Opinions of People and Reputation in Information Flows

Out on a walk last weekend with Stephanie and Liz, I was reminded of some thoughts I had about the open airing of criticism. The topic’s surfaced again for me in a different but related context — Will Pate shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about the role of harsh criticism in the academy.

I’ve been accused of being overly polite before. Spending a week in the United States, attending a conference on social justice, reminded how different the subtleties of culture can make perceptions. For instance, Canadian and West Coast can often mean a large skew towards conflict aversion. Chinese often means some conflict-aversion and guessing-type negotiation — and on the double for children; adults get full hearing no matter how wrong they are. And the stereotype is that Americans will say whatever they want to without pulling any punches.

Culture can, as the Higher Ed article demonstrates, extend beyond regional norms and also into those defined by professional practice — I’ve encountered very different ‘cultures’ just being in different departments for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. And in the event there’s someone out there reading living in perpetual terror of how culture might manifest in preference for research methods, I’m also happy to declare that, though extremely rare, kind stats teachers/quantitative researchers do exist, and I personally love taking their classes and working with them. A lot more than less-kind quantitative researchers.

While this is anecdotally interesting to think about, and I’ve written about this before as an east coast-west coast thing, I think it’s important to think about as we broaden the criteria for participation in communities of inquiry on issues of import. More people will be exchanging and testing ideas through discussion. Doing this requires some skills which, I would argue, can most certainly be taught, but aren’t, or sometimes people become convinced that they are not important. These include:

  • tolerance for and acceptance of complex phenomena instead of defaulting to oversimplification
  • listening and respect for giving people the time to express what they do
  • acceptance and willingness to be facilitated in a discussion
  • effective questioning
  • willingness to (respectfully) call out bad behaviour
  • taking the right things personally

The distribution of being able to do these things at all, never mind if it is online or offline, is uneven. I would also wager that it is an interaction of nature, nurture and culture — shy or introverted people, or talkative or extroverted people, develop different coping mechanisms based on the norms of their culture. If they are placed into a different culture or context, those mechanisms may have a very different effect.

The Noisy Idiot dilemma also persists — what to do with people who aren’t receptive or remotely interested in to being told they aren’t contributing in a way that is constructive or effective, or who won’t be persuaded by either logic or direct address of the emotional? Is troll hugging the only way to go, for some individuals, who participate not to make change or to allow for change but for reasons in an entirely different ruleset and motive altogether?

So back to my walk over the weekend. One thing I find interesting about the Internet is that we currently use it as a source of information — often biased, but information nonetheless — on things like products, experiences, places, and increasingly, people. The conversation turned towards what to do when someone’s behaviour warrants a red flag to others. If you have a negative experience with someone — and you are clear about your bias or possible skews in judgment, but also honest in your perception of the experience — should you add it to the pool of search-indexed, persistent information in order to aid those engaging in future interactions, even at the risk of being harsh to the person you’re speaking of? Should we all have eBay ratings for who we are as people, tacked onto our annual personal IDPs pushed to our blogs? At the moment, it seems like for a lot of the interpersonal information that really matters, we rely on a shadow commons increasingly aided — transaction-wise, not content-exchange wise — by social networking. It’s what happens what you do when you call or talk to someone — information like personal references or anecdotes about that time she burst out in the cafeteria with a really awkward accusation to her coworkers of conspiracy.

At the moment, I think most people are erring on the side of not doing this, not burning bridges. Others still may be paying some monthly fee for a service like ReputationDefender to keep one’s online presence in view and in the clear — the moral equivalent of taking risks on the bike because you wear a helmet, in my view. We can’t be perfect but we can make amends and strive to be better team members, better communicators, better friends; and our reputation is never all of who we actually are. Perhaps that’s the skill missing from the list above — giving the benefit of the doubt, that past behaviour isn’t a failproof predictor of future behaviour.

Update: Since this post unwittingly came to gather a whole bunch of links on this topic, I’m going to extend it into one more tangent by pointing on this post by bcholmes, called To Awesome and Awesome Not, describing the experience of being publicly called out for using oppressive language. (Thanks Leigh for the link.) There’s a great account of the presenter’s story, which essentially described the most graceful way to accept being told that they are being insensitive: as if one were being called out for not wearing pants.

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