Parade magazine this week raised the question of how do you tell a partner you have an STD and that you might have passed it on to him or her. One of the means suggested to use is the e-card that tells your partner that you discovered you have an STD (pull-down menus enable you to be more specific) and that he or she should get tested and treated if necessary. The e-card is certainly preferable to not revealing this—after all, there is an ethical obligation to disclose your possible part in transmitting an STD to another person. But, there are other ways and the ways one uses seems to depend on the relationship between the people and on the personalities of the person’s involved. You obviously wouldn’t tell a one-time affair partner in the same way or through the same channel that you’d tell a life-time partner (about the one-time affair and the possible STD consequence). I’m not sure a relationship partner of 10 or 20 years is going to respond well to an e-card. It’s similar to breaking up by post-it note. At any rate, I thought this would make an interesting question to use in class to illustrate that effective communication is situational.

Politeness at the Health Club

In the interest of completeness, I offer this simple post on politeness at the health club—some of it having very clear relevance to communication and some not so much.

The ever-popular health club generally follows the rules of politeness of the general society but has a few additional rules that are unique to the gym. And violations of these rules—as you may remember from a classic Seinfeld episode—are severe. When George peed in the shower, he was banned from the gym. The most important and most general rule to follow in all these kinds of situations is to observe the customs operating in your specific health club. If the club has specific written rules, read them and follow them. Here are several more specific rules that some health clubs expect members to follow.
1. Know the equipment—learn how to operate the equipment. Generally, avoid asking another member to help you; this only imposes on that person’s time and attacks that person’s need for negative face. When in doubt ask a club trainer. If you can’t find a trainer and you feel you have to know how to do something, then wait until the person is resting or between sets. At the same time, don’t offer advice if you aren’t asked; resist the temptation to offer suggestions even when you know your suggestions are exactly right.
2. Wipe your sweat off the machine when appropriate. Carry around a workout towel and use it to be polite to your fellow members.
3. Avoid hogging the machines and spending more time on a machine than is customary. If the club has time limits for certain equipment, observe them.
4. If you use weights or other portable equipment, put them away after using them. If you don’t someone else will have to. Also, if you use heavy weights remove them after your workout; the next person may not be able to lift your 200 lb plates. The same goes for towels; put them away.
5. Don’t bring your child and use the gym as a babysitter. Most people don’t enjoy having children gawk at them as they’re lifting or running.
6. Avoid leering or ogling other members—they may look great but in many cases it just makes the other person uncomfortable. Wait until you get to the juice bar to flirt or hook up.
7. Moderate your noise level. While not a college classroom or theatre, the gym is still a public place and depending on the number of people and the acoustics, noise can be a problem. Keep your exercise-related screaming and grunting to a reasonable decibel level. And avoid dropping your weights on the floor with a thud; this may tell people you’re using heavy weights but it’s annoying.
8. Allow work-ins if appropriate. When an exercise requires machine workouts spaced by rest periods, your club may encourage working-in where you and another person share the same machine—one working the machine while the other is resting. It’s considered polite to ask to work-in if the club is crowded or that machine is in high demand. And it’s considered polite to invite someone to work-in with you if you sense this person would like to.
9. Beware the cologne. Many club members who fear offending others by their sweat will pour on cologne to the point where it is worse than any other body odor could be. Try to control both sweat and anti-sweat cologne so that neither proves too offensive.
10. Be friendly. If small talk is the customary form of interaction, then try to engage in it. Even if this is not your general way of interacting, it may be expected at your club.
11. Observe the nonverbal rules or customs, for example, don’t take up space with your gym bag or clothes (you probably have a locker), don’t touch others unless requested, don’t stare at members as they work out, don’t stand too close to people (respect their space).


Teaching Children Politeness

Politeness is simply a way of communicating respectfully and as such is a useful communication skill to teach children, your own or those you teach. Of course, the best way to teach children anything is to model it yourself. In most cases, they’ll pick it up from you; they’ll do as you do, talk as you talk, say please and excuse me as you say please and excuse me. Part of this involves treating your child politely. If you’re trying to teach your child not to interrupt another’s conversation, don’t you interrupt the child either. If you want the child to say please and excuse me, then use these phrases yourself when talking to your child. But, there are a variety of things you can do to teach politeness skills in addition to setting the right example. Here are ten suggestions:
1. Teach your child the values of politeness. All children want to be liked and thought attractive; politeness will increase the likelihood that they will be liked and will be seen as attractive. Make that clear to children.
2. Teach your child the value of listening. Children often like to be the center of attention; teach them that listening is a great way of making someone else the center of attention. And, very likely, that person will return the favor and make you the center of attention.
3. Teach your child not to interrupt others. Of course if your child sees you interrupting others, this will be a tough lesson to teach and to learn. And explain the difference between back channeling cues (cues that say you’re listening—I understand, I don’t get it, For example?-- but that don’t take the speaker’s turn away from the one talking) from interruptions in which you take over the speaking turn.
4. Teach the value of politeness tags, phrases such as thank you, excuse me, you’re welcome, and please. Again, if you use them, your child is likely to use them as well.
5. Expose your child to a variety of social situations gradually. If you’re going to a restaurant with a small child, review the situation at home—let the child know what to expect and what is expected of him or her. It may even be useful to stage a mock restaurant at home. The diners next to you will greatly appreciate this.
6. Explain the distinction between polite and impolite behavior—perhaps as you’re both watching television. Point out behavior that’s impolite and that should be avoided as well as polite behavior that can be emulated.
7. Reward your child when he or she is polite, sometimes something as simple as: That was really nice of you to say please. At the same time, don’t hesitate to correct your child when he or she acts impolitely. Do it gently (you don’t want to have the kid detest any mention of politeness) and do it privately (never criticize the child in public). And be sure you explain not only what was impolite, but what the polite alternative would be: I notice that you called our neighbor Harry, maybe because you hear me calling him that. But children should call him Mr. Smith. When you get older and you’re an adult yourself, then you’d call him Harry. Realize that children just haven’t had the time to learn the rules of politeness (and they're surrounded by so many poor examples)so proceed in small steps and take pleasure in small improvements.
8. When appropriate, point out cultural differences in politeness. This is easily done while watching a movie or a television show, for example, See how the Japanese businessman is being polite by bowing.
9. Teach your child to answer the phone properly. It’s a simple skill that all adults know but children have to learn. Modeling appropriate phone behavior and spelling out the steps in polite phone behavior should teach even very young children to answer the phone without annoying the caller.
10. When dealing with boys it may be necessary to explain that politeness is not just for girls—a belief that many young boys have. Often they see politeness as a feminine way of behaving, a way of communicating that is more girl-like than boy-like. So, in your teaching include this and, for example, point out politeness examples from superheroes and, in general, those people the boys admire, are identifying with, or want to emulate.


Relationship Research and Same-Sex Marriage

Congratulations to both Iowa and Vermont for making justice prevail and granting same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Research on relationships has failed to find any negative effects that same-sex marriage might have on the family, on children, on opposite-sex marriages, and on society as a whole—effects that opponents of same-sex marriage claim exist but have never been able to prove. It’s the fallacious argument that Stuart Chase called the Thin Entering Wedge (same-sex marriage will open the doors to all sorts of catastrophes) and perhaps more popularly known as the fallacy of the Slippery Slope (once you allow same-sex marriage, everything else is down hill). The added difficulties that same-sex couples and their families face and ultimately surmount seem attributable to bigotry and discrimination.
With all the money these opponents spend in their advocacy for legalizing discrimination against gay men and lesbians, you’d assume that if there was such evidence, they would have found it. They haven’t. And these folks are very dedicated people; they’re willing, even anxious, to spend a good deal of their money, time, and talent to institutionalize discrimination. And so they resort to creationist beliefs (especially interesting from a rhetorical point of view) in their support of legal discrimination (the utterly stupid Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, the type of argument you’d think would be restricted to the audience attending The Jerry Springer Show)—a belief that even many of the states that still discriminate have rejected, at least as a scientific explanation of our current state.
And, it’s also clear, that legalizing same-sex marriage will have numerous benefits for both gay and straight, something New York and New Jersey need to consider as they prepare to make their decisions. But that’s another post.


Politeness in the Classroom

Politeness in the classroom is one of the topics that seem almost too obvious to mention; of course, people will be polite in a classroom, just as they’re polite in a place of worship or at a job interview. But, the classroom is a bit different; it has its own rules of politeness. And, to complicate matters just a bit, these rules are modified in various ways by different institutions and by different instructors. Some instructors, for example, prefer to be addressed by their first name while others prefer to be addressed as Professor. Some allow eating and drinking in the classroom, others will tolerate coffee in early morning classes, while still others ban all food and drink.
And of course such rules vary from one culture to another. The classroom in the United States does not follow the same rules of politeness as the classroom in Japan, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. And, so, to persons from other cultures, the politeness rules for American colleges can be quite confusing.
One thing for sure: politeness in the classroom is not too obvious to mention. In fact, a search of the Internet uncovers a variety of politeness instructions from a wide variety of academic institutions. Impoliteness is apparently a problem. Some instructors, in fact, write politeness rules into the syllabus. Some schools post their rules on their website and expect all classes to follow them. Rarely do the rules address instructor politeness; almost all are addressed to students.
Here, then, are ten rules of politeness addressed to both students and instructors, some of the dos and don’ts of politeness in the classroom. Discussion of these ten rules—and any others that should have been mentioned--between students and instructor seems a logical way of establishing the rules for classroom politeness.
1. Arrive on time. Whether you are instructor or student, late arrival is disturbing to everyone who arrives on time. Being habitually late signals a lax attitude toward the college experience which doesn’t help anyone. So, arriving on time is a clear demonstration of politeness and respect for the others in the room, whether students or instructor.
2. Leave only at the end of the hour. Students should not leave until being dismissed by the instructor but the instructor should not keep the students late and have them then be late for their next class. Leaving early, like arriving late, only disturbs those who leave on time. If you must leave early for some emergency, tell the instructor or students (if that’s the custom) and, if a student, take a seat where you’ll disturb the fewest number of people.
3. Wear cologne in moderation. Strong cologne or after shave lotion can trigger discomfort and resentment in those who are forced to smell this. And while the wearer often thinks the cologne smells just great, others will not necessarily share this opinion. This suggestion is especially true in large lecture classes where competing smells are likely to create real unpleasantness.
4. Students should avoid talking to neighboring students. This not only disturbs the instructor but others around you who now have greater difficulty hearing the lecture. And you may even be disturbing the student you’re talking to. Asking the student next to you to repeat what the instructor said that you missed, only forces the other student to miss the next thing the instructor says. And instructors should talk to the entire group and not focus attention on one or two students who may be particularly engaging. Often instructors, without realizing it, favor one side of the room and that should be corrected.
5. Use electronic devices responsibly and politely. Turn off your cell phone or pager (or at least put it on vibrator mode). Avoid using your cell phone to talk, take pictures, or text. If you’re a student, this will disturb the instructor and the students around you and will also prevent you from learning as much as you might. If you’re the instructor, you’ll disturb the entire class. If you’re expecting an urgent call that you cannot miss, take the call with as little disturbance as possible, leaving the room unobtrusively if possible. Some instructors welcome laptops while others don’t. Find out what the protocol is and then, if permitted, use the laptop to aid you in interacting with the ideas the instructor is talking about and in taking notes rather than as a distraction.
6. As a student use the proper form of address for your instructor. This can often be confusing, especially when different instructors follow different rules. Generally, however, and unless directed otherwise by the instructor, use a relatively formal form of address. This means addressing the instructor as Dr. (if he or she has a Ph.D.), Professor (whether he or she is adjunct, assistant, associate, or full professor), or Mr. or Ms if the person does not have a Ph.D. and is not a professor. [The title Dr. means the person has a Ph.D. while the title Professor means that the college has granted this person professorial status. So, a person might be a professor without having a Ph.D. and a person with a Ph.D. may not necessarily be a professor. Most professors, however, have Ph.D.s and most Ph.D.s have professorial status. A high school teacher with a Ph.D. is called Dr. but not Professor.] Students generally prefer to be addressed by their first name and so there is seldom any problem here. In addition, however, the instructor (and students) should use the culturally preferred terms for the students (and for people generally) and avoid any sexist, racist, heterosexist, or ageist terms. Similarly, persons with disabilities should be talked about in “person first” language—for example, instead of “the blind writer” (which puts the disability first and makes it the defining feature of the person), a more appropriate and polite expression would be “the writer who is blind” (which puts the person first).
7. Watch your language. Terms that would be considered taboo in polite society are inappropriate in the classroom. Again, the reason for this is not that these words aren’t often adequate descriptions of your meaning; it’s that they may embarrass others in the classroom. Also, their unexpectedness will lead others to focus on your use of terms rather than on your meaning and you’ll lose some of their attention. Similarly, anger communication is out of place in the classroom; spirited discussion is one thing, expressing anger over a position taken by the instructor or a student would be inappropriate. There are other avenues for you to use in taking issue with opposing positions. Another type of language that would be considered impolite is dismissive communication, the kind of communication that says (often nonverbally), “that’s not important” or “how cares about that?” whether said to something the instructor says or something a student says.
8. As a student, ask questions as appropriate but in moderation. Taking a disproportionate amount of time asking questions is unfair to the rest of the students. Avoid asking questions that you could easily find the answer to yourself; it’s similar to the situation in online communication where you’re expected to read the FAQs before asking a question yourself. And always avoid the question, “Will this be on the test?” though this may be a quirk of my own. After being asked this a number of times, I wrote into the syllabus that everything said in class or in the text could be asked on the test. This effectively prevented anyone asking this question again. It’s a question that if you answer No many in the class will put down their pens and tune you out and if you answer Yes many will want to put down your exact words and you’ll get at least several requests to repeat yourself--exactly. And then of course the instructor has to remember to add that question to the testbank.
9. Never broadcast boredom in reactions to the instructor or to students. It’s rude. More than that, it communicates the exact opposite of what the purpose of the classroom should be—interesting, engaging, and lively. If you’re the student, for example, avoid reading the newspaper or thumbing through a website or listening to your iPod; this will disturb both instructor and the students around you. If you’re the instructor avoid expressing boredom or impatience, for example, with a student’s lengthy explanation or question.
10. Avoid eating or drinking in the classroom (generally). As already noted, some instructors have different rules about this so, if you’re a student, it’s probably best to find out first. If you’re the instructor then don’t do what the students can’t do; don’t prevent them from bringing in coffee when you bring in yours. Whether you’re the instructor or the student, avoid foods with strong odors such as oranges and take care that your food does not (literally) spill over into another space.



Just in case you didn't see this. Here's a great quotation on listening:
"[W]e exercise our leadership best when we are listening."
--Barack Obama