (South Korea, where there is a campaign to get people to walk on the right, is an exception). There is no simple correlation with the side of the road on which people drive: Londoners funnel to the right on pavements, for example.

This reminds me of a story that my friend Chris likes to tell (apologies if I mess up any details). One day when his sister was in college, she was riding her bike down the sidewalk and had to turn a corner. There was another biker coming the opposite way. They both swerved. She “naturally” went to the right and he went to the left–but it was his left, her right. Crash. The other biker was from South Africa, where they drive on the left.

Until I read the above, I had assumed that people walked the way that they drive, but it appears that I was wrong. It will be interesting to see how South Korea’s efforts to overturn the emergent order work out. At the moment I can’t actually recall the dominant walking pattern in Jamaica, where they drive on the left, but in any case it is probably confounded by the high numbers of American tourists. Personally I just wish people would be a little more careful taking sharp lefts around corners.