It is a matter very much to be regretted that, over the years, management types have usurped perfectly innocuous phrases and converted them to euphemisms or, worse, their precise opposites.

Take the expression, “I hear you”. That should mean, “OK, I’m listening, and I can see your point of view.” What it actually means is, “I need to find some way of shutting you up without appearing to be either rude or, heaven forbid, giving you any indication whatsoever that you might be correct.”

I read once that Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, used to respond to all the people who wrote to him with details of their brilliant inventions by sending them a letter which assured them that “there may be something in what you say.” Apparently that ensured that they didn’t bother him any further.

Stephen Potter, the British humorist, recognised this over fifty years ago when he wrote about the phenomenon he termed “the petrification of the implied opposite”, which I have previously discussed.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of the role I play in moderating the Vital discussion forums for secondary ICT Co-ordinators. It requires the skills of a chairperson in a meeting rather than a moderator of comments on a blog. In the latter case, the comments are usually in the form of a one-to-one message from the person making the comment to the person who wrote the article. Sometimes, but rather rarely I think, a conversation develops between the people who comment. If I am largely correct, then it means that failing to respond to a comment might be construed as quite rude, the equivalent of ignoring somebody who has just spoken to you.

However, I think the situation is very different in an online discussion that has been set up to be an online discussion (as opposed to an online discussion that has come about by accident). In that situation, to respond to every comment looks suspiciously like wanting to always have the last word, which could easily have the exact opposite effect to the one hoped for. That is to say, it may lead people to stop contributing altogether.

Yet ignoring contributions is rude, and saying something like “I see your point” can easily sound sarcastic and dismissive, for the reasons already mentioned.

Rightly or wrongly, I have adopted a similar approach online as I do offline, though without the benefits of eye contact and body language. When chairing a discussion in a physical room, I try not to answer comments, but to encourage other people to do so, and to ensure that everyone who wishes to have their say can do so. Now and again I will throw a curved ball or a contentious statement to get things moving again. As the discussion gathers momentum, my role changes from being an instigator to, I suppose, an orchestra conductor, making sure everything is running smoothly and that no soloist hogs the limelight for too long!

I think the same approach has to be taken online too. A slightly harder challenge is getting the lurkers to speak, and to bring in new faces. I am working on both. In the meantime, if you join those discussions, and put your two cents’-worth in, forgive me if I don’t respond: I’m not being discourteous, I’m just being a moderator.


The Vital discussion forums are free to join; you just need to go through a short registration process.