You Don’t Have to Be a Jerk Online

There is so much vitriolic discourse online these days, it’s enough to make some opt out. Loud, simple opinions are drowning out voices of reason. In the absence of these voices, the angry mob grows more bold. The threads get meaner. The opinion louder.

Nuance? Nah.

Mean Tweets? Oh yeah!

Maybe you’ve found yourself getting sucked in. Instead of listening empathetically, your confrontational impulses cause you to type out a few paragraphs of well-crafted, “You’re an idiot if you don’t see things exactly the way I do,” ranting. You post/send it and feel vindicated, as if your debate performance is without flaw.

If you’ve never done it, you’ve at least thought it.

Does it have to be this way?

Can’t we be better than this?

Whether it’s a blog or a Facebook thread or a tweet, I think there are some really fundamental ways to not be a jerk online, even if we’re surrounded by people who would rather call you names than call you a friend.

1. Acknowledge a Personal Connection

The phrase “unfriend” is a troubling addition to our modern parlance. I’ve actually seen Facebook posts that say “If you support Donald Trump, consider yourself unfriended!” During the Obama administration, the same sentiments were shared.

Really? A dissenting view is worthy of breaking off relationship?

Do you really have to agree with everything your friends say or think? When people have a differing view, should kicking them to the curb relationally even be an option?

When I’m in a debate or dialogue online, I always try to start with acknowledging a personal connection. This is a reminder that this is a friend, and that “unfriending” isn’t an option.

It may sound something like this:

“Hey, John! Long time no see, man! I hope you’re doing well and I wish we could talk about this over a cheeseburger instead of online…”

And when I’m done saying whatever else I have to say, I might add… “Man, next time I’m in town we should catch up! Tell your wife I said hello.”

Remember, most of these Facebook squabbles don’t happen with total strangers, but with friends, family, and acquaintances. Acknowledging that relationship during the dialogue goes a long way. It engenders trust. It humanizes the whole exchange instead of objectifying people so we can feel better about taking our swings at them.

2. Recognize the Other Point of View

It’s been said there are two sides to every story. I think there are more like six or eight. Our world is too complex. The stuff we talk about — politics, social issues, theology, crime, justice, etc. — it’s too nuanced to be a two-sided coin. Public opinion is a rubix cube, and your point of view is a single red square. Not the red side, but one square.

There are others. Your point of view isn’t the exclusive take on a given subject.

We do well to recognize that someone sees things differently, as well as attempting to recognize why they see it differently.

Our life experiences shape our opinions. Where we were born and raised, and by whom we were raised, flavor our perspective. There are lots of reasons people think the way they do. Some will seem very unreasonable to you. But your opinion seems unreasonable to them, too! 

We get into trouble when we stop listening and just start prepping for our response. Instead, ask the question:

  • Whether or not you agree with someone’s perspective, can you see why they might feel that way?
  • Can you understand that their perspective was shaped by various personal, emotional, and academic factors?
  • Must you personally attack their view, or could you just understand that it’s their view and leave it at that?

Try these next time you’re tempted to unleash your intellectual wrath on someone:

  • “I totally understand your point of view there, Bethany.”
  • “Mike, I may not agree with everything you just said right there, but I appreciate your perspective.”
  • “I’ve never thought about it like that, Pat, you make some good points.”

3. State Your Point of View Without Condemning the Opposite View

Now, I’m not suggesting you have to pretend to agree. It’s how we disagree that makes the difference. You can have a friendly chat around the proverbial fire or you can singe someone’s eyebrows by pouring gas on their face and lighting a match. That difference, I think, is primarily in how we state our disagreement.

There’s an enormous difference between:

“I don’t understand how anyone with a brain could think that” and

“I see it a little differently, let me try and explain…”

If you were to post that the minimum wage should be raised to fourteen dollars an hour nation wide, you’d feel pretty angry and defensive is someone said, “Just more liberal trash from an uninformed, economically illiterate moron.” You would be much more likely to engage in a dialogue if someone instead responded  “There is no question we have income inequality issues in this country that are causing some staggering problems, and I think the best solution is…” and continued with their opinion.

We have become so spectacularly skilled at arguing for what we’re against we’ve forgotten how to express what we’re for. I think conversation would be less hateful if we viewed it was treated as an exchange of ideas rather than a war of words.

4. State Your Tone

So much of communication is nonverbal. These nonverbal cues (posture, hand motions, tone of voice) are not available when we talk online, but you can’t always exchange ideas in person.

As a result, we have to state our tone of voice. I have actually typed out phrases like this before:

“I want you to know that I’m not mad and my tone of voice here is as if we were sipping on a cup of coffee and talking as friends.”

I really think we have to explain our tone of voice and work hard to keep things civil.

That means AVOIDING ALL CAPS, and watching out for our punctuation!!!!!!!!

Yes, face-to-face dialogue is better. Some of our online discussions need to be pushed offline, when possible:

“Hey, I think I’m getting unnecessarily defensive here…could we meet up for some wings and talk more?”

But when they can’t, I think we go out of our way to state our tone of voice as calm and reasonable.

If we all did just these four simple things, I believe our online conversations will be less stressful and more productive. Even in discussion where we are emotionally invested and/or strongly disagree with the other person’s point of view, I’m convinced we can do better.

Let’s not abandon the platform, let’s redeem it.