Five Tips for Maintaining Civil Discourse on the Internet
I glanced at the clock. It was 1:04 a.m. I was wide awake.
My mind was racing a million miles a minute over a debate I had read on Facebook just a few hours earlier. I was both annoyed that I was awake over this petty issue, yet simultaneously feeling brilliant for the knock-em-down responses I was concocting in my head. Yes, I am embarrassed to admit, that instead of drifting back to sleep as I should have done, I was actually drafting responses in my head… over and over again. Please, just so I don’t feel crazy, tell me you do this, too?
The aforementioned Facebook debate, of course, had everything to do with politics. For as many people who claim not to be political, it’s quite interesting how many people suddenly have such staunch opinions on it. As most Facebook dialogues go, this one appeared to have started out friendly, but somewhere in the middle a few people with opposing views jumped in. It wasn’t the fact that they had opposing views that was the problem, but the rhetoric they used to voice those views. It was hateful and hurtful with a twist of “holier than thou” type attitudes thrown in for apparent good measure. At that point, it was all over. Every ounce of civility and thoughtfulness was out the window.
As I read the entire dialogue that was taking place, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the people participating had any idea of the tone they were conveying? Surely if they knew, they wouldn’t be saying such hateful things, right? I think I was so emotionally invested in the debate because I knew both the original poster, and the dissenter, and seeing the banter between them made me hurt. I ultimately ended up deleting every response I could come up with, thinking, “Do I really want to get into this?” The answer then was clearly “no,” but at this one a.m. hour, all I could think was, “WHY didn’t I say something?! THIS is what I should have said…” And off my mind would race, coming up with something else to quibble.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Diving into a healthy debate every now and then feels good. It’s good to keep our minds sharp and our debate tactics up to par. Right? I guess it all depends.
When people are quitting social media outlets over the disgust at what they’re seeing, I think it’s safe to say something is wrong. Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed countless friends on Facebook announce they were either quitting it (Facebook, Twitter) altogether, signing off for a few weeks, or “taking a break.” My own husband deleted his Facebook account about a year ago because he was so bugged by all the political rhetoric. I’m not typically one to take extreme measures, but every now and then an absence from social media sounds refreshing. Whether you’re willing to take a break or not, there is a more civil option–an approach that just might save your involvement with future Internet battles.
If you come across a debate online you think you must participate in, consider these five tips before jumping in:
- If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it online. I know this seems rational enough. But sometimes, our better judgement gets the best of us. It’s so easy to start spewing thoughts out our fingertips and onto a screen. Social media seems so impersonal at times that we just want to get our points made and don’t always stop to think that a real person with feelings is reading it on the other end. If you’re not about to get into a heated debate with your office mate, then why would you do it on Facebook? If you wouldn’t call your neighbor a bad name to his face, then do us all a favor and don’t do it online either. Here’s a good rule of thumb I like to go by with this: pretend you’re talking to your grandma (assuming you like your grandma). If it isn’t grandma-approved, then keep your trap shut.
- Log off, turn it off, or walk away. If what’s being said makes you so fired up you can’t stop your fingers from typing out the soundbite of your lifetime, then put your phone down, step away from your computer, go somewhere else. That soundbite of a lifetime might be something that comes back to bite you or make you a few less friends. If only some political figures would follow this rule of thumb every now and then we all might be the better for it.
- Change topics. Certainly you have an opinion on more than just the topic at hand, no? Hey, I hear they’re opening up a new ice cream shop around the corner. Any takers? I read an interesting book the other day that has nothing to do with politics–you might enjoy it. So many options here . . .
- Agree to disagree. Opinions make the world go round. It isn’t possible for you or me to agree with them all. In fact, it would be a super freaky world if we all thought the same way. If you can find no way to conduct civil discourse then just agree that you aren’t going to agree and be done with it. People should be more important to us than the satisfaction of always being right.
- Sleep on it. I know… who does this? In today’s rapid response world, we are under the impression that we must respond immediately to everything. But in reality, we do not need to respond in 6.7 seconds to everything tossed our way. This is not a rule. It shouldn’t be a thing. Sometimes getting a good rest, and taking a step back can actually help things. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt so bothered by something someone said to me (or to someone else) only to go reread it the next day and realize that what they said wasn’t as harsh as I had taken it to be. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to take things personally and over-read things. But if we take a step back, you might find it’s not as bad as it seems. If nothing else, taking a night to sleep on it (or waking up at 1 a.m. to think about it) might actually help us come up with a better, more civil, response than if we responded in the heat of the moment.
It was a good thing I didn’t have my phone by my side as I was concocting responses that sleepless night or who knows how many things I would have said that I regretted. When I went back and looked at that dreadful conversation the next day, I realized it really wasn’t worth my energy. Maybe I saved someone from being disgusted with the world, or quitting Facebook, or, more important, maybe I saved a few friendships with real people who actually matter.
Former news reporter and Capitol Hill press guru, wife, mom, and pastry addict.