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, 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.

Just Don’t Call It Moneyball

Situated in the tech startup capital of the world, it should come as no surprise that the San Francisco Giants are leveraging data analysis to give the team a competitive edge:

Within the organization, there are three programmers who maintain the baseball information systems and two analytics experts.

“The baseball side is different,” Evans says. “You can use technology in a unique way to market a team in San Francisco, but you don’t want to openly share what you do on the field against 29 other teams. We don’t know how other teams are using technology, so it would be presumptuous for us to say what we do is unique.”

Before games, coaches, players and staff pore over video and charts to analyze the performance of pitchers and hitters. The team’s proximity to Silicon Valley has afforded it the ability to get an early look at services that assiduously use reams of data to study hitting mechanics, based on video; fielding range, through the use of charts; a breakdown of every pitch thrown during a game; and players’ effectiveness when hurt.

“We’re in many businesses — baseball, which is No. 1, content, technology, customer-service, community and entertainment,” Giants CEO Larry Baer says. “And we have to be good at all of them to succeed.”

One thing I am skeptical of is Evans’ statement that “We don’t know how other teams are using technology.” News travels relatively quickly between these organizations. An interesting paper could be written on how the analytics staff moves between organizations compared to the players. One is a highly regulated market and the other has relatively little official regulation, but may be governed by norms of loyalty and trust.

Another interesting part is how Baer reframes the industry in which the Giants compete. You may recall that redefining the problem was the first lesson of Moneyball. Happy baseball season!

See also: Moneyball Roundup

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.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Around Your Waist

US soldier in WWI. Note the belt is used to carry gear, and is held up by a strap over the shoulder. The pants lack belt loops, which would not be invented until the 1920s.

US soldier in WWI. Note the belt is used to carry gear, and is held up by a strap over the shoulder. The pants lack belt loops, which would not be invented until the 1920s.

Men have always worn belts with their trousers, right? Wrong. Until the First World War, belts served one of two purposes. They could be a way for a ruler to accessorize, or an easy way for soldiers to carry around gear (a belt with pouches all around it for ammunition is essentially a manly fanny pack, after all). No one thought of a belt as a way to keep his pants up.

There are three reasons that belts became de rigueur around 1920 and not before. One reason for this is that until then tailoring was relatively inexpensive:

Logic or no logic, the fact remains that it was easier to develop special and general relativity than to imagine trousers secured with leather belts inserted into belt loops. That does not, however, mean that pre-20th century pants have been dropping off. Trousers were highly cut and waist-fitted to the contours of their wearers, as such tailoring adjustments cost pennies. Then, in the 1820s suspenders have been invented. From then onwards, even mass manufactured trousers could be worn without individual fitting (though tailors’ services still cost pennies).

WWI brought with it the need for mass production of uniforms. Tailoring all those trousers was not feasible, and quartermasters sought to economize on cloth:

Mass production of uniforms for nationally conscripted armies in the time of war shortages forced national governments to trim as much material as possible. The trousers were made with such a low cut that suspenders became loose, and they needed to tie these funny trousers with a wide belt that was worn over the coat. Men discharged from the army got used to this silly fashion. Because the belts did not sit well on trousers, belt loops were introduced in the early 1920s.

Thirdly, those snappy waistcoats and vests that everyone wore before this were not just for fashion–they were hiding suspenders. Suspenders were regarded as undergarments, akin to a woman’s corset. After WWI the waistcoat’s popularity waned, and with it the use of suspenders. You can read more about these developments here, from which the above quotations were taken.

A daily habit for millions of men around the world turns out to be just another contingent fact of history. Even the things we take for granted are shaped by politics and norms. Who knew you had a micro-institution around your waist?

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Parking and Snow

snow cartoonJeff Ely reports the problem:

You dig your car out of the snow, run an errand or two and come back home to discover…someone else has parked in “your” spot! This free rider problem reduces your incentive to dig your car out in the first place. If only property rights could be enforced, your incentives would be good.

According to the Washington Post, some cities use the legal system, others employ norms:

Boston has codified its citizens’ right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you’re away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you’ve done the digging.

During the DC Snowpocalypse of 2010, residents were unsure which method was best. The desire for some level of temporary property rights was there, but enforcement methods varied:

“I know this is public property, but if you spent hours laboring, I mean, come on, I think you have the right to say that is my spot,” said Tanya Barbour, who spent two hours Sunday shoveling free her silver Ford Expedition in the 1500 block of T Street NW. “If someone had clearly taken the time to shovel it out, I would not take that spot because I would not want that done to me.”

Across the District and in the Maryland suburbs Monday, many were not relying on Barbour’s honor system. Some used Boston-style markers — lawn chairs, recycling bins, orange cones, a mattress, even two bar stools with a Swiffer on top — to try to save spots along residential streets.

With Durham facing a forecast of “icy mix” for this afternoon, you can bet we here at YSPR will be on the lookout for emergent norms.

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.

The Politics of Train Commuting, Part II

Following on Wednesday’s post, we take another look at the everyday politics of commuter trains. Things get serious when trying to find a seat on the London Overground at rush hour–so much so that Brendan Nelson compares it to war.

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this "theater of conflict"

Brendan Nelson classifies train commuters into three types and gives thorough advice for this “theater of conflict”

Here’s a summary of Brendan’s advice:

Know your enemies. Train passengers come in several forms:

  • Aspirants – People standing who want to sit down. This includes you.
  • Civilians – People standing who don’t want to sit down, maybe because they’re not going far.
  • Occupants – People currently sitting down. Don’t be fooled though: they’re still in the game.

Don’t take the wrong turn.

When you first get on the train you might turn towards the divide in between two carriages. Don’t! This is an unforgiving quagmire. Much like Napoleon in Russia, your campaign will come to a crushing, drawn-out end if you venture here.

Get in position–but act casual.

Get yourself into the long aisle, where the seats are most abundant. This is the fertile valley of the Overground carriage.

But don’t push past people to get here. Try to act casual, like you don’t really want to sit down anyway. As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception“. Seem too predatory and you’ll raise the suspicions of other Aspirants, losing the element of surprise. Let them think you’re a disinterested Civilian.

Other bits of Ian Fleming-worthy advice include:

  • Have the seat occupants only just sat down? If so it might be a while before they get off.
  • Can you guess where their occupants might be heading to? For example you can spot BBC people easily (branded building passes, reading Ariel, cooking up ways to irritate the Daily Mail). They’re going all the way to Shepherd’s Bush, so find a new spot.
  • Who else lurks in the same area? If there are pregnant or infirm Aspirants you should move elsewhere – unless, of course, the Overground has completely erased your sense of ethics.
  • Are the Occupants checking the station name or folding up their newspaper? If so then they may be close to departure.

Brendan then goes into highly detailed description of the end game–again with excellent graphics. The comments section of his post also has some interesting advice from other commuters who share their “tactics.” His original post is well worth your time if you have enjoyed this so far.

The Politics of Train Commuting, Part I

Brendan Nelson compares commuter behavior on two London commuter trains

Brendan Nelson compares commuter behavior on two London commuter trains

My favorite new blog find in a while is that of Brendan Nelson. Like your author here, he admits to “overanalysing mundane topics” but he does me one better–he draws detailed diagrams to accompany his analysis. Today and Friday I will share a couple of his posts about commuter trains to go with the longstanding interest of this blog in the politics of transportation.

Brendan explains how norms emerge among commuters on the same route due to their repeated interactions:

People who share a regular journey eventually form communities based around shared patterns of group behaviour rather than personal relationships. A well-known example from the Tube can be seen when people boarding the train stand aside to let others get off first – that’s a behavioural pattern that Tube travellers follow, and new travellers quickly learn. Lots of these little patterns exist among commuter communities which, despite being only temporary rush-hour formations, are communities nonetheless.

But these norms are different on the two routes Brendan takes–the Overground and the City train (in London):

On Overground trains an unspoken rule is, “move down the carriage”. Travellers follow this rule silently – as space appears further down the carriage, people move up to leave space nearer the doors. When the rule is ignored and an unnecessary crush develops, the offenders are loudly admonished – “can you move down please!” – and things soon right themselves.

But on the City commute things are different. A train pulls into the platform and there’s lots of space. But then you look at the  doorways, and it’s jammed solid – everyone has bunched up near the doors. You think, that’s not a problem; people will move. But this isn’t the Overground. The people in the doorways, already uncomfortably compressed, simply inhale sharply as you wedge yourself in next to them. The train is silent. No-one moves, and no-one is asked to move.

This community seems to have a different rule – “don’t rock the boat”. Shouting into the sheer silence would mark you as a lunatic. It’s a powerful rule: I’ve seen people abandon their attempts to board the train, choosing to wait ten minutes for the next one rather than cause a fuss by telling people to move into the empty space.

Brendan gives three reasons for these differences, but for that you will have to visit his post.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Elevators

On your own, you can do whatever you want – it’s your own little box.

If there are two of you, you take different corners. Standing diagonally across from each other creates the greatest distance.

When a third person enters, you will unconsciously form a triangle (breaking the analogy that some have made with dots on a dice). And when there is a fourth person it’s a square, with someone in every corner. A fifth person is probably going to have to stand in the middle.

Now we are in uncharted territory. New entrants to the lift will need to size up the situation when the doors slide open and then act decisively. Once in, for most people the protocol is simple – look down, or examine your phone.

From the BBC.