Monthly Archives: January, 2013

When Being Right Isn’t Right

harvard business reviewInternet-Troll

In the Harvard Business Review of 20th July 2012, Kyle Wiens (CEO of iFixit, an online repair community, and the founder of Dozuki, a company that assists other companies to write their own technical documentation) wrote an article entitled ‘Why I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.’ The article was an impassioned defence of his hiring practices and his zero-tolerance approach to grammar misuse. ‘Sticklers Unite,’ it might have read.

Was it any surprise that this article opened the drawbridge to troll behaviour of the worst kind?

The article is worth reading, whether or not you agree with it. Here are some samples: “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me.”  “If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you.”  “If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Mr Wiens says that if you apply for a job at either of his companies he will hurl your application into the shredder for one misplaced ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’. This is his defence: (1) his company writes for a living and (2) he’s in the business of repair and fixing language errors. Oh, by the way, his entire article amounts to an advertisement for the quality of his services for hire.

In stating his claims, Mr Wiens maintains that correct grammar is relevant for all companies. While acknowledging that language is constantly changing, he’s a staunch defender of traditional grammar because he says it’s a mark of intellectual credibility. “For better or worse,” he claims, “people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between ‘their,’ ‘there,’ and ‘they’re’.

At first, many people on-line responded to the article positively. Writers especially liked this statement: “I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

But then the trolls arrived.

You might think that objectors to Mr Wiens would respond with cries of ‘unfair,’ ‘elitist’ or even ‘monoculturalist’. Sure, there were a few of those but the overwhelming number of nasty comments came from self-proclaimed sticklers themselves. Huh?

That’s right. The very audience Mr Wiens might have expected would be sympathetic to his conservative views included savage—anonymous, of course—comments critical of his punctuation and grammar. How dare he not practise what he preaches? How dare he not be their idea of beyond reproach?

Hoist with his own petard, you might say. Perhaps. There were a few intentionally offensive responses but the ones I found most irritating—and intriguing—were the half-informed and the smug (sometimes the same person). Rather than treating Mr Wiens’ argument as part of a debate, these snipers trotted out platitudes such as “Its [sic] funny because the author uses hyphens as if they were commas” and “I’m not trying to be a stickler, but the comma is missing in the original post.” So many of these troll responses included a statement like “I was taught at school that…” or “I’ve always understood that it’s grammatically correct to… ” This kind of reaction is less an appeal to authoritative standards than a show of aggressive ignorance. More than one grumbler cited a previous boss who had it in for them or an employer who wouldn’t give them a go. Mr Wiens became the embodiment of those culprits.

Such troll-writers were missing the point. Mr Wiens might or might not be correct in his attitude but he was expressing an opinion, a highly personal one at that, in a journal worthy of considered debate. He deserved a better quality of argument than petty bickering over whether there is or isn’t a grammatical rule about ending a sentence with a preposition or whether it’s correct or incorrect to begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Really? Is that the best we can do? This is the Internet, a global forum for cross-fertilisation of ideas over vast distances and disparate cultures. Yes, I’m an idealist. Where I might expect to read logic and reasoned argument I was sighing at the text of mindless trolls stomping on one another with statements like “I’m not trying to be a stickler but…” and “ignorant loudmouths like you…” After less than a dozen rational comments, the trolls began thumping each other; critical of a spelling variation, a mode of expression or an abbreviation. In-fighting ensued, the initial concerns all but forgotten.

A genuine rebuttal of Mr Wiens might go something like this: in the era of Globish, when international commerce and communications are interdependent, English no longer has one universal standard, only varieties. One size does not fit all. Therefore, an Internet company CEO making an assertion such as “people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing” should at least acknowledge, however briefly, the pros and cons of a twentieth century Anglosphere standard in a twenty-first century global language community. As a debating point, isn’t that self-evident? English is not just English. Punctuation, preposition usage, spelling and sometimes word choice can vary from one English-speaking country to another. What may be perceived as error in one English-speaking context may be acceptable or even standard usage in another.

But no. Hardly any of the anxious comments seemed to get this. Instead they focused on Mr Wiens as a pontificating employer. Well, he’s only expressing an opinion and standing up for what he believes (while doing some slick marketing for his stringent standards of quality). Wiens staunchly sticks to certain usage conventions, based on his own prejudices and preferences rather than any language usage authority. Ending a sentence with a preposition, for example, is not a rule per se, but a long-standing convention; likewise splitting the infinitive. These are choices with a history but they aren’t and never have been legislation; just commonly accepted standards. They are neither correct nor incorrect; yet,with no reference to usage authority, Mr Wiens clings to his pet beliefs as strongly as some of his potential employees might cling to theirs. Now, this could be a worthwhile debating point. Nope, not mentioned. And the Wiens argument does have a few holes in it, even if few respondents thought them worthy of notice.

Sometimes writing is an essential part of a job; sometimes it’s not. My experience as an employer has shown that not everyone who is highly literate and grammatically competent is employed in the ideal job for his or her skills and disposition. Mismatches do happen. Just because you write well doesn’t guarantee your efficacy in all aspects of all jobs.

Flip that coin. I’ve seen adults with the writing ability of third-graders who are nevertheless brilliant with their other professional skills. If Mr Wiens hires someone as a technical writer or customer relations officer, writing skills will be essential. But if the job is a programmer, a graphics designer or an accountant, the employee will need other skills ahead of writing. Mr Wiens would know this. But he’s enamoured of a belief in grammar ability as an indicator of work ethic and overall competence. Well, he’s entitled to his opinion. And he’s the guy doing the hiring. He can make the rules. Also he has every right to free speech. Nothing new there.

So what’s new? Troll behaviour.

In the past, people would write a letter to the editor if they wished to dispute statements made in a published opinion piece. Some letters would be published. Some might be fine pieces of prose in their own right, with cogent argument and persuasive rebuttal.

But today, almost anyone can have a say on-line. A few rational souls continue to make their points with clarity, passion or learning, or all three. But the irrational ones have free rein to cavil, defame, shout, rage and curse. On-line responses to Mr Wiens’ article quickly descended into verbal spats and abuse. Moderators removed the more obscene comments but such removal left a nasty impression, as the imagination filled in those blanks. Sticklers were described as ‘grammar nazis’ while commentators with a higher tolerance level were ‘douchebags’ blamed for lowering the standards of education and civilisation as we know it. Mutual respect, thematic relevance and rational thinking were the losers.

Free speech: what douchebag came up with that idea? I’m right and you’ll just have to deal with it.


Mate, I can’t call you ‘mate’ anymore

Graph matePatient mate Strop and Hoges

Is this another set of good intentions paving a road to Hell?

On 11th December 2012, ABC Radio National reported on a memo sent to health workers in Northern New South Wales. The memo instructed staff to cease using terms of endearment for clients—specifically ‘mate,’ ‘darling,’ ‘sweetheart’ and ‘honey’—because such words were not sufficiently respectful, according to complainants. But the memo didn’t indicate how many complaints were received or the details of these complaints, only the Department’s decision: workers were now forbidden to use those words. Mate, I can’t call you ‘mate’ anymore.

Should we blame the words themselves? And will banning such terms help to engender mutual respect? It’s a bit like banning cars because some are involved in accidents. Education is the answer, not blaming well-intentioned words of friendship.

Proscribing language is an age-old gambit by anxious authority figures. Rather than acknowledging that the problem might be one of context, the Health Department’s knee-jerk reaction smacks of panic. It might count as immediate action but will it change perceptions of mutual respect? Or will it only further alienate those already on the fringes of care? A middle manager may have met his or her Key Performance Indicator by clamping down on allegedly disrespectful language but at what cost? Such bans are akin to a police officer making a quick arrest even if there is no proof of a suspect’s guilt. Forbidding terms of familiarity might hush up one or two complaints but there’s no guarantee it will change anyone’s attitude. And surely that’s the point.

Perceived misuse of language often comes from cultural (including intergenerational) misalignment. People from one background may expect different degrees of formality when dealing with others from a less familiar background. But is a term of endearment such as ‘mate’ or ‘sweetheart’ loaded with moral, judgemental or emotional content? Such words usually spring from a democratising instinct on the part of the speaker, based on fellowship rather than honorifics. ‘Mate’ isn’t used to show disrespect; it’s a term of solidarity, of camaraderie. If person A knows and likes person B, he/ she is less likely to be troubled about formality of address. By contrast, if person C distrusts or doesn’t know person D, he/ she may prefer more formal address. That’s the real sticking point: whether interpersonal expectations are met, not the words themselves. If, while trying to foster rapport, person D uses ‘mate’ but person C feels insulted, then the relationship has lost its way. Language is the vehicle, not the driver.

In the absence of cross-cultural or other awareness training, if a worker is prevented from using terms such as ‘mate’ and ‘sweetie’ his/ her attitude may sour towards the client. Resentment and even hostility may become entrenched. An intentional offender can always find insulting word alternatives; and the offended can infer malice in previously harmless terms. ‘Mister,’ ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ can be perceived as sounding sinister, sarcastic or downright rude. Attempts to proscribe language without context merely pander to the ill-named and partly discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines our perception of reality and directs human behaviour. Disrespect is far more than words. And banning the words will not resolve lack of empathy. If we simply forbid workers from saying ‘mate’ and‘dearie’ we don’t take away perceived disrespect, nor do we shift attitudes. The root cause could be far more serious, stemming from racial intolerance, elder abuse, sexual politics or anger management.

Banning terms of endearment isn’t so much political-correctness-gone-mad as risk-aversion-gone-paranoid. It’s as nutty as avoiding the word‘Christmas’ (for many in this country, a wholly secular season) by substituting‘Happy Holidays’ because the Christ reference might offend someone; nutty because the word ‘holiday’ comes from Holy Day. No change of attitude, just linguistic window dressing.

What next? Should we ban people from wearing white clothing on Chinese New Year because that colour is considered unlucky by people in one culture? Should we ban orange ties on St Patrick’s Day? Should we forbid the number thirteen because some people don’t like it? Should we refer to a certain tragedy by Shakespeare as ‘the Scottish play’? Should we ban burqas? What about crucifixes, prayer mats and turbans? Almost anyone can take umbrage at something if the cultural context is misunderstood by one or both parties. Banning a word or phrase without accompanying education is futile unless those affected have an opportunity to learn why their word choice might sound profane or offensive. Open debate and public education campaigns succeed when the rights of all parties have a chance to be aired and considered.

Obscenity or insulting language would be another matter, because this has long been a matter of public debate and acculturation. But when we forbid terms of endearment do we not risk alienating vulnerable people from their care workers? Calling someone ‘mate’ or ‘sweetheart’ isn’t the problem. What’s missing is a lack of understanding between client and worker—and, in this case, employer. Effective complaints-handling is more subtle and complex than finding a convenient scapegoat.