In the Right Region

One of the most common pieces of advice given to people to strengthen their arguments, is to avoid including too many caveats: avoid adding statements about limited applicability, do not include qualifications based on less common variations. However, this advice is sometimes taken too far: in a situation where you are supporting a case (such as a job interview), or speaking to a similar audience (such as your team at work), it is reasonable – even useful – to focus on the one or two things most relevant to your own situation; but where you are not advancing an agenda, or are speaking to a varied audience, more qualifications actually improve your argument. This is especially true on the internet.

Having obtained a law degree before I joined an internet forum, I did not embrace the normal clipped style of social media. Even after many years, including time on Twitter, my commenting is described as eloquent, precise, long-winded, pretentious, or British depending on the reader’s perspectives and biases. This continuation of a more nuanced style is deliberate.

Leaving aside my amusement at the concept of there being a single British style of writing, it is this description that best illustrates my point about including necessary qualifiers. Nationality matters hugely when responding to someone’s questions or statements.

For example, I posted a question similar to the following in a writer’s group:

I am publishing a collection which will be available in Australia. As I am based in the UK, will a UK copyright notice suffice, or do I need to include an additional statement under Australian Law?

The first response was:

The Supreme Court said you have to register it with the United States Patent Office.

My initial thought was that they had succumbed to the stereotype of Americans in not considering other countries exist. However, my legal mind almost immediately started considering other possibilities:

  • They were being helpful by providing an explanation of a step required in the US, in case I didn’t know.
  • They were being helpful to the community by making my question more generally informative, so it became a resource for international publishing.
  • Australian law requires physical deposit to obtain copyright, does not recognise UK copyright, but does recognise registered US copyrights, so the easiest way to protect my rights is to gain US registration.

The last one is unlikely, but the first two are not unreasonable things for someone to think. However, as they did not say, I did not know; and only considered the possibility it was not parochialism because seeking alternatives is mostly unconscious after many years of law.

I am not suggesting people should limit themselves to only answering the specific question as asked, or not answer questions for fear of never being accurate enough.

I do think that it is better to address the limits of your answer though: instead of simply stating the US situation, say you are giving it in case the book will be published there too; if you believe the question is too narrow, then start with why you are providing the answer to another question.

Do you believe people should only answer the question asked? Do you always look at people’s profiles if they don’t mention nationality, just in case it matters?

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