Society’s attitudes towards written communication are changing. This is not simply a matter of the eternal development of language, though that, of course, goes on, and at an accelerated pace in any time of great social or economic change. There is also a difference in the relationship between the writer and the reader.
We might easily dismiss this as simply becoming “less formal” — a development you will either welcome or disdain according to your taste. And we might also too easily see as growing informality what is really just the diurnal migration of vocabulary. I would suggest that what is happening is something more precise and more important than that: the relationship between writer and reader is becoming more collegial.
I am indebted for the notion of collegiality to Megan Garber’s column “For Whom the Bell Tolls: The inexorable decline of America’s least favorite pronoun” from the Atlantic. In it she examines the reasons for the decline of the word “whom”, seeing in it more than simply linguistic migration, but a change in social values (emphasis mine):
One explanation is that the word has outlived its ability to fulfill the most important function of language: to clarify and specify. Another is that its subject/object distinction can be confusing to the point of frustrating. The most immediate reason, though, is that whom simply costs language users more than it benefits them. Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a “pompous twerp.”
In a culture that values collegiality above so much else, the ability to communicate casually and convivially and non-twerpily is its own kind of capital. Casualness in writing can imply self-assurance, putting the incentives even more squarely on the side of the informal. As a result, Dear so-and-so gives way to Hi so-and-so or even Hey so-and-so. Infinitives split, wantonly. Prepositions end sentences. And, yes, whom becomes who—or disappears entirely.
We do indeed live in a culture that values collegiality highly. This is expressed in our preference for collaboration in work, our more informal tone, and in the almost universal use of first names in business relationships. No matter our roles and responsibilities, we see ourselves fundamentally as peers working for a shared goal.
Collegiality in communication is very much fostered by the Web which, was, after all, invented to foster communication among colleagues in the scientific community. The entire architecture of the Web, in contrast to the architecture of traditional media, is designed for collegiality rather than authority.
The traditional stance of the author vis a vis the reader was what we might call the servant-master stance. This is the stance adopted by popes, politicians, and police. They occupy positions of authority, yet they style themselves as servants. The police “serve and protect”. The politician pursues his career in “public service”. The pope is “the servant of the servants of God.” So writers adopt the tone of authority, yet style themselves the servants of the reader, and their task as that of meeting the reader’s needs. Like a governess, they are employed to serve the children by instructing them and disciplining their learning.
Colleagues also serve each other’s needs, but the servant-colleague stance is quite different from the servant-master stance. It demands no deference and asserts no authority on account of office.
More importantly, it involves no assumption that the role of servant and served are fixed and non-transferrable. Exactly the opposite. I may be the writer today, and you the reader; tomorrow you may be the writer and I the writer. (Literally, in the case of this blog, where colleagues with as much industry experience and insight as I have, often provide useful corroboration, correctives, and extensions to the theme of the post via the comments.)
This notion of a collegial attitude to communication is also an aspect of another favorite theme of mine: the Web is a colloquium. A colloquium is a place where scholars of a field meet to exchange ideas and to debate. Each brings something of value that the others lack. Those who teach in the morning are students in the afternoon.
I’ve also written more than once about David Weinberger’s insight that part of the appeal of the Web is that it gives us access to experience as well as to authority. People will often prefer the information provided by a fellow user on a forum over the official word in the manual or the knowledge base because it was written by someone like them who had done the task they are trying to do. They trust the collegial more than the authoritative. Even when they are in the position of the suitor, pleading for the favor of information, people prefer to be conversed with rather than talked to.
I’m not entirely with Garber on informality being its own kind of capital, however. Collegiality is a behavior, not a style. Even if you speak less twerpilly, if you still behave like a twerp, you will still be seen as a twerp. If your speech is a bit twerpy by nature (rather than affectation) but you behave like a colleague, you will be seen as a colleague, if, perhaps, an eccentric one.
The first principle of collegiality is not informality, but presence. Indeed, the informality of communication between colleagues is not a deliberate style choice, it is simply the falling away of the shibboleths of the servant-master stance. Once the distance between the author and the reader is abolished, all of the devices, rhetorical and mechanical, that enforced that distance simply become irrelevant.
If you are present, if your stance is collegial, no one is going to think you less present or less collegial because you happen to use “whom” in a sentence. Informality does not demolish distance or establish collegiality, it is simply a consequence of formality falling away because it has no role to play in a collegial relationship. Think collegially and you will almost certainly write less formally. Use informal language as a mask while still maintaining the servant-master stance, and you will simply sound hollow. (How often have we heard that tone, from executives, from companies, from teachers?)
What say you, colleagues? Is it time to start treating our readers less as a governess treats children and more like colleagues? Is the time ripe for collegial technical communication?