How to Not Be a Jerk on Facebook (and Real Life)
Incivility is everywhere online. Even just now as I was doing some research on the conversation about coronavirus on Twitter I read a number of posts that I wouldn’t have written because they’re rude. But what I deem uncivil may not be the same as what you deem as uncivil. And despite my aversion to incivility in general, sometimes it’s both necessary and crucial to enact change.
Who Wants a Squeaky Clean Internet?
Consider this question: “What would a sanitized space look like online?”
Honestly, it would probably be less interesting. Even though it may get us heated and riled up at times, we can all admit to laughing at something dumb someone said online. Just the other day a friend of mine showed me a message board where people were complaining about how awful Nissan (car company) is. The complaint directed toward the motor company went like this: “NMC’s attempt to leverage their size and importance (as is the Asian way) will not be tolerated.” “As is the Asian way”? We got a pretty good laugh out of that. This person’s attempt at being racist was just laughable.
But going back to the essentials, what does incivility online even look like? For everyone, that answer is going to be slightly different because everyone is offended by different things. And again, is incivility even all bad? The answer is that it really depends of the context and who you are.
If you’re conflict avoidant (like myself—for the most part) or high in agreeableness (also me), then you’re probably going to have a harder time with incivility online. (This probably explains why I would even write a blog post like this.)
Your group identity might also dictate your reaction. The Nissan “Asian way” example didn’t elicit a strong negative reaction for me because 1) my friend saw it as laughable and idiotic (thus framing me to think the same way, and 2) it was contextualized in a forum that seemed to cater to Internet trolls and people with lower Internet literacy (i.e., who may take what they read about the issue at face value without questioning its validity). But it’s possible that other Asians would find this phrase extremely degrading and feel hurt by the statement.
But even in this example, you can see the two sides of incivility online. On the one hand, the writer of that “Asian way” comment was commenting on his perceptions of Nissan Motor Co. as an unfair, malicious company. He was in a sense trying to use his words to make social change by encouraging others to, like him, boycott the company. On the other hand, he was also possibly inflicting pain on other Asian readers.
In other situations, incivility online has been used to give a voice to marginalized populations, such as people of color, indigenous groups, and women. Chen et al. (2019) went as far as to say that “incivility may actually be required for [marginalized] groups to be heard.”
So what exactly is the incivility sweet spot? Is that even possible? How do we keep people accountable for their actions?
Reducing Incivility Online
Once I learned that incivility is actually necessary, my opinion on it is far more fluid because my value of equality outweighs my desire to avoid conflict.
But if you yourself want to reduce your own incivility online, here are some research-based things you can do:
- Use platforms that require the use of your real name in comment sections
- Use platforms that allow reward systems and moderation (such as the up votes and down votes features and moderators on Reddit)
Sorry, that’s all I got for now. But you can easily see how these things might help you be more civil online (I mean, if that’s important to you). The idea that other people, such as future employers, could judge you based on some uncivil remark you made on a news story could encourage you to think of what you have to say in nicer terms.
On the other hand, we all know that these things don’t stop everyone, so it is what it is.
How to Not be a Jerk: Finding Common Ground
You know the saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all?” Well, that’s probably not the most helpful advice. When you think about people with good communication skills, you probably think about those who can speak what’s on their mind in a constructive way.
They key to keeping things somewhat civil and opening up a dialogue about controversial issues is finding common ground.
Many of us are more alike than we think. We probably have a number of values in common. Think about those. We may approach the solving of certain issues differently, but they can usually be based on a similar value. In the issue of immigration in the U.S., some people want to restrict immigration for the safety of Americans whereas others want to open up immigration for the safety of those who are seeking asylum in the U.S. Both groups value human safety, but they go about it differently.
So, next time you see something online that angers you, wait a beat before attacking. Or, if you want to express your angry opinion, take a couple of breaths. Ask yourself where the anger is coming from. Ask yourself what factors may influence someone to believe what they believe. In a sense, “listen” to what the other person has to say.
Then speak your peace with an open understanding. You may ask a question of clarification. You may say, “What personal circumstances do you think led you to this opinion?” You can understand where someone is coming from and still disagree with them.
No matter how persuasive you may be, you probably won’t change the opinion of someone else with your equally angry opinion. Your anger will probably put others on the defensive, further increasing the polarization between you and those of the opposite opinion.
So instead of being a jerk and regretting it later, try finding common ground and understanding.
But of course, also keep voicing what you believe to be is right, and keep fighting for change. Calling your racist uncle a racist probably won’t change his or anyone else’s opinion though. So perhaps try to enact change in a different way That may mean you contact your state officials, you join a lobbying group that supports your issues, or you donate to good causes (like the Equal Justice Initiative).
Whatever you do, just keep it civil—or don’t depending on who you are and why you’re doing it. But in general, just be nice and remember to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.