A style guide is an often overlooked yet extremely influential document that guides your company and its ethical approach to materials. If company language is more utilitarian in nature, customers’ needs can be overpowered by company wants.
I have worked to incorporate a care ethics foundation into our company style guide, and have referenced it many times as I direct and guide company communications. I express these editorial standards in my company style guide—especially in regards to digital communications like emails—by including language such as, “Be respectful of our customers’ time. Always be sure to not bombard them with information they do not need to know or questions we do not need to ask.” to convey the importance of thinking of the readers’ needs first. I communicate the importance of keeping the vulnerabilities of our readers in mind through language in our guide such as, “Keeping [the language] simple also helps ensure the language is clear and helpful—not misleading or misguiding in any way. If you are having to make the language complex to get around an issue, then the core of the message should be revisited.”
Lura Gurak wrote in her 2016 article Apparent feminism as a methodology for technical communication and rhetoric how a feminist lens helps writers make sure that documents are not leaving out those closest to, and most reliant on, the document. For example, throughout history women have been portrayed as being able to use technology but not able to understand technology; however, that is a social construct enforced by magazines and media presented to women.
By extending a feminist critique to texts that technical and professional writers are either writing or editing, they can ensure that the text is neither assuming that, say, a document about science or technology will be read only by a male audience nor that documents viewed as more feminine are only going to be read by women. This also helps alleviate the gender stereotype (societal constructs) that women are only interested in feminine things and that men are only interested in masculine things—liberating both genders.
Professional digital spaces present an interesting situation: asynchronous (most often) conversations where a balance is attempted to be struck between what we ourselves want to communicate versus what someone else wants to communicate versus what we need versus what the recipient needs. Instead of being in a room where everyone can have a synchronous conversation about what everyone wants and needs, digital spaces create a delicate space of balancing ideas and people.
Digital interactions in a business setting can ensure they are approaching a communication ethically (at least by care ethics standards) by looking at what they (the company) want to say versus how it will affect the audience and how the audience will receive the information. For example, if a company wants to have a higher search ranking and knows that having business locations listed on Google will increase their search ranking, their needs are clear. They have the option to connect their company to a physical location even if it is not an actual store: so they are faced with a dilemma that can be routed differently based on what ethical model the company follows. If the company follows a utilitarian ethical model, they will feel it is acceptable to list store locations that are not real because they will get higher search rankings and have exposure to people who want their product. However, if a company is established in a care ethics model, they will look at how this will affect the company’s care receivers (the customers). Will customers attempt to drive to the fake location and be frustrated? Will this create confusion and distrust between customers and the company? These are questions that care ethics attempts to satisfy by saying that what is best for everyone involved, not just the company, is the ethical route to take. So striking a balance could be that the company lists any real locations it has to increase its search ranking and customers are taken care of by being able to trust that the company will meet their needs.
In terms of online classrooms, the unique challenges of this digital space can be difficult to overcome. As we’ve seen in all digital spaces, it can be difficult to not just blurt out our ideas or feelings, seeing the interaction as solely between us and an abstract idea that we either agree with or need to disagree with/attack. This behavior is lessened in a face-to-face classroom because we are taught from an early age to be more empathetic in face-to-face social interactions. This can be carried over into an online experience, however, through instructing students (and, as professors, remembering ourselves) that each of the comments is attached to a physical person. Before they post any comment or response to another person’s comment, each student should ask themselves, “Would I say this thing/say it in this manner if I was speaking with them in a physical room?” Approaching interactions in this manner allows for all parties to meet their needs; helping all communications in the space be delivered in a respectful, caring manner.
The nature of digital spaces makes it easy to focus on the only person we can physically see—ourselves. By reframing digital spaces via ethical models that focus on human interactions and relationships, we can attempt to bring in the human element into digital interactions.
I have had online-classroom experiences that have varied widely—both good and bad—based on how a professor thinks a digital classroom should be constructed. There is, unfortunately, no overall standard of how to approach an online classroom, and this can affect the quality of interactions. There are many different ethical models that can be applied to this digital space, such as Rogerian or Deontological models; however, care ethics, while seen as an unusual choice for interactions that are not face to face and personal, frames the interactions in a way that weighs the care receiver’s needs heavier than the care giver’s needs.
When a professor approaches an online classroom with the concept that they are going to tell students what they know and think, they can potentially set themselves up for a more hostile digital space. They could be more abrupt with a student that has another opinion, sharp with a student that doesn’t quickly understand—or misunderstands—concepts, or not provide enough course information (expectations, deadlines, examples, etc.). However, when a professor approaches an online classroom with care ethics in mind, the professor is ethically responsible to be attentive to the students and provide an environment that fosters student learning in a way that best fits this group’s needs. A professor would approach the digital space with the understanding that it is not about them or their beliefs but rather the students’ needs and development. This could change a professor’s approach from attacking a student that presents an idea they do not like to focus on the student as a person rather than an abstract idea and exploring the concept and/or leading the student to a better train of thought with the same compassion and attentiveness that often is found in face-to-face classrooms.
Professors can also set up their online space so that way students are encouraged to approach other students’ comments the same way. By outlining behavioral expectations and explaining how comments are attached to real people, students can be encouraged to be less aggressive in their interactions. Another way to frame the digital interactions is to introduce the students to the concept of rhetorical listening. Giving students the tools they need to understand empathy in the online classroom will help for an experience that satisfies the care receivers’ needs (both professor-to-peer and peer-to-peer interactions).
Digital spaces can often cause people to relax and focus more on themselves and their feelings and ideas, but looking at the digital space through a care-ethics lens encourages both the professor and the student to see the comments and thoughts shared as attached to real people complete with feelings and needs.
Within feminist theory, where care ethics originated, there are many different veins of thought; however, there are some common threads within the theories. Mary Lay listed out some common feminist characteristics in her 1991 article Feminist theory and the redefinition of technical communication. She said the shared characteristics include:
- Celebration of difference
- Theory activating social change
- Acknowledgment of scholars’ backgrounds and values
- Inclusion of women’s experiences
- Study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship
- New sources of knowledge—perhaps a benefit of the five characteristics above (p. 349–350)
This list of characteristics that traditional feminist scholarship all share is reflected in the care ethics model. For example, the study of gaps in traditional scholarship is precisely what led Carol Gilligan to challenge the justice-based morality measurement system her mentor used. From that, she developed and built up the theory of care ethics. The inclusion of women’s care-based approaches can also be seen as moral maturity in Gilligan’s theory, where moral maturity was previously measured with a more masculine outlook in the justice-based measurement. Some feminists challenge this care-centered approach, saying that it engenders caring to women. They argue that the different ethical approaches of men and women are a result of societal constructs and that assigning “caring” to women further perpetuates the societal expectation on women to be nurturing. However, care-focused feminists assert that caring is not a woman’s approach, but rather a human approach and that applying relational ethics and care ethics to different moral dilemmas produces a more well-rounded ethical approach to situations and people than the objective and detached justice ethics.
In regards to care ethics and feminist theory in technical and professional communications, Erin Frost, a professor at East Carolina University, asks some very important questions in her 2016 article Apparent feminism as a methodology for technical communication and rhetoric. “How might feminist technical communicators persuasively point out the bias inherent in all worldviews, even those that people often perceive as neutral? How might they intervene in unjust situations, particularly in technical contexts in which objectivity is highly valued? And how might they best decide which situations are most deserving of this sort of attention?” (p. 4). By acknowledging that all communications are built on a worldview and ethical model (or lack thereof), different approaches to ethics can be explored and matched with the model that fits, which, in my opinion, if often care ethics.
Listening is a skill that many people think they’ve mastered but, in reality, lack a deeper understanding of this ability. I was in a workshop this summer, and my professor turned us onto this book: Rhetorical Listening (2005) by Krista Ratcliffe. My professor talked about the principles in the book and the common reasons we listen: to use the information for our benefit or to defend against what has been said. These two listening approaches limit us in our understanding of others, but rhetorical listening allows us to listen and understand/empathize, not to take or debate their thoughts. In other words, listening is something that we do naturally, but rhetorical listening is something we must learn and develop.
Taking this concept and adding in care ethics principles, only with rhetorical listening can someone truly understand and care for the other person. The four ways to implement care ethics, as created by Joan Tronto, are as follows: (1) attentiveness, (2) responsibility, (3) competence, and (4) responsiveness. By applying rhetorical listening and looking at it through a care ethics lens, one can see how this would improve understanding across all kinds of barriers and differences; changing why we listen to others and making us more attentive and responsive to their needs.
Now, applying these concepts to a digital realm, it is clear to me how online interactions would benefit greatly from this approach. It is easy for instructors/students/peers/strangers to get into arguments online when someone is just listening to respond or defend, and it is easy for a company to digitally interact with their audience in a way that focuses on what the company wants rather than what consumers want—constantly ready to defend. This often is the natural response in digital spaces because it is easy to see online writings as unattached to any human feelings. As ideas rather than people. But, by approaching these writings and conversations with an empathetic mindset, listening becomes a much more valuable tool to learn about the other’s needs and how to meet them.
Eric Leake wrote an article in 2016 titled Writing Pedagogies of Empathy: As Rhetoric and Disposition. This quote stood out to me as an important way to look at digital writing through an empathetic lens: “Teaching empathy as rhetoric has broad application as a suitable means of more closely examining the personal, social, and rhetorical functions of reason, emotions, and judgments. Empathy can be a means of invention, a heuristic, a way of considering audience and situation, an instrument of revision, and a tool for critical analysis. Teaching empathy as rhetoric attunes us to all of its possible uses and liabilities as a means of persuasion.”
When we look at writing through this lens, it makes it clear that online spaces host the emotions of real, feeling people. Their need to be cared for should influence the approach one takes towards rhetoric in online conversations. The approach to digital writing needs to change from blunt to caring—after all, they are human! Writing in digital forms should look beyond the abstract presence it often presents and consider the audience to see that digital interactions are with people rather than concepts.
For example, when writing in an online classroom, one should take the same level of caring for others that they give in real life. In professional settings, such as with an email campaign, the focus should be on what the audience needs to hear rather than what the company wants to say. By implementing this level of honesty rather than a utilitarian approach, audiences feel cared for, that their needs are met, and that their loyalty to the company is well placed. This, in turn, benefits the reputation of the company and attachment to the brand.