Boundaries, the web and global culture

Tim Berners-Lee: The World Wide Web - Opportunity, Challenge, Responsibility - Photo credit: Anna Lena Schiller via Flickr

By Michael Clark

I got the idea for Earthpages back in 1999. Since then I’ve had some very meaningful online interactions. Most of my experience with other people on the web has been good but, every now and then things deteriorated.

After losing a few contacts (sometimes through my choice, sometimes theirs), I decided to write up some some tips for a better online interactive experience. Although originally posted about a decade ago, I’ve updated what still applies today and deleted the rest.

First, a word about boundaries. Psychologically speaking, boundaries are those lines we draw between appropriate and inappropriate relating. They can apply to direct personal encounters or to the more abstract relationships that many of us have through online communities.

The norm for appropriate boundaries usually differs among individuals, just as it does among cultures. So the following guidelines should be viewed in light of your personal preferences and global experience.

Give the benefit of the doubt

Don’t jump to conclusions. If a message seems questionable or pushes your buttons, read it again a few days later and let the big picture come into focus.

Should we assume that people always have good reasons for doing things? I don’t think so. But it still pays off to give the benefit of the doubt. So don’t act on hasty, ill-informed opinions.

Wait your turn

If someone doesn’t reply to your message there’s probably a reason. To hound them with repeated messages is rude and could develop into a kind of unsavory stalking.

A pretty obvious rule of thumb is to wait your turn. If you’ve sent a message, wait until your correspondent replies before messaging them again. This gives them time to process your information.

There are exceptions to this. For instance, we might have forgotten, corrected or updated something and want to add a quick ‘p.s.’ That’s okay, providing the follow-up is brief and necessary.

Alternately, something urgent might demand another person’s attention, in which case you might be right in pestering them.

Don’t make a career out of pushing buttons or playing mind games

Misunderstandings are inevitable. But if we set out to test, irk or outdo another, we’re just being facetious and not making anything better. By the same token, this doesn’t mean we should squelch good natured playfulness. But, like everything else, play with sensitivity and care. And if your well intentioned humor doesn’t work, then think again.

Remember… the internet isn’t necessarily secure

Today this is well-known. But there was a time when people looked at me as if I’d just landed from Mars when suggesting that some stranger could be reading their private messages.

Every now and then I’ve received e-mails where people get carried away and forget they’re potentially talking to the whole world after clicking ‘send.’ Also remember that your e-pal might forward your juicy material to others without your knowing it.

Not good.

The Entrance to the World Wide Web (HDR)
The Entrance to the World Wide Web (HDR) by jmtosses via Flickr

Say what you mean and mean what you say

This sounds like a line from a James Bond or Austin Powers flick. But it’s a good motto. It’s about being honest and actively speaking your mind.

This can be tricky because we usually want to meet others halfway, and opinions are, by definition, limited. So sometimes we might hold back for a while to see if we can find common ground.

But even anonymous internet users should try to clearly say what they think, not play head games or, perhaps, vent anger that they don’t have the courage to openly and effectively express. And it goes without saying that real name users should try to do the same.

Find a common language

Nobody likes a fake or phony. Not even fakes and phonies! But if your new correspondent is using the Queen’s English, you might want to think twice before falling into your usual slang. Then again, you might think it’s more appropriate to stick to your usual dialect. I suppose it depends on how much one identifies with one’s personal style. But I, myself, always try to find a middle ground.

Learn from mistakes

If you happen to cross some line and offend another person by mistake, reflect long and hard as to why it happened. Provided it was just a mistake, don’t shoulder all the blame. It usually takes two to tango and playing the role of scapegoat or martyr doesn’t help anybody. But don’t run away from your share of personal responsibility either. Only young children, immature adults, adults in denial, sociopaths and fanatics don’t acknowledge their fair share of responsibility.

Instead of playing the blame game, avoid or possibly redirect the situation that brought about the misunderstanding in the first place. And if another person repeatedly crosses your line and doesn’t show any signs of remorse nor change for the better, then you might think about politely withdrawing.

Hint don’t insinuate

I know I said “say what you mean and mean what you say.” But sometimes it really is better to hint instead of saying things outright. Everybody does this consciously or subconsciously. Instead of insinuating, however, it’s better to hint.

To hint is to allude to sensitive issues with an indirect or roundabout kind of well-intentioned honesty. Insinuation, on the other hand, is a dark art where nasty ideas are thrown out like poison darts.

If we try to be positive while hinting at things, others usually catch the good vibe and reply in kind. And if they don’t, well, at least we tried.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Rough day? Stressed out? Don’t use that as an excuse to treat others in ways that you, yourself, wouldn’t like to be treated.

Christian believer or not, this New Testament guideline really sums it all up. In fact, many world religions advocate a similar philosophy, called The Golden Rule.

Most people don’t like being insulted, lied to, cheated or manipulated—unless, of course, they’re negative attention seekers. Negative attention seeking is when someone, for whatever neurotic reasons, is just itching to get into a spat.  It’s an unhealthy approach to life and should be avoided or, if possible, redirected to a more congenial approach.

Recognize when to let go

Everybody needs space from time to time. Some of my most stimulating contacts rotate on an informal, undetermined schedule. Months, even years, might pass before a contact and I reconnect. If someone we like starts to tone things down, instead of neurotically clinging to them, it’s time to back off and possibly let it go (at least for a while).

Like the sun behind clouds, your e-pal will come out again when the time is right. And if not, chalk it up to experience. There’s over 2 billion internet users out there, so don’t get stuck on one person. Move on and remember… a web is always better than a single thread.

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  1. I believe in a common language as well.

    However as a building manager, in London, it is my duty to tell Polish workers what to do.

    We have a practical problem! Polish builders do not speak English – not even elementary English.. When I say the word “No” they pretend not to understand.

    I get annoyed. I ask “what part of the word no do you not understand”

    Total anger? Total stress!

    Yet the word “esperanto” seems to calm me down.

    It might have something to do with linguistic equality?



  2. I feel that some people use language as compensation for deep-seated insecurity… especially those who insist that THEIR language is the only one capable of transmitting religious truths.

    Utter rubbish… IMHO.

    As for the Polish lads, maybe learn a bit of their language… I’ve used this and it seems to work okay…


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