Codification of contact


This blog post discusses the idea of Codes of Conduct, these are documents regulating social interaction, in the OpenStreetMap project. I in particular want to focus on Codes of Conduct for non-virtual meetings, i.e. for events where people meet in person.

First a bit of background: Social interaction in a society is normally regulated by two different sets of rules

  • The social conventions – the non-codified standards of social interaction of a society, largely defined by tradition (we do things certain ways because our parents and grandparents have already done so) and often fairly specific in the details to the social class, subculture or even family.
  • The local justice system.

Normally following these two sets of rules in everyday life is something we can manage without much effort. But as indicated these are local rules. With cross cultural and international social interaction things become much more difficult. You are very likely to break social conventions in international social interaction and depend on tolerance and generosity of others in such cases. Because of this cross cultural international social interaction is usually characterized by careful and considerate actions and reactions in the attempt to find a common ground in terms of common social conventions. A significant part of this is also successfully managing failure of a working social interaction – the organized and respectful retreat from a failed attempt at such.

These mechanisms of cross cultural social interaction have developed over thousands of years. The world’s travel literature is full of stories and anecdotes about positive examples of such with eye level interaction and cultural exchange and negative examples with catastrophic failures sometimes leading to violent results as well as many cases of arrogance and narrow-mindedness leading to a peaceful but completely unbalanced interaction. If you know people well who have significant experience with eye level cross cultural interaction you can usually observe a distinct change in habitus and body language when they meet a person and realize a significant difference in social conventions. In cultures where balanced, peaceful interaction with other cultures is common (through trade and travel for example) these mechanisms often have found a place in the culture’s social conventions in form of certain rituals and procedures.

In my experience how well people can handle this also depends a lot on past experience in dealing with people following very different social conventions. For example people who have grown up in a rural area are often better at this because they tend to get exposed early in their life to the significantly different and contrasting social conventions of life in towns and cities while people growing up in a city – while they might routinely experience a larger variety in social conventions in their immediate environment (though usually through the anonymity of city life) they often never experience a similarly harsh contrast in those conventions until they have grown up.

And while today in a way we have more frequent cross cultural interaction than at any time in history due to real time international communication and relatively inexpensive travel opportunities most of this interaction tends to be highly asymmetrical and truly balanced eye level cross cultural social interaction has probably – relatively speaking – become a rare exception.

The corporate code of conduct

Codes of conduct were invented as an additional set of rules of social interaction in the context of corporations regulating interaction of corporations with their employees and among employees, being created by the corporate management and being contractually agreed upon by people.

Reasons for creating those are in particular

  • to avoid the sometimes unreliable nature of uncodified social conventions.
  • adjusting the social conventions of the ordinary employees (who might come from a significantly different social and cultural background) to those of the management for their convenience.
  • limiting some of the freedoms offered by the justice system and social conventions because they are not considered good for productivity.
  • avoiding conflicts due to differences in laws and social conventions of employees by imposing a uniform set of rules above them. This is in particular important for international corporations.

Practically a corporate code of conduct is typically meant to supersede social conventions and local laws. It can not normally contradict local laws (though there are quite a few cases where internal corporate rules are actually in conflict with legal requirements) but since code of conduct rules are usually more restrictive than general laws they practically form the relevant limits of accepted behavior.

If we now have the idea of creating a code of conduct for an international OpenStreetMap meeting – like the SOTM conference – we could have two potential goals with that based on what i explained above:

  • helping and supporting to engage in eye level cross cultural social interaction in the way i described above (i.e. careful and considerate interaction to try establishing a common ground in social conventions).
  • managing the event like a corporate event under a corporate code of conduct.

Now the SOTM CoC actually does neither of these. It does not provide any significant guidance how to perform cross cultural social interaction and it also lacks the clarity of rules and the goal orientation of a corporate code of conduct. Instead it comes closer to a third type which i would call a political code of conduct.

The political code of conduct

The political code of conduct is the result of the idea of a corporate code of conduct being adapted by and for social reform and social justice movements and organizations. The idea here is to – just like with a corporate code of conduct – essentially replace existing social conventions and laws (because they are considered injust) with a set of rules – in this case not designed to optimize productivity but to achieve certain political goals.

The political goals are not immediately obvious in the SOTM CoC since it has been toned down compared to the document it has been derived from.

Now i don’t want to judge the political ideas behind this but no matter what you think of them it should be clear that the resulting rules will primarily have the goal of implementing the political ideas (just like the corporate CoC wants to increase productivity). Most political CoCs are created in a culturally fairly homogeneous environment (like an organization of people with common social background and political goals). While there are occasionally translations of such documents in different languages i have never seen a CoC that has been designed with multilingual input and discussion.

All of this is highly problematic in the way that it does not allow people to freely seek and find an individual common ground in social conventions between them but imposes a certain set of social conventions from the top. No matter what the political motives for creating such rules are they always come from a specific cultural background and are imposed on the rest of a global and culturally diverse community in an act of cultural dominance.

What remains to be discussed is how a code of conduct could look like that is meant to help and support people to engage in cross cultural social interaction on eye level in the traditional way without a culturally biased rule set being imposed.

A culturally neutral code of conduct

Here an attempt at this. Since this is formulated in a certain language you can of course argue that it is not neutral anyway but i put quite a lot of effort into this not relying on a specific interpretation of language and the meaning of certain words but being based on general thoughts and ideas that just happen to be communicated here in a certain language.

Some might also think calling this a code of conduct is incorrect because it is so very different from most documents you see titled this way. I would use a quote from the CoC of the Chaos Communication Congress which pretty well describes the idea behind this draft as well:

This is not a CoC in the anglo-american sense of the word. It appeals to morality rather than trying to instill it.

The event you are participating in is visited by a large variety of people with very different cultural and social backgrounds as well as personal views, ideas and abilities. Experiencing this, getting to know such a large variety of very different people can be a very educative and enjoyable experience but also requires tolerance, curiosity and open-mindedness from the participants. If you are able and willing to bring this with you, you are very welcome to participate in the event. This document is meant to help you do that in a way that makes it a positive experience for all participants.

As guests and visitors of the event you are expected to conform with the local laws. You are also encouraged to familiarize yourself with the local customs and social conventions before and during the visit. This will help you during as well as outside the event.

When interacting with others at the event you need to expect and accept that other guests and visitors might have views, ideas and expectations very different to those you are familiar with. You are expected to be open-minded and tolerant towards such differences. We encourage you to reach out to, communicate and interact with others but when doing that you should be sensitive to them and to the possibility that your behaviour might make them uncomfortable.

We expect you to always treat others at the event with at least the same level of respect, tolerance and generosity as you expect and depend on others to extend to you. To accomplish this you should try to always put the goal of a friendly and open-minded interaction and the comfort of others with this interaction above your specific goals in it – like for example an argument or a discussion you are having. As a participant of the event you are required to be willing to adjust your behaviour in the interest of others and at the same time should as much as you can avoid requiring others to adjust their behaviour to you.

The above rules and suggestions should avoid misunderstandings and conflicts and help resolve smaller issues amicably in most situations. In case of more difficult conflicts when interacting with others you are encouraged to approach other participants of the event to mediate the conflict. If others approach you to help with conflicts try to mediate by attempting to help people find a common ground without actually engaging in the conflict yourself. If you are unable to do so or in cases of more serious conflicts you should approach the organizers of the event. Our aim in such a situation will be to help the parties and if necessary give specific instructions to them which you are required to follow. Such intervention will always try as much as possible to stay neutral and not take sides in the conflict.

If you are a proponent of corporate or political CoCs you most certainly will not like this because it follows a very different approach to the problem of cross cultural social interaction. In my opinion this approach is the only way to organize cross cultural interaction in a non-judgemental way that allows all people of a globally diverse community opportunity to express themselves and have the chance for cross cultural exchange. You can still argue that you do not actually need such a document or you might want to shorten it further compared to the above.

The most common argument of proponents of political CoCs is that the rules are meant to protect the weak from the strong, the marginalized from the dominant and are therefore justifiable. But that is in itself based on putting specific social conventions which lead to the perception of weak and strong, of marginalized and dominant above others and is therefore culturally biased. The language and the words used by the CoCs themselves to set the limits of acceptable behavior already imply the dominance of certain social conventions – which is why my draft above is mostly limited to suggestions meant to help people in their social interaction (i.e. being educative rather than normative) and explaining fundamental ethical principles instead of imposing specific rules that require familiarity with the language and the underlying social conventions to follow them.

Another thing that should be kept in mind is that obviously the local justice system has a special role in the whole thing. This is not that different if you have no or a different kind of CoC obviously. So the question where to have an international meeting is a question where the justice system of the place in question has quite an impact.

How about virtual places?

Now how about CoCs for digital communication channels and platforms? If you have a truly global international channel the same as above applies naturally. But most digital channels are at least language specific and in case of OpenStreetMap often further specific to certain countries or regions. Then you can think about documenting certain common social conventions for those. But you need to keep in mind that you cannot claim the channel or platform in question is open for or be representing the whole global OSM community any more.

TLDR: Engaging in eye level cross cultural social interaction in a careful and considerate way guided by basic and universal moral principles and dominated by tolerance and respect for the other side and a willingness to accept differences in social conventions even if they are inconvenient – like essentially countless generations before us have for thousands of years managed peaceful cross cultural contact in the past – is not the best way to do this, it is just the only way.

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