Communicating with Strangers on the Internet

I have some handwavy recollection of recently seeing some quote, possibly from Linus Torvalds, to the effect that there is no point in trying to be nuanced on the internet. It won't be understood.

I think there is some truth to this idea.

High context cultures are ones in which a large portion of communication depends upon having a lot of overlapping experiences and shared points of reference. Individual words are chosen carefully because they can carry enormous weight due to shared context. These are cultures in which much is left unsaid and you depend upon inference to communicate most of the intended meaning.

Low context cultures are situations where you say what you mean, and you mean nothing more than what you explicitly said. In a low context culture, you don't drop hints or expect people to infer anything. Such cultures do not assume that two individuals share a lot of points of reference. They are more blunt and direct.

The direct questions and answers common in low context cultures are often viewed as being well beyond rude by people from high context cultures. In high context cultures, many things are handled very delicately, with subtle hints and the expectation that you should just know certain things. When you don't just know these things, it can create a lot of problems.

My suspicion is that trade languages, like Pidgin English, are intentionally left simple and dumb-sounding. It prevents wild misunderstandings from people of very different cultures. When you speak them, you sound too stupid to be mistaken for trying to subtly hint at anything. This is a feature, not a bug.

Similarly, for the most part, a healthy online culture needs to be more of a low context culture than a high context culture. If you want to insist that people share enormous context, you should make it a walled garden, not a public forum. If your discussions are public, you need to have practices that account for the fact that people participating in the discussion can hail from anywhere on the planet and can be from very different backgrounds.

I think book and movie references are popular on the internet because this is a means to have a shared context with someone whom you may have no knowledge of and little in common with. The practice of linking to gifs, memes or short videos to help supply context also works pretty well in many cases to help bridge the context gap.

If you come from a high context culture where people get very upset about the supposed rudeness of more direct communication methods, you probably need to work on adjusting to the fact that high context culture communication practices work pretty poorly on the internet. Low context cultures are much more diversity-friendly. You commonly find them in big cosmopolitan cities where residents routinely interact with large numbers of people from very diverse backgrounds.

This post was inspired by someone on the internet suggesting that the blunt communication style of Linus Torvalds amounts to discrimination against a lot of people, "including women." I don't agree.

I don't know Linus Torvalds and have never spoken to him, but I have spent a lot of time around the military. For the most part, the military is a low context culture. When orders are issued, they don't try to delicately hint at the fact that they want you to go kill people. They say such things quite bluntly.

The internet is the most multicultural human environment that has ever existed. It really won't work to expect people online to guess at what you are hinting at. You need to learn to use your words.

This may be the real reason that so many programmers get accused of Aspie-like behavior: The more literal you are on the internet, the more effectively you can communicate with a highly diverse group of people from around the globe.

If that bothers you overly much, maybe you should step away from the keyboard and go for a walk instead of trying to talk with people in public here. Because high context culture communication simply fails in this environment. It isn't compatible with this level of diversity.

That isn't because people are being rude or mean. That's because high context culture relies heavily on shared context, and you simply cannot have that with 7 billion people at the same time. That is simply an unrealistic expectation.

Context, Culture, Communication and Crassness


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