Manners are everything.

Recently, I've been thinking about conversation and the best ways to have it online. I am hardly the world's greatest advocate for for reasoned discussion. I am particularly good at taking a strong position and working to defend it. I know, however, that my favorite approach is only useful in limited circumstances. More often, reasoned conversation is the way to effective communication.

It's really hard to do that online. The competitive struggle for attention favors assertive stances. You get more attention if you sound really sure of yourself. It's hard to maintain a posture of "I sort of wonder if this might be true." It often gets you insulted or ignored, rarely respected.

So, the airwaves get dominated by personalities who are always on broadcast and only a little on receive. It's good for big puffy egos and really bad for community. The celebrity of the moment tends to have little ears and high output.

With a couple of recent dust-ups and a broad influx of new members, it's a good time to think about what makes for effective online community and conversation. (I've covered this issue elsewhere recently.)

I was talking with Jason Davis about this question this morning. We talked about the most important things for developing a sense of community. I walked away from the conversation and came up with these notions:

  • Remember that those words and letters on your computer screen are a person.
    This is really easy to forget. In the heat of the moment, alone with your thoughts and reactions, it's hard to recall that the text you are mad about is another living, breathing human with feelings. It's easy to say harsh things that are hurtful. Try not to do it.
  • Understand the person who is receiving your message.
    You know what happens when you confront a liar with his lies, right? He always denies them. Always. Many responses to your online postings are that easy to predict. If you are going to draw fire for what you say, be sure you know why you are doing it. If your writing is obviously hurtful, write it but don't publish it.
  • Use the right function for the message. has blogs and forums. If you want a conversation, use the forums. If you want to confront, to post a commercial message, to have a one sided dialog, to preach, use the blogs. Free speech is important at Manners dictate the appropriate forum.
  • The Forum is for Conversation
    This is where the community gets to know you. We work together and collaborate here. It is a place for talking and moving toward shared opinion. Celebrate and incorporate diverse views. It makes for richer conversation.
  • Your Blog Is Your Own Personal Kitty Litter Box.
    Okay, that's harsh. The idea is that this is your own personal theater in which you can yell "Fire" if you want to. If the forum is the living room, the blog is your office.
  • Use Email
    Not everything needs to be available to everybody. Finding the balance between public and private is part of learning how to adopt to your new home on
  • Find Ways to Meet Other Community Members Face 2 Face
    It's amazing what happens when you can remember a good laugh, a great story or the general tenor of your last conversation with someone you know mostly online. Part of the point of the Recruiting Roadshow project is that online community depends on physical community.
  • Always Reject Intolerance
    Respond quickly and strongly to mass generalizations about groups of people. Remember that this is a public place and our behavior reflects on our profession. It's a bad idea to give the world the impression that we think discrimination is okay, that bullying is acceptable or that shirking responsibility and whining should be tolerated.
  • Be slow to judge, quick to forgive
    Until you've been on the receiving end of harsh online criticism, you can't understand how awful it feels. People make mistakes and good community is all about incorporating it it while encouraging even more risk taking.
  • Be Positive. Encourage People To Participate. Praise heavily.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that I've gotten some things wrong and missed others. I'd really appreciate your help fleshing out this list and making it better.

(Here's a little known, very useful guide to building online community. Scan it. It's an easy, quick, value-laden read. It's by John Coate who was the director of community experience at the WeLL. I reread it - and let it influence me - as I pulled this piece together.)

John Sumser is the CEO and founder of the Recruiting Roadshow. To see more of his work, check out

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Well done and well said, John (and Jason by proxy). You've expressed clearly what many of us have been thinking for a while.

RBC for me has been both a celebration and exploration of community; the complex weaving of business and friendships I am establishing here is causing me to reaffirm (and in some cases, rethink ) the link between what I say and how I say it. And I remain mindful of some good advice given to me by Ami G before I published one of my first "Dear Claudia" posts here: "You say it, you own it." This alone still causes me to stop and think of the domino effect of my words before I press the send button.

John, Jason, and many others here are anchors in this community; your perspectives carry weight of influence among us. Thanks again for speaking up on this topic, John.

Brilliant post, John. Thank you.
This is a wonderful reminder to all of us that what's important is not so much what we're saying (though I agree heartily with you John about the need for fast and first response to Intolerance) as how we say it.
What a terrible piece of writing and I violently disagree with every syllable that you wrote.

Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

I wave my private parts at your aunties, you cheesy lot of second hand electric donkey-bottom biters.

Sorry John – with such a sincere and relevant piece of writing it needed a contrarian response to ensure the Ying/Yang balance on RBC stays correct otherwise we will end up around virtual mutual admiration society campfires singing ‘Kumbaya’. I hope that pieces like this give others hope that they can be contributors to public discussions without fear of persecution vs the usual suspects always weighing in. A community is only a community when many voices are heard and opinions respected not threatened.

Well said !
Thanks John!
Consider reading blog posts like you are listening - intently - to someone speaking to you live. Many blogposts, in general scream illogically and would likely not occur in real life. They may be thought but 'manners', as you correctly point out keep them in check.

Great post and please keep writing!

H Stringer
Always succinct and on target. I might add that saying "thank you" in what ever way works for you is appreciated by your readers and that adding to the evolution of the conversation is always appreciated.
Thanks John and Jason.

PS. I'll see you both in Toronto in a few weeks for the un-confrence --- RecruitFest!
Wow, not usually floored by a post but thanks for discussing and creating for us. I needed this today.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone.

J. William Tincup ||
One thought to echo these:

Public praise is great, but if your only contribution is "good idea", "cool post", or "really like this" . . . perhaps a phone call or personal email would work better so people engaged in actual conversation don't have to click 'Stop Following'. Even if it's something along the lines of a compliment with a coinciding question, anything beats popping off one-liners.

Maybe it's just me, but if I write a post, I like to have people offer counterpoints, agree with some additions of their own, or just disagree (thereby enlightening me to where I may be off-base or where I may not see a situation in entirety) . . . and/or any hybrid of the above, which is more typical as we each have our own existentialism and paradigm. Personally, I prefer actual conversation to making a post that elicits zero response outside of a few one-line compliments. I am inclined to stop posting when dialogue dies . . . because I have a day job and this community is an outlet for me - a place to share ideas, to be challenged, to be pushed intellectually . . . however, we each have our own version of utopian community :) Mine isn't a version of the Stepford Wives Club where we robotically pat each other on the back.

Sure, we all love hugs as public praise is good for the ego, but private praise means as much, if not more. Growing up playing sports (and with a single mother), it was always cool to hear a coach yell "great job" from the sideline, but nothing beat that hand on the shoulder, a look in the eye, or a firm handshake.

I guess it all goes back to what we value from our experiences with "community" at a very young age.?. Nature, nurture, culture, psychology, etc. all play a part in what we personally consider community.
Manners may be everything, but then again, they may be nothing.

Manners only exist between two individuals at any one moment. After all, that view is the only way to avoid mass generalizations about groups of people.

Manners are essential for society, but are often misused to be not about respecting mutual rights and obligations, but rather for the reverse: to handle people by class, status, power, or for exploitation. For example, we know that its sometimes rude when poor people do something, but sometimes eccentric when rich people do the same thing.

Manners are all about situations; if im bleeding and you are an EMT, I dont much care if you have a pleasing personality or how you feel about dogs, kids, and apple pie. If passion is involved, or politics, or matters of honor, expected and appropriate human responses may be all over the map.

Manners are often the very source of conflict. If you are eastern in your outlook (a generalization of course) you dont like to say no to people directly- so you hint, or rephrase, or temporize. Westerners see that as horribly rude and not to the point, so things move backwards when a situation comes up where ''no'' should be the answer, for either side.

When companies, countries, and ideas are on the move, people pull together and generally behave well, watching the ball. When things stagnate and ossify, trivial and schoolastic issues dominate time and attention, creating drama when life does not.

I know John personally and he has offended me on numerous occasions. Yet I consider him a finely mannered person. A paradox ? Not at all.

The point here is that manners are situational and individual.

On that point, every website has its own tone and ways of dealing with trolls. You will know soon enough if you are beyond the pale.
Netiquette in other words.

My best practices is that on the internet everything you say has a very long shelf life. As long as the particular server your words happen to reside on lives, so do your words. Thus, whatever I write I look at a couple of times, think “what if my future boss were to see this”, and cut, delete, or publish. Sometimes I go out on a limb and say “I don’t care what they will say” and write something outrageous, bolt down the hatches, and prepare for the incoming barrage.

I just read a discussion on H1B’s where one poster used “crap” and “shit” a lot. That’s all I took out of that post. Your meaning gets lost if you overemphasize incorrectly, show no statistics, and blast from the hip. Same for any discussion. Keep your head cool and make a much more effective argument.

Someone else was called a racist… seriously…

That’s a good rule of thumb: “Think before, during, and after you write and be respectful”.
I can't agree with John more. One more thing I would like to bluntly add to his words below

"It's hard to maintain a posture of "I sort of wonder if this might be true." It often gets you insulted or ignored, rarely respected."

In Chinese we say that a person is too sure means he/she is too innocent. Direct translation would be ignorant, but I thought innocent might be
Excellent advice - thank you!



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