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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #103, Summer ’92. This is the scene of my biggest printed blooper—the discussion of corporate policy regarding officers and electronic bulletin boards completely overstates the case, and my mailbox took months to recover.... The policy actually in effect at the time I wrote the column reads as follows:
Computer bulletin boards. There is a lot of interesting discussion on the networks, and officers may find excerpts useful in assessing the general level of understanding of their fields among the technologically literate segment of the membership. However, they should not take part in such discussions in an official capacity, as the medium is highly conducive to making statements which have not been fully thought out, but which are very difficult to withdraw. (Each corporate officer should make sure that all deputies understand and accept this policy.)
Over the next several months, the Board worked out a more detailed policy on bulletin board usage, designed to take advantage of the new technology while maintaining a reasonable level of care and forethought. You can get a copy of the policy by writing to the Corporate Secretary, SCA Member Services, P.O. Box 360743, Milpitas CA 95036-0743.


My cousins, I just stumbled on THE VOICE OF THE MIDDLE AGES in Personal Letters, 1100-1500 (C. Moriarty, ed., Peter Bedrick Books, N.Y. 1990)—almost 200 letters from our period, with minimal adaptation. For English, the spelling is brought up to date but the gram­mar left intact, and other languages are translated fairly literally. The editor gives enough background for context, then leaves the writers to speak for themselves. And so they do, on love and business and all the matters that concern us today, in the SCA and in our daily lives. I heartily recommend it!
     The thought of period communications brings me swiftly to communications in the Current Middle Ag­es—but then, I’m always thinking about communications in the Current Middle Ages. Considering how much of it we do, it’s sad how poor we are at it...and while it’s not true that all our problems are “only” communications prob­lems—we do have real conflicts—communications prob­lems add mad twists to all others, and can create trouble all on their own.
     As I said last time I devoted a column to the subject (in T.I. #78), even in the Current Middle Ages there’s no way round the basic law of communication: you can learn nothing and influence nothing unless you get your message to the one you want to reach, put it in a form he can use, and make sure he can find you to reply. When I wrote that, I’d been Steward only a few months, and I was thinking mostly of logistics: For mail, printing addresses clearly, arranging for delivery so your target doesn’t have to go to the Post Office, typing the text in a standard font, stating what you want and why you’re writing, and putting the date and return address in the letter itself and not just on the envelope. For phone messages, leaving your real name and full phone number on tape so someone can call you back, and asking a live listener if he’s free to talk before launching into your message. All of that is still good advice today, but over the years I’ve observed some new wrinkles in the fabric of our communications.
     For mail, technology has dug a pit for the unwary: letters are so easy to produce that the idea of courtesy copies is getting warped. Here’s how courtesy copies are supposed to work, and always did work before electronic scribes took over: You write to ONE person, and if there are others with an interest in the subject or the exchange, you send them copies of the same letter, listing them at the end so they all know who’s seen it. The person named up front is expected to answer; the ones at the end know they don’t need to write. Lately, the SCA administration has started getting mail addressed personally to each of eight or ten people, with all the others on the copy list for each letter—or with no copy list at all. DO NOT DO THIS! You don’t need a basket of answers to one question, and whether we spot the ploy early (in which case one of us will be delegated to reply) or late, the extra work you caused will make us less sympathetic than we might have been!
     Time and custom have more or less wiped out the problem of people refusing to record phone messages. However, there’s now a horrid little fad for “funny” outgoing tapes. Believe me, if I return your call and have to pay for a minute of psychodrama before I can tell you I called, I’m not going to be in a real good mood by the time you reach me! Outgoing messages should identify either you or your phone number and say whatever else you must say as briefly as possible—which more or less precludes most forms of humor. And if you’re an officer, or if there’s any other reason for people outside the Society to call you about us, bear in mind that your message will help shape their opinion of us. PLEASE keep it seemly!
     A new world of communications has opened in the last few years: Thousands of SCA members now post and read notes on electronic networks, along with thousands of others whose only view of the Current Middle Ages is on their screens. These nets form a sort of Known-World-wide campfire. Many fascinating exchanges take place there, but you won’t find the Society administration in any of them. Corporate-level SCA officers are required to stay off the open nets, and we recommend this restraint for all officers—for your protection and theirs. Officers who make and enforce rules are unwelcome where people air their adventures and misunderstandings, and likewise those whose casual comments may be seen as rulings are unwise to indulge in exchanges that combine the spontane­ity of casual speech with the permanence of the written word. If you’re not in office, by all means enjoy the nets—but remember that you too never know who’s reading your words, and cannot unsay what you’ve released onto the waters of time....
     Meanwhile, at all parts of the communications-technology spectrum, the rumor mill grinds on. If I could do one thing for the peace of the Known World, it wouldn’t be to put a return address in every letter or a sanity-filter on every outgoing tape (dear as those would be!), it would be to have everyone check out information before acting on it. If a reported deed offends you, go to the alleged perpetrator and say something like, “I’m hearing these awful rumors that—“ The response won’t necessarily be true, alas, but you’ll be a lot further along if you listen to it, and you may save yourself some awful bloopers. Nothing makes you look sillier than filing a complaint about something that never happened, so get your news first-hand before you decide what to do!

     Humans communicate. That’s what we do, across distance and across time, because of what we are. Howev­er, we don’t do it well unless we do it with care. The Current Middle Ages exist wholly within the Modern Era, and we have communications tools the busy letter-writers of our period couldn’t dream of. Do we live and work more smoothly as a result? Sometimes I wonder....

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The West Kingdom History Website was created by and is maintained by Hirsch von Henford (mka Ken Mayer).