Friday, May 29, 2015

My Dear

DorothyZemachBy Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest one on earth (see exact stats from January 2015 here). That’s a lot of people… and some days, it feels like most of them are sending me chat messages on Facebook.

Now, there is much that I value about Facebook, and much benefit that I derive from it specifically as an English teacher and textbook writer. That is perhaps a post for another day. Today I want to look specifically at the chat function, and why it causes me so many problems—even with other English teachers. (I should note here that I do accept friend requests from ELT teachers I don’t know, because I figure we have a profession in common; and conversations on my main page, which are often about some aspect of English or language or teaching or reading and writing, are richer with more participants.)

For one thing, I find chat in general (not just Facebook’s) invasive and demanding. Email I can respond to at my leisure—chat is pressure. I answer, and instantly there’s another prompt I have to respond to. Now, if it’s important, I don’t mind that—in fact, I want that speed and immediacy. I use chat then with people I work with, who need a fast answer to something pressing. I also use it with my son, because that’s the fastest way to reach him—although even then, I use it when we need to discuss something urgent. If I’m just checking in, I send a text message.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.58.04 PM

But with my friends and colleagues, I never use chat to say “Hi, what’s up?” And I never, ever use chat to say “Hi, what’s up?” to a complete stranger. To me, that’s like barging into someone’s house without knocking on the door first. You can do that if your car is on fire. But if you don’t know me, and you enter my house for no reason without calling in advance and then ringing the doorbell, I’m likely to call the police.

Clearly, that is not how everyone uses Facebook, or I wouldn’t get so many strangers sending me the “Hi” messages. Often, in fact, that is the entire message—“Hi.” From someone I don’t recognize (who is, to be clear, on my friends list–just not someone I know personally). I have no idea what sort of response they are expecting. Do they want me to stop in the middle of my work day and respond with “Hi” as well? Do we then move on to “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks, and you”? But why? Why would we (two virtual strangers, with nothing more in common than that we both teach English) do that online? Having no good response, I ignore those messages. Sometimes the sender stops; but sometimes the sender keeps messaging me. After five or six messages, I’ll usually write back and ask the person not to. But then that takes a little back and forth for me to explain it, and I feel irritated that I had to spend the time, and uncomfortable because I’m sure I’m being perceived as rude.

As an example, look what happened here.

Stranger: Hi.

Me: Sorry, can I help you with something?
(I am annoyed—I’ve been interrupted, with no polite phrase or explanation. Still, it could be work related, so I’ll ask if he needs help.)

Sorry too
You have Nothing to help me with
As you are not superior to me
We are equal
You can just exchange ideas
That’s It
(The stranger is now annoyed too. He is, as it will turn out, also an English teacher, and it seems that he thinks here that because I offered him help, I see myself as above him. However, he still hasn’t said what he wants, or why he has messaged me. So, I explain to him that I don’t use chat.)

I only use chat for emergencies or close family, so I was confused.
Idea exchanges are on my regular page
(At this point, to my mind, the chat is over—he didn’t know he was bothering me, but I’ve explained I don’t use chat with strangers, so I am expecting him to either be silent or to say something like “Oh, excuse me.”)

Are you interested in ELT
Ok My dear
(Now I’m more annoyed. Why is he asking if I’m interested in ELT? Did he not bother to read my profile before sending a friend request? Isn’t that, in fact, why he sent one? I am also not happy with “My dear.” For an American, that phrase is either patronizing or belittling, or romantic—and neither is appropriate here.)

Yes, I teach and write materials.
(I am doing my best to be neutral, although I am also hoping that by my terse answer, together with the fact that I have just explained I don’t use chat except for family or emergencies, he will understand that I do not want to continue this chat.)

Can you send me a link to your page
I am English Teacher too
(I am confused. What page? My Facebook page? Didn’t he have to be on it, in order to send me a message?)

I think if you can send a message you can access my profile. Sorry, plane boarding now
(Not a lie—I really was busy!)

And that was the end of it. For a month … and then:

How are you ?
(I am frustrated. I have already explained that I do not like this sort of intrusion. This clearly isn’t someone who knows me, or who is interested in interacting in public on my page. I really don’t know what he wants, but I feel very uncomfortable. Maybe at this point I should just ignore him, but he’s another English teacher, and I don’t want to be rude.)

Please … I don’t use chat except for family members. Thank you for your understanding.
(My final plea. I don’t know how I can express it more clearly…)

What do you think yourself My dear ?
(I don’t actually know what he means here. I think, given the next exchange, that it’s something like, “Who do you think you are, that you are too good to chat with me?” But I’m not sure. All I really know is, I have asked him more than once not to chat me, and he’s not stopping. And he’s calling me “My dear” again.)

If you don’t stop messaging me, I will have to block you. Please stop.

I won’t use either with unrespectful Like you

The conversation is now, thankfully, over—but it ended in disaster. He is angry and feels I have been disrespectful. I am angry and feel he has been disrespectful. But we are both EFL teachers, and I somehow can’t help feeling that if we’d met face to face, we’d have gotten along well.

So what went wrong? My first guess is that it’s mainly a cultural difference. In his culture, it must be OK to strike up casual conversations online with people you don’t know, through private messaging. But in my culture, it’s not. On my main page, in public, it’s fine. But not in chat, and not in email either, if we don’t know each other and have no business to conduct.

A further complication is our genders. Almost all messages I receive of this type come from men. A similar move from an American man would make me think it was someone looking for a date (someone who clearly hadn’t checked my page and noticed that I am married). Plenty of Americans use online dating, but there are specific sites and services for this. I don’t know of anyone who tries to date work colleagues through random messaging.

When I’m online, I am at work. I may have Facebook open, and post from time to time, but it’s in between other websites loading or a spellcheck being run or email messages going back and forth about a project or waiting for a phone call. It’s not, for me, ‘dead time’ where I have nothing to do. I do have time for interesting discussions (usually!); but I don’t have time to talk about nothing. I wonder if in some cultures being online at all is seen as someone’s down time, when they are open to the world, for any type of communication.

I asked some other English teachers how they felt about messages from strangers.

British woman: If it’s just ‘hi’ I ignore it as I discovered that just politely saying I didn’t use FB to chat with people I didn’t already know did not work and just led to a lot more messages.

Canadian man: If it seems like they specifically sought me out, have a real question, and are being appropriately polite, I’ll answer. If it’s just an empty “hi” I just ignore it.

British man: I usually answer … and then regret it. One answer from me seems to provoke just more and more questions.

British woman: I get quite a lot of ‘hi’ from people I haven’t friended. I don’t usually answer them, simply because it’s distracting and I assume they just want to chat. They seem mainly to be male.

British man: If I haven’t already friended them and they say Hi, how are you? I delete and block.

And then one American woman, not a teacher at all, contacted me because an EFL teacher connected to me had sent her a friend request, which she had accepted without thinking … and then every time he saw her online, he would start sending her chat messages, one after the other:

my dear
how are u?
good morning
thx for accept my request

To an American, there is nothing there to respond to—no context, no content, no purpose, and no interaction. It just feels like harassment.

Written communication, of course, like oral communication, is more than just words—it’s habits and conventions and culture. Whose culture is it, though, on Facebook? No matter Facebook’s country of origin, I don’t see it as ‘belonging’ to any one culture or language anymore. However, if someone comes to my page, having invited himself, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to at least try to be polite in my culture. If I were writing in French to someone who lived in France, I would do my best to write in ways that were appropriate to that culture (and if I didn’t know what those were, I would try to find out).lame on Facebook

Of course, anyone is free to interact on Facebook however he or she pleases. But I think most people want to be polite and want to make positive connections. I don’t think they wish to be rude or to make other people feel intimidated or uncomfortable. I presume these people are sending messages because they wish to interact, not to be ignored.

I have never seen an in-depth treatment of this topic—the culture of chat messages—in an ELT textbook. (If I thought there was enough demand, I’d write that book myself!) Note, however, that the cases I referred to in this article were not communications from students—they were communications from other teachers of English as a foreign language. The Internet and social media are so beneficial to our community of teachers. Let’s discuss with each other ways to keep it a safe, comfortable, and positive space in which to exchange ideas.



Comment from Larry Zwier
June 8, 2015 at 5:20 am

Great article, Dorothy. I was just thinking about the communication overload we all suffer.

Comment from Amanda
June 8, 2015 at 11:39 am

I am an EFL teacher, but above this, I am an English-language-passionate-person, so I am always looking for opportunnities of practicing it with people who care about it too. Some of my friends on FB are native speakers and I always have to struggle with myself in order to avoid sending the “Hi, how are you?” message, that may be inconvenient for them. But for me, it would be only a way to practice the language I love, maybe learn a new idiom, a new word. I follow you, Dorothy, on FB because I took an online course on EDX and you were one of the professors, but I do not have the chance of commenting on anything you upload there, probably because of your privacy settings, and it makes our “interaction” just impossible.
I just think that teachers and professors around the world could/should share more, help each other even though there is not much in common between them. But I completely understand your policy of “chat for friends and family only”, it is just sad that many people won´t have the chance of learning things with you on a real chat talk.

Comment from Dorothy
June 8, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Hi Amamda,

Once I started helping with the MOOCs I had to change my friend settings so that only friends of friends could send me a request–I was getting dozens of requests and messages from students every day, and it was exhausting! If you are a teacher, though, and we don’t have any friends in common, just send me a message through chat (yes, it’s OK! as long as you don’t call me ‘my dear,’ ha ha), and I will send YOU a friend request.

I think anyone can comment on my posts, though, even if they are not my friend. And of course you are more than welcome to!

I feel that I share LOTS online already. I post articles, I engage in discussions on my page and other people’s pages, I blog here … and I work several jobs and have a family. There are just no more minutes left in my day to have private chats. That’s why I prefer group discussions, because if one person is busy for a few hours, it doesn’t matter because other people will be there continuing the discussion.

Comment from Amanda
June 8, 2015 at 1:34 pm

I can imagine the huge amount of requests you have received, specially concerning a MOOC and the amount of people who take them. I will send you a message then 🙂
But I really cannot comment in the posts, I am able to read other people’s comments and stuff, but there is no space for replying a comment or create my own one.
Anyway, you do share a lot and the things you share are valuable, there is no doubt about it. I am also a big fan of group discussions, but for me there is nothing like the “person-to person communication” (like this one here, now, not specifically on a chat). I am getting my master’s degree in Linguistics and recently I had an amazing conversation with a native speaker who helped me a lot just discussing the phenomenon I am investigating. But, like I said, I understand and respect your position, and you do not have to worry about my messages, “my dear” hehehe.
Have a nice day, Dorothy!

Comment from Vicki
June 8, 2015 at 5:34 pm

I’ve found that there are a TON of websites for people wanting to know more about a certain language and to practice it. Most of these websites are set up for native speakers to exchange information: English-Spanish, English-Arabic, English-Japanese, English-Chinese.

If you look for people learning YOUR language, you can usually exchange chats in each language. It’s fair that way, and you both learn.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Friends on Facebook?
August 29, 2016 at 2:58 pm

[…] Some people seem to deal with this issue without the angst I feel. Dorothy Zemach, who I do happen to be Facebook friends with, has a well over 1000 friends from all around the world. She generally posts ELT and publishing related stuff, but sometimes her posts are more personal. She appears to be generally comfortable balancing the private and public aspects of her life in a way I am not. However, she does have her limits, as detailed in her posting in this very blog last year called My Dear. […]

Comment from Panayiotis Demopoulos
May 15, 2017 at 5:05 pm

This reminds me of the international “pen-pal” service in the 1980s when we were paired with random people from other parts of the world and presumed a number of wrong things in our correspondence to everyone’s embarrassment. Rectifying the situation took several weeks back then. Most of those letters were a complete waste of time, but some encouraged an understanding of other people and societies.

In the end it’s all statistics. Just like in any country, you meet many and get to know a few. I would never ignore someone’s greetings, no matter how incomprehensible or presumptuous the wording might be. There’s the slim, microscopic even, chance that I might be shutting the door to a good friend from the future. So, a big “And how are you doing today my good man?” to all the “my dear”s out there.

Comment from Dorothy
May 16, 2017 at 9:05 pm

However, in the case of penpals, two people have chosen a time and method to communicate. I’m always happy to respond to appropriate greetings; my problem is with inappropriate ones. If someone you didn’t know came into your office while you were working, or into your bedroom while you were sleeping, and said “How are you?”, how much of your work day or private time would you be willing to give him?

I offer many ways for people to contact me appropriately. I think I’m actually extremely accessible. I only ask not to have my privacy and personal time violated with no reason or explanation.

Comment from Dorothy
April 22, 2019 at 11:30 am

As it turns out… I did wind up writing that book!

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