A friend of mine wrote an article some time ago about online conflicts/discussions and I thought it would be a good thing to have available here.
Posted with her permission, here is the full article as written.
I don't think I am the only one to notice that disagreements online can erupt spectacularly, conflicts are a fact of life on the net whether it's in a chatroom or on a forum such as this, disagreements and hurt feelings can strike almost without warning, and become personal and heated with seemingly little or no provocation.
Many times I have found myself in discussions with friends about why this might happen. Advancing theories to try to gain an understanding of what might trigger such powerful reactions. I still occasionally find myself surprised at the way flame wars can grow out of hand merely because someone has read a thread or comment in a totally different way to me, and if I am the writer of the said piece I am amazed at the way in which motivations and meanings can be twisted so far away from my intent as to be almost laughable. Yet to the person flaming or objecting my comments are indeed very real to them, and have provoked a visceral reaction.
There are a number of reasons to explain why conflict may be heightened online. One is the absence of visual and auditory cues. When we talk to someone in person, we see their facial expressions, their body language, and hear their tone of voice. Someone can say the exact same thing in a number of different ways, and that usually effects how we respond to their remarks. Calling someone a prick for example can be either a fond amused comment to a friend or a gross insult, face to face it is far easier to determine which of those meanings the word holds since one could assume a smile and fond chuckle, perhaps even an accompanying touch of the hand would clearly show no offence was intended. In online communications, we have no visual or auditory cues to help us to decipher the intent, meaning, and tone of the messenger. All we have are the words on a computer screen, and how we hear those words in our head. While people who know each other have a better chance at accurately understanding each other's meaning and intentions, even they can have arguments online that they would not have in-person. The truth is, how we read text, often says more about ourselves than it does about the message or the messenger.
All of our communications, online and in real-time, are filled with projections. We perceive the world through our expectations, needs, desires, fantasies, and feelings, and we project those onto other people. For example, if we expect people to be critical of us, we perceive other people's communication as being critical - it sounds critical to us even though it may not be. We do the same thing online; in fact we are more likely to project when we are online precisely because we don't have the visual or auditory cues to guide us in our interpretations. How we "hear" an email or post is how we hear it in our own heads, which may or may not reflect the tone or attitude of the sender.
The onus is upon the writer to try to be explicit in their choice of words and expressions to clearly communicate their tone for that posting. Using emoticons and <action> type text structures can often help to identify the writer's emotions and set the tone of the message.
Conflict can be heightened online by what is known as the "disinhibition effect", a phenomenon that psychologist, Dr. John Suler, has written extensively about. Suler writes,
"It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats." (Suler, 2002)
Suler explains that the disinihibition effect is caused by or heightened by the following features of online communication:
a ) anonymity - no one knows who you are on the net, and so you are free to say whatever you want without anyone knowing it's you who said it.
b ) invisibility - you don't have to worry about how you physically look or sound to other people when you say something. You don't have to worry about how others look or sound when you say something to them. "Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can slam the breaks on what people are willing to express." (Suler, 2002)
c ) delayed reactions - you can say anything you think and feel without censorship at any time, including in the middle of the night when you're most tired and upset, leave immediately without waiting for a response, and possibly never return - in the extreme this can feel to someone like an emotional "hit and run".
d ) the perception that the interaction is happening in your head - with the absence of visual and auditory cues you may feel as though the interaction is occurring in your head. Everyone thinks all kinds of things about other people in their minds that they would never say to someone's face - online, you can say things you'd otherwise only think.
e ) neutralizing of status - in face-to-face interactions, you may be intimidated to say something to someone because of their job, authority, gender, or race. Because this is not visible to you online, you feel freer to say what ever you want to anyone.
f ) your own personality style may be heightened online - for example, if your communication style tends to be reactive or angry, you may be more reactive or angry online.
I think anyone who has participated in an online forum will know of examples; people reading the same set of posts in very different ways and responding from how they interpreted the writers meaning even when they have been advised that their interpretation was not what the writer intended. I myself have been as guilty of this as anyone, however, in my own writings I do try thru the usage of a *laugh* or *wink* for example to clearly show my mood and tone when writing the post concerned. Those <actions> are as much a part of my meaning as the words contained in the article itself.
So how can we try to function online in forums like this or the chatrooms we visit knowing that not everyone is going to either understand or abide to these standards?
One of the ways I handle it, is to not always respond straight away, very often I will read something and have a very powerful reaction, at those times, I tend to walk away, give it some space and time before I respond. I may even ignore the main content of the article and focus upon the tone or certain phrases used and ask the writer to clarify for me his/her intentions with the way the post was written. If I have had an extreme reaction I might well write my response there and then, but on notepad rather directly in the forum. I will save it, sleep on it, reread it, see if I still feel the same and only then will I post it.
Sometimes, my first reaction to a post is a lot about how I'm feeling at the time. Reading it later, and sometimes a few times, can bring a new perspective. A friend once told me it helped her to read the post again but with different "voices" for example the comic shop geek from the Simpson's, to see if it could have been written with a different tone in mind than the one I initially heard. This one has been very effective for me *chuckles*
Discussing both the original post and my reaction to it with someone else can also help, not only could they read and interpret it very differently to me, they will be able to tell me what kind of reaction my reply triggered for them.
Another useful thing to remember is that you do not always have to respond! You may be too upset to respond in the way that you would like, or it may not be worthy of a response. If the post is accusatory or inflammatory and the person's style tends to be aggressive or bullying, the best strategy is probably to ignore them, since a response would no doubt only provoke another response from them which would no doubt be even more inflammatory. You don't lose face by choosing to ignore posts.
It's always worth trying to remember people are human, they may have had a bad day, written their post without really concentrating, it doesn't mean they have a right to take it out on you or on others, however, if the person isn't normally known for posting in that style, it might be worth, giving them a chance to modify it, before you respond to it.
Try to stick to using "I" or in other words own your own stuff; make sure you speak for yourself and not for others, don't assume that you can know with any degree of accuracy how someone else thinks or feels about the issues. I certainly don't like being told what I meant by my post, because 99.9% of the time, that is NOT what I meant or felt at all. I have no objection to someone asking me, but don't TELL me. At the same time I will add that it is more than acceptable for you to tell me how you felt on reading my post, or my tone was heard by you. That gives me an opportunity to try to clarify things for you.
I choose my words carefully and thoughtfully, particularly when I'm upset, often the person I am replying to may not read my post for some time, and they may not have an opportunity to respond to my remarks straight away, yet others will have been reading and commenting about them in their absence. I can still be real and honest while being selective, if my remarks are intended to sting, then I am usually pretty good in expressing that. This is also very much about taking responsibility for my own actions and words, if I want to wound, then I have to understand that there could well be a response, and am I seeking that and capable of handling that?
Whilst in the main I have addressed conflicts on a forum many of the techniques I find useful do make the transition to chatrooms, very often I will simply log out during a chat fight and go back when I am calmer and ask the person directly what they meant by their remarks, at other times, rather than get into the name calling instant finger flying reaction, I will sit and type out a detailed response and ignore the insults flying on screen.
Handling conflict constructively is hard at the best times, and it can be even harder online. It can take a great deal of effort, care, and thoughtfulness to address differences, tensions, and conflicts online. Paradoxically, some of the same things that contribute to heightened conflict online can contribute to peaceful resolutions as well. The Internet is an ideal place to practice communication and conflict resolution skills. Just as the absence of visual and auditory cues, the anonymity, invisibility, delayed reactions, and neutralizing of status free us to say what ever negative thing we want, they can also free us to try new, and more positive communication styles and to take all the time we need to do that. As with any new technology, the Internet can be used to enhance our personal growth and relationships, or to alienate us from each other.
It's our choice.
Article © TP 2004
I personally found a lot of truths in that and since reading and digesting I have taken some of the advice and have not had a 'serious conflict' online since. Hoep this helps someone out there