The Value of Collegiality in Technical Communicaiton

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 Governess

The traditional stance of the tech writer is rather like that of a benevolent governess, concerned for their charges welfare, but nevertheless the one in the position of authority which has to be maintained. Detail from The Governess by Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886), via Wikimedia Commons

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?

15 Responses to The Value of Collegiality in Technical Communicaiton

  1. Debbi Crum 2013/04/08 at 15:40 #

    I’ve been striving for more “collegiality” in my documentation lately. I think informality makes the information more approachable especially when the information appears on a written page (whether the page be a piece of paper or a page on an electronic device). If I were speaking to someone face to face, I could be more formal in tone while still being collegial and approachable. Without actually hearing our voice, our readers can only determine our tone by the words we use and the structure of our sentences. Of course, you have to consider your audience. If your audience is expecting a formal tone and you offer a collegial one, they may not take you seriously.

    • Mark Baker 2013/04/16 at 11:06 #

      Thanks for the comment, Debbi.

      A tone that does not match the user’s expectations can be a problem in either direction, so if you have no direct contact you are probably going to offend someone. 🙁

      Moving toward collegiality should ideally be about more than tone, of course. It should be about moving toward greater interaction with the customer, and about valuing their contributions to the body of knowledge about your product.

  2. Alex Knappe 2013/04/09 at 06:21 #

    “To whom it may concern”
    This is the core of the linguistic issue we are facing every day.
    While it is clear, that communication across cultures is quite different, it is even quite different between generations within one culture.
    This is where the problems arise.
    While it may be perfectly valid to write in an informal tone in regard to some people, it may be even offending for others.
    This holds true for intercultural communication, as well as for intergenerational communication, or more general, for every communication between two parties.
    So, for the time being, I follow the German saying “the sound makes the music” and play my music according to my audience.

    • Barbara Saunders 2013/04/11 at 18:29 #

      “While it may be perfectly valid to write in an informal tone in regard to some people, it may be even offending for others.”

      The larger question there, both philosophical and practical, is when “taking offense” amounts to an illegitimate claim to power. At times, I avoid offending someone out of respect or necessity. At other times, I push back against that person’s attempt to set the terms unilaterally.

      • Mark Baker 2013/04/16 at 11:14 #

        Thanks for the comment, Barbara. You are absolutely right. We live in the age of taking offense. Taking offense has become a form of social and political currency. There are times you just have to take a stand against it.

    • Mark Baker 2013/04/16 at 11:11 #

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. You are absolutely right that there are cultural and generational differences in the degree of formality expected between strangers. And the real problem is that there is no safe style. Some people are as put off by formality as others are by informality.

      As people become more collegial, they generally become less formal, across all cultures and all generations (if not always to the same degree). That is one reason why we should strive to actually behave more collegially rather than simply to write less formally.

  3. Susan Feltham 2013/04/09 at 13:45 #

    If you are likening a formal style to being somehow ‘superior in attitude’ and a more informal style to being perhaps more helpful, I can’t help thinking of a quote from a film. Edward Fox plays a butler, who serves a disreputable master totally faithfully. When asked why, he said ‘I assumed that our superiors were our betters’. It’s taken me years to become aware of this hidden assumption in myself (i.e. if something presents itself as a superior authority it must be good regardless of its actual quality). My point is that we haven’t a clue where our readers are coming from or why, we can only make a choice to write in a traditional or more informal way.

  4. Larry Kunz 2013/04/09 at 17:02 #

    Great post, Mark. I, the writer, am very comfortable with a collegial, less governess-like communication. But not all of the companies I work for share that comfort. They still prefer to maintain an authoritative air. Thus I was recently chided for using the second-person pronoun in a customer manual. Too casual, they said. Remove it.

    To be fair, the manual was written for members of a specialized profession, not for the person on the street. Still, while the trend you describe is real, some corporate entites prefer to remain twerpish. It’s going to become an interesting issue from a branding perspective, and one that we technical communicators will need to bear in mind.

    • Mark Baker 2013/04/16 at 11:21 #

      Thanks Larry. You raise a very important issue. This is one of several common corporate policies that work to make technical communication less effective. The biggest offender in this regard is the number of companies who refuse to post their tech content on the Web, even though that is where technical communications happens these days.

      This represents a serious problem for tech comm, because if corporate policy makes us less effective, corporate management will ultimately end up doubting our value, and cutting out budgets.

      I think it is time that we stopped silently acquiescing to these policies and started, collectively, to mount the argument against them. If we don’t, we may be dooming our own careers.

      • Debbie M. 2013/04/17 at 16:05 #

        The biggest offender in this regard is the number of companies who refuse to post their tech content on the Web, even though that is where technical communications happens these days.

        Many companies that make intense systems and products don’t put their intellectual capital out on the Web, for example Sikorsky Aircraft, Boeing, and even SDL (Trisoft). Although I can get my car owner’s manual, I cannot get the shop manual–there must be revenue behind that. 😉

        Our company makes B2B products (hardware and extensive enterprise systems) and we do provide a customer portal, protected by a password, yet not all docs are customer facing.

        • Mark Baker 2013/04/17 at 16:29 #

          Debbie, I agree that there are companies that have good business reasons not to put their docs on the Web. On the other hand, many of those that I have heard make the intellectual capital argument are not taking any steps to prevent their intellectual capital getting out in other ways.

          In the case of the shop manual, I believe that restricting their distribution has more to do with protecting the dealer network than their intellectual capital. It means, of course, that there is a thriving aftermarket for shop manuals (http://www.books4cars.com/, http://www.haynes.com/) and no end of enthusiats sites with their own “Garage” sections (http://www.miata.net/garage/).

          The main thing that car companies are achieving by restricting their shop manuals is keeping independent garages getting their hand on manuals for new vehicles, thus protecting their dealer’s service business.

          So yes, there are specific business reasons not to put your documentation on the Web. They have to be weighed about the economic consequences of not having them on the web, which are changing in the age of content marketing.

          For that matter, the rise of car sales through the Web and through car brokers may eventually break the whole dealer system for selling cars, which might remove an reason for not putting the shop manual online. So companies should be reexamining the trade-offs from time to time.

  5. Scott Abel 2013/04/09 at 21:34 #

    Good stuff, as usual. Can’t wait to see your upcoming book. — Scott

    • Mark Baker 2013/04/16 at 11:22 #

      Thanks Scott. I’m sure we can arrange for an advanced copy if you are interested.

  6. irene 2013/04/23 at 10:28 #

    All this discussion reminds me of the sentiments expressed in the book The Cluetrain Manifesto. The 95 theses from the book are online at the Cluetrain website.

  7. Estella Clifford 2013/05/19 at 10:46 #

    My perception is that with use of the “active” voice, and careful consideration of who the audience is, many software manuals already achieve this kind of collegial approach. Your mileage may vary, of course!