Speech communication and interpersonal communication textbooks identify lots of characteristics of verbal messages. For example, in The Interpersonal Communication Book, I identify the packaged nature of verbal messages, message meanings are in people, meanings are denotative and connotative, messages vary in abstraction, messages vary in politeness, messages can criticize and praise, and messages vary in assertiveness, and messages can confirm and disconfirm. The idea here is to explain the nature of the message system and at the same time to include some communication skills. In going through the Canadian Edition of Messages, co-authors Rena Shimoni and Dawne Clark include a short section on anonymous messages in the workplace. It got me to thinking that this is another essential characteristic of messages that needs to be covered, especially in this age of social networking. Hence, this (still very preliminary) explanation of onymity and anonymity. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Verbal Messages Can be Onymous or Anonymous
Verbal Messages Can be Onymous or Anonymous
Some messages are “signed” or onymous; that is, the author of the message is clearly identified, as it is in your textbooks, news-related editorials, feature articles, and of course when you communicate face-to-face or by phone or chat. In many cases, you have the opportunity to respond directly to the speaker/writer—in ways varying from interrupting the speaker to sending an email or commenting on a blog post--and voice your opinions, your agreement or disagreement, for example. Other messages are anonymous: the author is not identified. For example, on faculty evaluation questionnaires and on RateMyProfessor.com, the ratings and the comments are published anonymously as they were in the organizational suggestion box.
The Internet has made anonymity extremely easy and there are currently a variety of websites that offer to send your emails to your boss, your ex-partner, your secret crush, your noisy neighbors, or your inadequate lawyer--all anonymously. Thus, your message gets sent but you are not identified with it. For good or ill, you don’t have to deal with the consequences of your message.
One obvious advantage of anonymity is that it allows people to voice opinions that may be unpopular and may thus encourage greater honesty. In the case of RateMyProfessor.com, for example, anonymity ensures that the student writing negative comments about an instructor will not be penalized. An anonymous email to a sexual partner informing him or her about your having an STD and suggesting getting tested and treated (http://edmonton.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110809/sti-bc-syphilis-sexual-infections-110809/20110809/?hub=EdmontonHome) might never get said in a face-to-face or phone conversation. The presumption is that the anonymity encourages greater honesty and openness. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous holds this to be one of their guiding assumptions. Without anonymity AA would likely not have grown over the years as it has. The promised anonymity encourages people to attend meetings and to speak openly and honestly about their addiction. The same assumption is made in questionnaires; you’ll be more honest is your name is not attached to your message.
Anonymity also enables people to disclose their inner feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams with a depth of feeling that they may be otherwise reluctant to do. A variety of websites which enable you to maintain anonymity are available for these purposes. And in these cases, not only are you anonymous but the people who read your messages are also anonymous, a situation that is likely to encourage a greater willingness to disclosure and to make disclosures at a deeper level than otherwise.
Such anonymous messages provide useful information that might never get communicated. For example, the professor can get feedback from such anonymous messages that will help him or her improve. And the lover may seek treatment in time to prevent further spreading of the STD, for example. Without anonymity these people would likely not receive this potentially very useful informative feedback.
Anonymous messages may also be used to test ideas and to remove oneself from any implication of inappropriateness. And so, a reporter might say “A respected unnamed source says….” or, “it’s been rumored that …” or “I’ve heard it said that …” In these cases the reporter is absolved of having the idea associated with him or her even though the reporter is asking the question.
An obvious disadvantage is that anonymity might encourage people to go to extremes—since there are no consequences to your message—to voice opinions that are outrageous. This in turn can easily spark conflict that is likely to prove largely unproductive. With anonymous messages, you can’t evaluate the credibility of the source. Advice on depression, for example, may come from someone who knows nothing about depression and may make useless recommendations. Or a student may give a professor an extremely negative or extremely positive evaluation based on the most recent test or grade on a term paper—an evaluation which doesn’t really assess the larger and more general issues of teacher effectiveness.
On the other hand, anonymity is used regularly in reviewing submissions to professional research publications. And so, authors must submit their manuscript without identifying who they are. The manuscript is then sent to reviewers—other professionals in the field—who evaluate the research without their evaluations being contaminated by the authors’ previous publications, reputation, or personality. Also, in many cases, the reviewers’ names are kept anonymous to ensure greater honesty. So, for example, when the manuscript for this revision is sent out to reviewers, I am not told who said what. And any mention of the reviewers’ academic affiliations are carefully removed from the reviews before I receive them. The reviews come to me marked Reviewer No. 1, Reviewer No. 2, and so on. This situation, as you can imagine is both good and bad. It’s good in that it encourages honesty and openness from the reviewer and it’s bad in the sense that the credentials of the reviewer are important—I’d be likely to give greater credibility to a recognized researcher commenting on the research cited than I might from someone who has never done any research.
Anonymity also raises an interesting ethical question. For example, let’s say your book or your teaching effectiveness or your work performance is negatively reviewed by some anonymous individual. Some would argue that you have a right to know who this person is; after all, this person may dislike you personally or because of your cultural identification—issues that have nothing to do with the value of your book or your effectiveness as a teacher or organizational worker. On the other hand, the anonymity might encourage greater openness and honesty since the author doesn’t have to fear any consequences of what he or she said. It’s unlikely that a new worker is going to criticize his or her boss or professor without the cloak of anonymity; the cost of identifying oneself in cases like this might be getting fired or failing the course.
Websites in general and social network sites in particular—along with assorted researchers and communication-watchers are currently exploring the advantages and disadvantages of onymity and anonymity. So, what is and what is not anonymous is likely to change over the coming years.