Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2004 June 4 -- Etiquette and Ethics

I am just now getting around to reading the April issue of the academic professional journal Communications of the ACM (CACM), which is devoted to the cover topic of "Human-Computer Etiquette". While the articles are devoted rather narrowly to the study of how humans tend to anthropomorphize computers (and how to make computer behavior better support this perception), the line that grabbed my attention was a reference to "being less critical to an agent directly versus 'behind its back'" [p.32]. I have noticed this quality in people -- not my peers in the technical industry, but mostly in the church -- but here is the first time I ever saw it promoted as a social virtue, an important element of human etiquette.

Houston, we have a problem. This is not a Christian virtue. Jesus said so, again and again.

More than anything else, I believe this disconnect between the Biblical ethics I practice and the (worldly?) etiquette practiced by others in the church who are honestly trying to be virtuous, this disconnect is what got me fired. It is what killed BibleTrans International two years before that, and probably every other social catastrophe I have experienced in the last 25 years.

I consciously and carefully make it a policy never to say anything more negative about a person not present (that is, behind their back) than I have already said to their face. I base this on the logical implications of the Second Great Commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" in context [Lev.19:14-18, of which Jesus quoted only the last half verse]. Jesus was also openly hostile to people who said one thing to your face and did quite something else when you're not looking [Matt.23:2,3,25, as well as numerous other places]. Combining that with Paul's teaching to think good thoughts about people [Phil.4:8] enables me hopefully to not be such a curmudgeon that nobody wants around.

You'd think -- at least I thought -- people would appreciate knowing that they can trust me never to stab them in the back. Even if I must because of other constraints give a negative report, they always have the opportunity to correct any (negative) errors in my thinking before or when I give it. It appears they don't believe it. One author in CACM pointed out that people take negative remarks as personal rejection; I always try to see them as opportunities for improving the relationship, which is almost the exact opposite of rejection.

The people who call themselves Christians are so accustomed to hearing flattery from people who criticize them "behind their back," and direct criticism only in anger -- and doing the same things themselves -- that they cannot believe there is anybody who does otherwise. That's sad. Even more disappointing, I now know this problem to be pervasive in American culture.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I will not be cowed. Whether you believe it or not, whether you reciprocate or not, whether I get fired or not, it is and remains a matter of personal ethics that I will not say anything more negative and harmful about you to anyone than I have said to you directly with the opportunity to correct any mistakes, whoever you are.

There is one subculture in America that does not -- indeed, cannot -- follow this hypocritical etiquette, and that is the computer technologists. If these people don't tell the truth to their machines, the machines won't work. To the extent that their behavior patterns distribute equally over machines and persons (the point made in the CACM issue), these people tend to be blunt and unhypocritical. In other words, social misfits. I spent most of my life in that culture, and I get along with them just fine. I think Jesus would too.