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11 Causes and Cures of Hostile Online Communication

angry-computer.jpgInternet forums are wonderful sources of information; they’re also home to flame wars, trolling, arguments, misunderstandings, and incivility. If you’re like me, you visit forums to learn, grow and connect, but mining wisdom from hostile forums sometimes feels like trying to jam a camel through the eye of a needle.

If you’re looking for a way to increase the civility and productivity of your forum expeditions, I offer to you these 11 causes of electronic hostility and their accompanying cures.

1. Anonymity: Generally speaking, it’s hard to remove the mask from others, but easy to remove it from yourself. Using your real name or linking back to your business or site may help you avoid toxic conversations due to the greater sense of personal accountability. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a try for many. Obviously, use common sense with regard to privacy.

2. Misunderstandings: Have you ever been baffled by the way your words are misinterpreted? Communication is a two-way street, with the reader bringing as much to a post’s interpretation as the writer. The problem is exacerbated online because we tend to scan electronic text quickly and to read between the lines quite freely. If you find yourself in a heated debate, read carefully, avoid jumping to conclusions, and ask polite questions to clarify intent.

3. Forum Rage: As in road rage, it’s easy to focus on the vehicle instead of the human. Online, we direct our anger at the text, the argument, the insult. So easily we forget the person behind the words: inexperienced, troubled, or just having fun. Paint a sympathetic picture of your opponent whenever possible.

4. Long-Winded Responses: The longer the post, the fewer its readers. This is especially true in flame wars, where people quick-scan in a fit of rage to identify the most offensive text for rapid quotation and rebuttal. Keep your responses short; focus on your strongest argument.

5. Knee-Jerk Reaction: One of the benefits of forum communication is the time delay between point and counterpoint. We can use this time to check our tempers (and our facts) before responding to something offensive or illogical.

6. Ego Assertion: The need to assert superiority kills conversations dead in their tracks, even when such assertions are grounded in fact. If possible, avoid one-upsmanship. In the end, it’s an arms race, and no one wins, least of all the quest for knowledge.

7. Disagreeable Lead-In: One of the tricks I learned in business writing many moons ago was that bad news requires a polite lead-in. If you’re disagreeing with someone, try leading off with a compliment, social pleasantry, or illustration of common ground – which brings me to my next point.

8. Failure to Identify Common Ground: If you agree with something your opponent says, let him know. Compliment his logic. Be sincere. It’s always been a mystery to me why we’ll focus on one disagreement in a vast expanse of common ground. Common ground, after all, is a good place to build a foundation, is it not?

9. When in Rome: Every forum houses a troll or two, but some are veritable minefields of hostility.  If a forum is brimming with trolls, ask yourself: Is it worth the trouble? If it is, tailor your style to fit the forum – this doesn’t mean wallowing in the mud with the pigs, but it may mean avoiding complex arguments in the company of jokers and trolls.

10. Forum Etiquette: Creating new threads when an old one would do brings self-appointed forum police out en mass, as does posting in the wrong sub-forum or asking questions previously answered in stickies or threads accessible via search. The rule bearers would be well advised to consider the usefulness of condemnation, the rule-breakers to consider the purpose and utility of etiquette.

11. Beating a Dead Horse: If you find yourself repeating your argument in exasperation, consider walking away. Troll feeding is one volatile form of dead-horse beating, but any non-productive cycle qualifies. Stephen King once said that a common theme within his fiction is that hell is repetition. I agree – hell is repetition — and if you’ve ever been caught in a never-ending argument, you probably agree too.

Which items on this list do you struggle with? 

My personal challenge lies in #2, misunderstanding.  No matter how carefully I word a post, someone will misinterpret it.  Sometimes this is my fault, but it’s usually caused by a lack of clarification (on my part) and a tendency to read between the lines (on the part of my reader).  

It’s easy to see how it happens: a person quick-scans a post, sees something that ruffles his feathers, feels his ego rise up (his need to be understood, justified), types a response in haste (something witty, to assert his uniqueness) and then vanishes, failing to grasp the post’s main point. 

This sort of exchange involves several items from the list: misunderstanding, ego, failure to identify common ground, and knee-jerk reaction.  It’s not hard to imagine how a conversation started in such a manner can quickly degrade.    

I’ve made the same mistake myself: jumped to conclusions, carried away by ego.  And I remind myself that I control the civility of my response, even if someone started the conversation rudely.  

We may not be able to change the Net (not by ourselves, at least), but we can make our own experiences here more pleasant, trading ignorance for knowledge, hostility for peace, and rudeness for kindness: one post at a time.


28 Responses to “11 Causes and Cures of Hostile Online Communication”

  • Jason says:

    You actually made me laugh out loud with that Stephen King quote… his common (ie repeating) theme is that Hell is repetition?

    I don’t know if you actually intended that to be funny or not, but it certainly caught my funny bone.

    Oh yeah, and a good article too… effective communication always requires understanding that both sides are bringing their own prejudices and filters to bear on the message, thus seeing different pieces and parts, and conflicting on the meaning of that message.

    I wrote an article on it a while back… do you allow links to relevant content in comments?

  • JohnPlace says:

    Sure Jason, you can post your link. Feel free to give me a stumble. :)

    I wonder what Mr. King would say about our observations. :)

  • Jason says:

    Okay, here’s the link, then:

    Effective Communication

  • Mark says:

    I also find that #2 & #5 apply quite often when you reply to a thread without agreeing or disagreeing with the OP’s argument. People on both sides of the argument may react to what they *think* your opinion is even though you haven’t stated it.

    #2 & #4 are my weaknesses, I think.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Mark: Excellent observation regarding the tendency to react to a perceived opinion (as opposed to a real one). We’ve probably all done that from time to time.

    As usual, asking questions and listening (or in this case, reading) is our most powerful communication tool.

  • John Murphy says:

    A very interesting post and one that I have a lot of agreement with. As a fire only survives if there is oxygen there to keep it lit then if we starve a forum responder by not providing the oxygen to his argument then it will soon die out.

    I often see posts where it is clear that the writer hasn’t proofread their entry and their meanining is actually the opposite of what they had intended.

  • Mark says:

    I agree John, which is where #6 comes into play; being able to sit back and let someone else’s fire die even after they’ve said something which might be seen as damaging by your ego.

  • JohnPlace says:

    John Murphy: Excellent point. I agree with you about the impact of poor proofreading. Mistakes confuse things, especially online.

    During my years of useability testing Web applications, I learned that people read electronic text differently than printed text, which is one reason why such errors are so prevalent in the online world — one reason of many. Even gifted writers make such mistakes in blog entries that they’ve painstakingly proofread.

    Having said that, one can easily imagine the mess we grunts make when typing in a rush.

    I’m always grateful when someone takes the time to point out my mistakes, so I can correct –assuming the person is friendly, of course.

    I for one admire your ability to discern between a person’s meaning and his mix-up. It’s an important skill.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Good point, Mark. Good old Ego: it’s quite the pain sometimes.

  • Jason says:

    I definitely fall for number four. But I don’t really get involved in hostile online communication, because I’m only interested in conversation, not arguments. At the point it becomes hostile, it’s no longer a conversation, and I’m no longer interested.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Jason: Your impressive ability to avoid hostile conversations grants you greater latitude in this regard, methinks.

  • chabuhi says:

    Anonymity is the problem.

    There’s a well known “theory” about it, illustrated here:

    I find people are much more cordial when they can’t hide behind masks.

  • ZHereford says:

    Wow John! Excellent, well thought out article. I re-read it a couple of times. It would do some forum participants good to read it as well.

  • ZHereford says:

    p.s. One thing you didn’t mention is that some people live for a stimulating debate or an opportunity to vent, misplaced or not.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Chabuhi: Thanks for the link.

    Zhereford: Oh yes, I agree with you. In fact, some people enjoy outright trolling too.

  • Kamaxiorma says:

    hey.. just wanna say thank you

  • Choottats says:

    Good luck with the site I like the way you react to my forests diversity Wanna very nice joke?)) What do you call a drunk who works in an upholstery shop? A recovering alcoholic.

  • Mr Lurker. says:

    Yeah. The suckiest thing is that sometimes people will twist your words around to make them look better.

    I made a thread on a Disney forum called Mouse Bits cause I was very curious to the reasoning of a “dumb rule” and even though I didn’t use personal attacks about 3/4ths of the people went up in arms and twisted my words around.

    My weakness is number 4 so I gave up on that thread cause I am a newcomer there and most forums newbies are the scum. :(

    I’ll post a link to the example if you want.

  • Mr Lurker. says:

    The forum has a superiorty attitude.

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