It seems to be happening more and more these days on social media: a conversation that starts innocently enough escalates into an acrimonious war of words. The conflict grows until it reaches a head and you “cancel” the other person, cutting them off from further interaction with you.
Efficient, perhaps, but not especially satisfying for the soul. And it’s not really an option when the person is someone you need to interact with regularly. It doesn’t have to be that way though. Here are some much better alternatives to lower the temperature in the social media crucible and help keep you from ejecting people from your social sphere (no matter how tempted you may be).
Pretend the other person is there in the room with you.
The anonymity and distance afforded by the Internet often give people license to act in ways they never would in person. Before you hit send on that post, imagine if you had to say those exact same words directly to someone sitting next to you. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it to their social media account.
Pause and reflect before responding.
If you get your Internet via fiber optic cable, then social media conflicts can literally escalate at the speed of light. When someone fires a snarky comment your way, you’re under no obligation to fire one right back. Words are written in haste often lead to regret. Suppress the urge to bat the next verbal volley back to your opponent right away. Give yourself time to cool off and collect your thoughts, then consider your words carefully before you send them.
Depersonalize your comments.
Nobody enjoys being accused or accosted. When every exchange starts with “You did this…” or “You are a ‘that’…” it sounds like an attack. Get your point across without resorting to a direct accusation. For example, instead of saying, “You’re wrong!” you can instead say, “Most people wouldn’t agree with that.” Instead of saying, “That’s a lie!” say, “That seems unlikely.” You can make the same point but avoid the bad feelings that stem from a direct, personal attack.
Avoid absolute language.
Words like “always, never, only, must” and so on convey a specific, non-negotiable meaning. There’s no wiggle room. Don’t use them unless you truly mean them. Furthermore, instead of declaring things to be true, use words like “feels” or “seems” to avoid an absolute. “You always take their side and never listen to me!” is a harsh indictment indeed, and there’s only one way to parse that sentence. Soften your approach by dropping out the absolute language. “It seems like you usually take their side, and it feels like you seldom listen to me.” It’s still a strong statement, but much of the sting has been removed by avoiding the absolutes.
Use the passive voice.
Don’t be passive in defending your position, but do employ the passive voice to take the edge off sharp comments. Language teachers admonish that the passive voice leads to weak and unclear writing. That’s not always the case. There’s a time and a place for using it, and de-escalation is one of those times. The passive voice puts the focus on the action and not on the person. “You ruined our plans when you did that,” has quite a different emphasis than “Our plans were ruined when you did that.” Take the emphasis off the offender and put it on the offense to help defuse tense situations.
A little well-placed humor goes a long way.
Are things getting a little too angry, a bit too heated? Use humor to put out the fire. A joke at the other person’s expense is risky because it may only exacerbate the situation. Use self-deprecating humor to reduce the tension by putting the joke on you. “How dare you call me a jerk! Only my mother gets to call me that! And my wife. And my friends. And my cat…”. It’s not Saturday Night Live, but it’s an eminently human gesture of conciliation. And that leads to the final point:
Be the bigger person.
It’s really easy, especially during trying times, to get caught up in emotion. Words get flung around without due consideration; people get angry; feelings get hurt. There are two parties to every transaction. If there’s to be peace between them, at least one has to make the first move. Be that person. Even if you fail in healing the hurt, you’ll be better for having made the attempt. Most arguments are over inconsequential things, not matters of life and death. If the stakes are high, stand your ground. But when the stakes are low, and they generally are, you’re not diminished if you let the other person “win”. “You’re right, what was I thinking, clearly ham and pineapple is the superior pizza. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about…”.
Social media is the blessing and the curse of the twenty-first century. For all its power and efficiency in transmitting ideas and making connections, it can just as quickly divide people as unite them.
An online argument is still just a conversation between two people. Treat it as such. The same tools and techniques that deescalate tension in person also work across the ether, and it’s within your control to make an ugly social media exchange more pleasant.
Don’t be shy to be the first to deescalate a tense situation. There are enough stresses in life without the addition of online shouting matches over inconsequential matters.