Please don’t pick up the phone

I haven’t entirely been following this, but David Smalley wrote an article saying that petty disagreements were killing the atheist movement. PZ Myers disagreed, and it got hashed out in the Dogma Debate podcast. I have a lot of trouble listening to podcasts, so I mostly heard about it through Trav.

One of Smalley’s points is that we should resolve conflicts more amicably by “picking up the phone”.

Let’s pick up the phone and have conversations when we disagree. If you don’t have their phone number, send them a private message asking to get on Skype to talk it out.

PZ Myers argues that many of our conflicts are too substantial to be resolved over the phone.

My own reaction: calling my phone to talk about an internet disagreement would be hella aggressive. Sending me a private e-mail is also aggressive. I am astounded that people who want more civility sincerely advocate such nasty tactics.

Obligatory disclaimer: This represents only my own feelings about private communications, which may be different from your feelings.

When folks from the blagonets send me private e-mails, it feels like an encroachment on my personal space. Here I am sorting through workplace spam and some complete stranger* from the internet is demanding my one-on-one attention? Maybe I just don’t care about you that much, dear stranger! Maybe I have better things to do with my time! Sometimes I respond to people if I feel like being nice to strangers, but otherwise I ignore them or tell them to leave a public comment.

*Smalley’s presumption that we are friends just because we are in the same movement makes me seethe.  We are strangers!  Why are you denying our beautiful strangership?

And that’s when people are being nice. When people send me e-mails to disagree vehemently with me, it feels downright abusive. If we’re going to have an argument, I’d like a bit of social support, and for many topics that support comes from the internet. You want to get me alone where I don’t have support? Fuck your civility!

Admittedly, there are some situations where taking it to the public can feel like escalation. Mainly, this happens when someone is very popular, and gets a lot of social support. PZ Myers is relatively popular, so when he posts something the horde descends upon it. But not everyone is a celebrity, and in fact most people aren’t.

If you are interested in being civil, private communication is not the way to achieve it. Ask people’s preferences, and respect them.

Also, civility is overrated.



  1. says

    Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum:

    “You never wrote to anyone. If you had anything to say, you said it to their face. It kept everything nice and hot.”

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Here I am sorting through workplace spam and some complete stranger* from the internet is demanding my one-on-one attention?

    So delete it the same way you delete any other spam. I don’t see the difference between someone emailing you to “resolve a dispute privately” and the emails I get every single day from people offering “Greetings in Jesus’ name”, addressing me as “dear” and pleading for my help in moving eye-watering amounts of money out of bank accounts in foreign countries. Taking such stuff so personally is the route to constant misery.

    I entirely agree, calling you on the actual phone is aggressive. I’d even go so far as to say creepy, if they had to go to any effort to find out your number. Which is why the three or four times a week I get “greetings in Jesus’ name” style telephone calls to my mobile used to be annoying, until I was able to adjust my attitude and simply (a) stop answering any calls whose numbers are not already in my contact directory and (b) not worrying about simply dumping and ignoring calls from unknown numbers. The additional inconvenience caused to me by occasionally missing calls from legitimate callers is more than made up for by the liberation from annoyance by unwanted ones.

    Surely in 2016 unwanted and unasked for emails and telephone calls are just part of the minutely annoying detritus of life, like having to wait to cross the road or queue to use a cash machine?

  3. sciatrix says

    *fistbump* Yup. I’m with you on this one. When someone contacts me directly via private channels (like emails or a PM) I suddenly feel the obligation to drop everything and respond. If it’s a negative thing, I feel threatened, like someone came into my home and tried to criticize me in private–especially if the person does not carefully hedge their criticism with a lot of signals that they really want to be friendly and careful. Even if it’s a positive thing, if I don’t know the person, I tend to hide from the communication and find one-on-one communication much more draining than public communication because of the obligation to respond quickly and in a timely fashion. (I am also much more likely to procrastinate a response in private than I am in public.)

    I feel like email about internet disagreement is less like a phone call and more like stepping into a room and asking someone you see around you to follow you in there for a private chat. If you have a working relationship with someone, well, at least there’s some context–although I can think of several people I work with, for example, where I’d be on alert if they wanted to speak to me in private. If it’s a total stranger, without the context of an ongoing discussion, then fuck knows what they want me in there by myself for–what if they mean to attack me in some way? I’m steering _well_ clear of that, in that case. The amount of threat and willingness for me to enter into a private discussion is very definitely mediated by how well I know the other person and also how much I trust them.

    IDK. I associate internet randos with people who want to harass me for being ace/a woman who talks about science on twitter/someone with open liberal views/someone who publicly criticizes open gun carry/etc, not with people who might be wiling to have a reasonable conversation with me. If they want to have a low-stress conversation with me about something I say that they disagree with, they can goddamn well put their first comment out in public where everyone can see it, because private shit is where harassing people feel most free to say the nastiest things they can think of. Private channels give people the freedom to stop censoring themselves, which can be very threatening indeed when “PC language” or the court of public opinion is the only thing that stops some people from being vile to you.

    (Can you tell that the recent Cocks Not Glocks protest is heavy on my mind? Holy shit, the pro-open-carry advocates currently infesting my campus are terrifying.)

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