Humor on the Internet

Joseph E. Laferriere josephl at CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU
Wed Jun 26 08:26:27 CDT 1996

In the recent discussion on the taxacom mailing list of proper pronoun
usage, several people have attempted to make humorous comments only to
have themselves taken seriously. Welcome to the Internet! That kind of
thing happens all the time by e-mail, and people need to be aware of it.
E-mail approaches a conversation in terms of speed and spontaneity, but
the words appear on the screen devoid of tone of voice or any other
context which might allow the reader to ascertain the emotional intent of
the writer. I use humor myself all the time and have no objection to it,
but I realize that it must be used carefully. People can misinterpret
things very easily. Sarcasm is particularly dangerous form, especially
when one considers the international nature of a list like Taxacom. Senses
of humor vary widely across different cultures, and a recipient in one
country may not realize that a writer in another country is being
sarcastic. I urge people to be more careful and thoughtful in their
   Allow me to relate the worst case of such a misunderstanding I have
ever been involved in. WARNING: if you are offended by the risque', please
hit the delete key NOW! The following is intended to illustrate how
rapidly a situation can get hopelessly out of control. Last year, I was
hired as archivist/curator of the plant, animal, and soil collections at
Biosphere 2. My first week on the job, I told a coworker I wanted to set
the goal of having at least one specimen of every species currently or
formerly housed inside the biosphere. I jokingly suggested we should ask
for a volunteer to become voucher for Homo sapiens. He urged me to go
through with that, putting out an e-mail request to everyone in the
research department. So, okay. People started volunteering each other for
a wide variety of reasons. "Gee I think so-and-so should contribute a
finger bone or two, because he has had a hand in everything around here!"
Even the department chair joined in, suggesting the Chinese botanist
working with us should become voucher. However, a woman in the next
building objected to the boss's suggestion, saying, (and I quote): "The
reproductive anatomy of the specimen you suggest is inadequate to
represent the species." Wham! She meant this as a gender-rivalry type of
thing, implying that a woman should be the specimen because women's
reproductive systerms were in her opinion more sophisticated than those of
men. Unfortunately, absolutely nobody who received her message interpreted
it in this way. Fortunately, the Chinese botanist involved was a good
sport and took all of this very well.
   So, please be careful.

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