The Robustness Principle for inter-personal communication

Connection Problem

The technologists among you will remember Postel’s law, also known as the Robustness Principle:

TCP implementations should follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

Jon Postel wrote this as a basic rule for what would become the TCP/IP protocol. So he was writing the specifications for a technological communications protocol at the time. He was referring to adherence to technical standards: You should write your software sticking to the technical standards at all times, yet you should design your software to be forgiving in accepting non-standard conform input from others.

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.

This principle has been serving us very well for the development of the web.

I think it serves very well as a principle for inter-personal communication as well.

A Robustness Principal for inter-personal communication

Communication between people follows protocols, just like communication between software agents. So let’s rephrase this a little for the slightly different context of humans talking to humans.

Be respectful in what you send, and forgiving in what you receive.

Usually when a communicative act – a comment, an email, a concersation etc – pisses us off, it’s because we feel disrespected or misunderstood. In many, many cases that effect wasn’t intended. We all know the kind of misunderstandings that easily emerge particularly from text-based conversations.

And it’s no wonder, given that we lack most of the signifiers of meaning in purely written conversations. Namely, no facial expressions, no (or little) context about the other person, no intonation. This fosters misunderstanding, and easily leads to harsh behavior, or even rudeness. Or as XKCD phrases it: “It’s easier to be an asshole to words than to people.

I cannot remember the number of heated discussions I got into and that I’ve seen other normally very tolerant people get into because of an email, or a tweet, or a SMS. It’s just too easy.

(Come to think of it, I’m baffled how many emails get sent without a follow-up fight.)

If you, and I, and maybe a few more folks out there receive the next email that triggers a hostile reaction, let it sit there for awhile. Just don’t answer right away. Think about the ways the other person might have meant it other than the way you read it. Remember they might have just sent this in the blink of an eye, in a rush, under pressure, and might not have the time to re-read it, or to check for the chance something might be easily misinterpreted. Remember if the person has always been difficult to deal with, or if you usually get along. And only if none of this lets the message appear in a better light, then write back, and ask clearly and politely if there is anything that you’ve done wrong that upset them.

I’ve been getting much better at this, and it helps me a lot to think about email etc this way.

So if you – like I – are a bit trigger happy with your emails, please allow me this suggestion: Let’s adapt this special version of the Robustness Principle as a guideline for all our inter-personal communication. It’ll make all our lives easier, and take the edge off, a bit at a time.

So here it is once more, the Robustness Principle for inter-personal communication:

Be respectful in what you send, and forgiving in what you receive.

Note: I think I first stumbled across the idea of the Robustness Principle being applied to day-to-day communications in conversations with Parker, who also wrote about it.

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