Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

Contrasting Styles and the Prospect for Democratic Communication

The differences in on-line discourse style between men and women become problematic for two reasons. One, individuals tend to interpret and judge others according to the standards of their own style--which leads to serious miscommunication. From the standpoint of adversarial style, positive politeness is condemned as a waste of bandwidth. From the standpoint of positive politeness, adversarial exchanges are seen as insults to one's face.

Two, these miscommunications lead to the effective exclusion of women from discourse on the Net. In addition to the many forms of overt harrassment of women on the Net (cf. [] Wes Cooper's discussion of "virtual rape" in cyberspace; Carol Adams, 1996)--the predominance of the male style forces women (and men) who value the politeness ethic to develop their own spaces on-line, if they decide to remain on-line at all (Herring, 1996).

If Herring's findings are sound, they raise new and fundamental difficulties for the promise of achieving democracy and equality on-line. In particular, the contrast between adversarial and positive politeness styles complicate our efforts to achieve democratic communities on-line which meet Habermasian requirements for establishing a common sphere of discourse. We might readily agree upon discourse procedures defined by the rules of reason and the discourse ethics. But how will we further achieve an environment in which all who are affected by discourse are genuinely free to speak--and not, as is currently the case, an environment in which a male adversarial style tends to silence those rooted in a positive politeness style? How will we achieve solidarity, the empathic understanding of others' perspectives--when others' perspectives include the fundamental differences between adversarial and positive politeness styles?

There is a prospect for a --middle ground.

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