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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wisdom of the Vikings Part 2: How to Seat a Guest

How to Seat a Guest

Giver of the feast!
Your guest is here.
Where shall he sit?
Fast temper grows 
in a far seat
Prompt him not to prove
his mettle.

One thing I think is really exciting about internet interaction culture is that it has caused us to rethink our understanding of hospitality. In historically individualistic "western" America, we have adopted a hospitality culture formed out of paradoxically government-ensured safety. Our hospitality ideals are not, therefore, driven by concerns over safety and the preservation of social peace, but by the promulgation of comfort and warmth. As a result we largely restrict our hospitality to those we are comfortable with and often feel justified being inhospitable to those with whom we prefer not to interact. If we don't feel comfortable with someone we have little difficulty ensuring that they do not enter our homes, we can be fairly effective in cutting off contact with them.

While this situation has its own strengths and weaknesses, it is noticeably different from the contexts of both Medieval Iceland and the internet, where it would require significant and peculiar security measures to keep someone out. Furthermore if we commit shaming, unfriendly, and inhospitable acts against someone in America, we are not in any particular danger from them, whereas in Viking Iceland such an insult or even simple failure to honor a guest could reasonably be expected to result in violence and even death.

Online the consequences are not that dire of course, but they are similarly volatile. A "guest" or commenter on a blog or in a Facebook feed needs to be greeted with respect and welcome. Think back to how many host-replies begin with a polite "Thanks for your comment!" or "Thanks for reading!" even when the host follows it with a disagreement. Wise moderators work to make sure that commenters do not feel that their voices are being mocked on silenced unjustly (we will get to dealing with purposeful trolls and flamewars another day). These gestures, making sure that all commenters are treated with respect even when they offer deeply divergent or even ignorant takes and opinions, are vital in a world where there is no guaranteed protection from aggressive repercussions (and the internet is becoming impressively sophisticated when it comes to the legal destruction of people's personae, reputations, and profiles).

So again, Norse wisdom proves timely in the internet age. Aphorisms developed in a more anarchic culture of honor and shame give us a touchstone for a digital frontier of the barely-regulated internet. When someone comments on your blog or Facebook feed, or responds to your tweet. Treat them with respect, see to it that they feel appropriately honored in your environment or else be prepared for her to prove her mettle.

Part 3: The Positive Value of Courtesy and Hospitality

Click HERE for the beginning of the series.

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