Where are you going?” my Uber driver enquired as we began our journey to the airport.
I told him I was on my way to the Gold Coast to attend a Christian media conference.
“Oh, that’s very interesting,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Myself, I am Muslim but I find Christian things very interesting.”
It has been said that there are three taboo topics you should never discuss in polite company: politics, sex and religion. My driver and I broke the rules by discussing all three.
It was a surprisingly easy conversation. I asked him questions about his religion and how it connected to his politics. He asked me questions about my religion, including the expectations around dating and marriage. We found common ground on some areas. We agreed to disagree on others. And although we were stuck in the crux of morning traffic, the time seemed to fly by.
When we finally arrived at the airport kerb, he seemed reluctant to say goodbye.
“I wish we could have talked longer,” he said frankly. “It’s hard to have chats like this these days. People would rather argue than have a civil conversation.”
I know what he meant.
In the olden days, perceived offences were often settled with duels. The object of the duel wasn’t necessarily to kill the other person, it was to restore honour to the winner. Duels were eventually discouraged and outlawed—too violent and bloodthirsty.
These days, if you’re looking for a fight without physical bloodshed, all you have to do is log on to the internet. You’ll find a plethora of online arguments to choose from and numerous trolls to argue with. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a couple sharing their love story can trigger a slew of salty comments.
“I try not to read the comments under online articles,” admits Rebecca, a 25-year-old from southwest Sydney. “I find myself getting really annoyed at some of the things people say and I don’t want to live with that type of negativity in my life.”
“I think it’s important to get involved in the conversation in those situations,” 43-year-old Andrew disagrees. “How can the tide change if people remain silent?”
The irony is that most of us would usually not interrupt an argument (ahem, creative discussion) between people in real life, but have no issue in doing so with strangers we’ve only encountered online.
According to a 2017 study published in Psychological Science, this is because people respond differently to opinions they read online as opposed to opinions they hear face-to-face—even if it’s via television or videochat. Research from UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago suggests that when we hear an individual explaining their opinion, we’re likely to be kinder and gentler in our responses to them, even if we don’t agree.
On the other hand, we feel detached when we read something online. We see the words on the page, but miss the tone, the intent and the person behind the comment. Unfortunately this affects how we react—even well-meaning comments can attract vitriol and hate.
Is the answer, as Rebecca suggests, to simply avoid the arguments? To be honest, this would be my natural inclination; I’m not a fan of unnecessary conflict. But Andrew has a valid point, too—we have the privilege of having a voice and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it, particularly to speak up for the voiceless in situations of injustice. We also shouldn’t be afraid of addressing potentially inflammatory topics. As the conversation between my Uber driver and me illustrates, it is possible to share different opinions and still communicate respectfully.
So for all you keyboard warriors out there, here are some tips for fighting fair—or better yet, communicating successfully—on Facebook and other online platforms.
#1. Consider the opportunity cost. Think of the time you spend on Facebook as a business investment and consider what you’re giving up to get involved in the conversation. When you think of all the other things you could be doing —family time, brunch, breathing in some fresh air or even reading this article—do you really have the time for online dialogue? The benefit of calculating the opportunity cost is that you’ll only get involved in conversations that matter.
#2. Have a point to make. Nobody gains anything from a comment saying “You’re wrong” without any explanation. Even teenagers who come home past curfew scramble for something that will sound plausible. Make sure you have a structured argument before you hit Enter.
#3. Remember that other people also have the right to an opinion. In a Guardian piece entitled “Dealing with Trolls: A Guide”, Tim Dowling observes that “there is a grey area between spirited dissent and out-and-out trolling that houses the passionately misinformed, the casually profane, schoolchildren taking the p*** and otherwise intelligent people who don’t put spaces after commas. For the sake of convenience, this group is often referred to as ‘the internet’.” Just because someone’s tone is angry, doesn’t mean their concerns or opinions aren’t just as legitimate (or more so) as yours.
#4. Ignore the actual trolls. This might seem self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised how many people out there type like they speak—without a filter. Try to ignore the provocation. They’re only trying to stir you up and distract you from the topic at hand. Don’t be afraid to use your “mute”, “block” or “report” buttons if a troll becomes abusive.
#5. Don’t be a troll. You might not be able to see the people you’re talking to, but they’re still real people with real feelings. Be kind and considerate and remember the biblical Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
#6. Know when it’s time to quit. The downside of being a keyboard warrior is that 99 per cent of the time, you won’t change anybody’s mind. Once you’ve made your point, don’t drag the conversation out unnecessarily. Remember: your time on Facebook is like a business investment. Do you really want to invest your valuable time in a ship that’s already sunk?
Have some feedback on this article? I’ll be waiting for you online . . .
Vania Chew is a Facebook pacifist and helps produce the Mums At The Table TV show and magazine.