Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Avoiding arguments online

The Internet is notorious for arguments. It is obviously easier for people to argue online than face to face, because of anonymity and the reduced risk of physical violence. It is also easier for people to misunderstand each other without the useful cues of body language and tone of voice. Our culture seems to have trained us to stand up for ourselves and defend our opinions, instead of seeking to coexist harmoniously with others in a diversity of opinions and attitudes.

Here are some useful tips for avoiding getting into arguments online:

First, be honest with yourself about your own motivations for the discussion. Are you trying to prove to yourself and others that you are "right"? This sort of attitude often leads to conflict. Are you determined to defend yourself against being misunderstood? Accept that not everyone will understand you or agree with you, and it won't matter so much.

Be aware that you might have misunderstood what the other person said or meant. People express themselves in different ways, and some may not be using their native language.

It is always possible to ask for clarification before jumping to conclusions. You can ask what someone meant, politely. Try saying "Excuse me, did you mean...?". This will give the other person an opportunity to rephrase and perhaps reconsider the statement.

When you are certain you know what the other person meant to say, you should still wonder about motivations. Was it said seriously or as a joke? Was it intended to inform, express a personal opinion, or even insult?

Realize that regardless of what someone else does, the decision on how to react is completely yours. Nobody obliges you to feel offended, or to want to correct someone. Ask yourself whether and why it is important for you to be seen as being "right" by this person (and perhaps others who read the exchange).

If someone is spreading false information, you can find a reliable online link to the correct information and post that. This shows it's not just your opinion, and that you are correcting the information, not the person who made a mistake (for whatever reason). In general it is preferable to address the statements rather than make the attack personal.

If someone is trying to be offensive, you can choose not to be offended. This makes you the stronger person. You can leave the conversation, since it is unlikely to be productive in any way, or you could say something like "I understand you think those words should offend me. This shows that your motivation here is negative, and I choose not to take offence from you".

If something you say upsets someone else for whatever reason, don't get defensive. If they choose to disagree with your opinion, you can just say "I see that we don't agree, and that's OK". If they attribute to you negative motivations, you can say "I'm sorry that you were hurt by my words, that was not my intention".

It seems to me that our culture has made it less acceptable to apologize and to forgive, and I find this very sad. Apologizing is a benevolent gesture that shows you care more about having good relations with others than about "winning" or being "right". Forgiving and accepting someone's apology also show strength and compassion. 

Some useful ways to phrase things in order to avoid conflict:
"In my opinion..." (rather than implying that whatever you say is the absolute truth)
"I have heard that..." (perhaps finding a source for this claim)
"Do you know if...?" (engaging someone with a question rather than a challenge)

Finally, you can always leave a discussion before it gets ugly. You are not a parent or teacher of everyone you meet online, and you have no duty to educate or correct everyone. If the discussion is taking place on your site (blog, Facebook), you can delete it.

Of course, I am assuming here that if you are reading this you are not the sort of person who sets out deliberately to create conflict and offend people! If you are such a person, I think it would be worth finding out why you enjoy doing this and changing yourself.

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