As someone who talks to students, parents and others about Online Safety and Cyberbullying, I spend maybe a bit more time than the average person thinking about the Internet and Social Media. But, unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few years, my guess is that you have also had various conversations about the Internet in recent days. I’d guess that some of you have said things like “Why are people so nasty with each other online? The comments sections on Social Media have become so angry and horrible.” Sound familiar?
As a parent, knowing what the Internet is now, I do fear what it will become one day when my son is old enough to start interacting with it. But, as I’ve thought more and more about why certain people seem to completely lose their manners, I think I may have at least one idea why. At least, it explains why I have completely lost my manners from time to time.
Let me begin with a brief story. I am behind the wheel of my car a lot and have become a huge fan of audio-books. As a faithful public library patron, I peruse the audio-books section every couple of weeks. With few exceptions, I stick to memoirs and other nonfiction. A few months ago, I picked up a popular memoir that I had not yet listened to. Without giving the book away, let’s just say that it deals with the topic of motherhood. As I held the book in my hand, I said “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like this.” But, in spite of my reservations, I checked it out and eventually began listening. I told myself I’d give it a disk, maybe two, to decide if it was worth finishing.
Ugh. Within the first chapter there were countless moments of frustration, annoyance, and occasionally sheer rage that this book stirred up in me. I made it about a disk and a half through and decided I’d had enough. I returned it to the library, deeming it unworthy of a full listen.
I kid you not, the day after I returned the book, I had the chance to visit with an old friend. As we were getting caught up, she asked me if I had read THE book, the one I had just returned in disgust the day before. I told her that I just didn’t really enjoy it and hadn’t finished it. She told me some of the reasons that she really enjoyed it and encouraged me to give it a second chance. I took a breath, told her that I’d give it another shot and returned to the library, rechecked it out and began listening again.
You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Let me return to why I think I know why some people get nasty on online. Well, here it is: I don’t think that we (me included) know how to deal when we’re angry, feel really uncomfortable, when we disagree with someone, or when someone disagrees with us. Basically, we stink at working through conflict.
Fight or Flight
I think we’ve all learned at some point that when we feel a threat, our bodies respond with fight or flight impulses. Well, I believe this same response is triggered when we feel extreme discomfort or frustration, which the Internet tends to serve up in heaping piles. For me, I know that my typical gut response to situations that feel uncomfortable has been flight. Conflict isn’t exactly my thing. For example, when I started to feel angry at the author for espousing things that I wholeheartedly disagreed with, I decided, in my discomfort, to simply turn off the CD; to silence the author. For the next person, when reading through a really aggravating post, they might follow their gut reaction to jump in and start throwing punches (or angry comments, as it were) with both hands.
In the end, I have to wonder if my response to discomfort is any better than the person who chose to respond with bitter and hateful comments? As I reflect on it, I’m not sure that it is. In both instances, either turning off the annoyance or responding in hateful words, the common denominator is a refusal to listen to what the other party is saying. And, while spewing word venom definitely isn’t helpful, silencing the argument at hand ultimately isn’t an effective long-term strategy to deal with conflict, either. In the end, I think it leads to passive aggressiveness. And self-righteousness. Ulcers, too. Ugh, no thank you.
Fortunately, in my audio-book scenario at least, my story had a “happy” ending. I listened to the book. The whole thing. And, I learned a lot from both the book as well as the exercise of forcing myself to listen to it. Here are a few things that I want to share from this experience that will honestly influence how I move forward in regards to conflict and discomfort in my own life as well as how I will discuss them with my son.
Figure Out The Feeling
So, the book ruffled some of my feathers. The author and I come from very different backgrounds: socioeconomic levels, regions of the country, generations, etc. Essentially, our views on many things just clashed and the book rubbed up against some of my core beliefs about family, work, etc. since they were so different. Once I was able to figure out WHAT rubbed me so wrong, I was able to articulate WHY I was annoyed.
As I listened, recognizing my personal biases, I was able to relax a bit and just take in the author’s ideas for what they were: her ideas. She is allowed to have ideas based on her beliefs and experiences, just as I am. Once I listened to the book hearing it from her perspective, instead of dissecting it for how it differed from mine, I was able to appreciate it for what it was.
Enjoy the Ride
I would argue that most people tend to attack or jump ship at the point when the feelings of anger, discomfort, or perceived threat are ascending. If you picture a roller-coaster climbing up to the apex, roughly midway up the incline, we decide we can’t handle any more. This was the point I stopped listening to the audio-book. This might be the point someone else posts something nasty before taking a breath and realizing why they are so angry. Truthfully, I think we need to learn how to better survive (and then model) the roller-coaster of emotion. As difficult and frustrating as it can be at times, I encourage all of us to remain buckled in and ride out situations/conversations that make us uncomfortable without attacking or bailing.
As a born and bred Minnesotan, passive-aggressiveness is part of my DNA. I have to actively work on not letting myself avoid and then fume about things that really aren’t that important. Others may need to learn not to explode. But, I’ve learned that being able to come down from the gut clenching, blood boiling feeling that accompanies conflict and frustration feels great.
The End Result
Once I finished the book and reflected on it, I honestly found myself quoting it to friends and family. I definitely didn’t agree with the author on 10/10 points, but on 4/10, we were absolutely in agreement. Once I took a breath and got a little introspective, I was able to learn something. A few things, actually. More importantly, I gave someone the courtesy of listening to ideas that she had taken the time to put into a book, a courtesy I hope would be returned to me if I were in her shoes.
Bottom line: I share this story because I realize that while I often turn up my nose at people who choose to write tasteless comments on Social Media, or respond in myriad other angry ways, I can see some of the reasons behind their responses in some of my own behavior. I believe that until we are able to see ourselves in one another, we will continue to not listen to one another, especially to those with whom we believe we are just too different, and the cycle of anger will persist. I commit to, and encourage others also, to identify and work through anger and annoyance as it occurs and model to our children that fight or flight aren’t the only choices for dealing with big feelings. Sometimes, staying buckled in for the ride can bring us to unexpectedly positive places. Which is why during a recent trip to the library I checked out another book by the same author. Maybe this time we’ll line up on 5/10 points. I’m looking forward to finding out.