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Dear Paul, Negative comment on Social Media leaves Reader Wondering How to Respond.

Paul Kiernan

Social media has become a world of living large and picking fights. No more can someone have an opinion and then expect the opinion to be accepted or argued with grace, intelligence, and humanity.

Dear Paul,

I am not one to put myself out there, but recently I read a social media post, and I was moved to write one of my own with my thoughts and views on the subject. I wrote it, put it online, and forgot about it. Then, many weeks later, someone made a comment it was rude, aggressive, mean, and ugly. I felt terrible. A friend of mine told me that I had to respond to fight back and put this person in their place. I don’t think that’s the right course of action. What do you think, respond or let it go?


Bruised online

a bruised banana on a yellow background

Dear Bruised,

Yes, welcome to social media, the most anti-social world known to man. I understand how you feel and why you’re bruised. Social media has become a world of living large and picking fights. No more can someone have an opinion and then expect the opinion to be accepted or argued with grace, intelligence, and humanity. It’s pretty much kill or be killed, and the saddest part is that the killing is done anonymously from behind computer screens. This anonymity builds a false sense of security; those commenting with harsh negatives feel free to do so because they believe no one can get to them. They are secure in their cowardice.

The best advice I can give is just to walk away, don’t engage, and save yourself some sanity. But I know how it is; you don’t want to allow some hate-monger to have the final word; you want to put him in his place; the pull is strong in that direction. If you can avoid the pull, that’s your best bet, don’t engage with haters.

I say that for a few reasons. One, and the most important one, is that you’ll never change their minds. People who respond to social media posts with vitriol are not ones to have deep inner thoughts and come to a different conclusion. These folks have just an ugly glut of hate, and nothing will change that. And, the truth is, most of the hate spewers are doing it to get a rise out of you. It seems to be the prevailing drive these days, own the libs, own the conservatives, own the neo-cons. So, if the goal is to ‘own’ some portion of society, that is played out by getting into an argument and insulting you and your views until you give up. Then, I guess, you’re owned.

If your desire to respond is just too strong and you feel you must reply, then proceed with caution. Here are a few tips.

Ask questions, but not rhetorical questions. Try to get to the root of their complaint and ask them questions. Try to get them to be specific and back up their thoughts with facts. Now, I can bet you’re going to be very frustrated here because most of the hate comes from conspiracy theories and just pure anger. What you’re dealing with is an emotional attack, not an intellectual one. So, trying to use intellect to deal with emotion, you’re dealing with essentially two different languages. Asking questions can bring you to an even ground where emotion and intellect can work together.

Listen. This one is hard because those trading in conspiracy theories are pretty focused, and what they say can be twisted and frustrating, which means you’ll have to listen harder. You’ll need to actively listen and be specific with what you’re listening for. Listen for where you and the commenter have shared views and use that to prove you’re not too different and maybe you can break down some barriers and make a better connection.

Do not take it personally, ever. It’s easy to fall into ‘why does this person hate me?” mode, and then you’re going to fight to be liked, which will open you up to more abuse. It’s not personal; even if they attack your opinion, it’s not personal; they don’t know you. You’re using words that upset them, forcing them to rethink their position, which is hard, so they lash out. The more you fight the desire to make it personal, the better you’ll be able to stay neutral and pursue intellectual arguments rather than emotional attacks. Also, if you don’t make it personal, you’ll be less likely to send personal attacks the other way. Once you give in and start attacking the commenter personally, you’ve opened up a strange new world of abuse. That’s a world you don’t need ot be a part of.

Respond to anger with love. That one sounds like I have returned to the 60s and joined a drum circle, but it’s a good plan. The thing is, you have no idea where the hate comes from. This person could have had a horrible experience or experiences in their life, or they may have strong negative emotional connections to the subject, making them angry. They could be hurt or working through something, so getting in a shouting match, metaphorically, online, isn’t going to do either of you any good. That’s why really listening and asking questions can be helpful. If you’re trying to understand and not just looking for fodder for your cannon, then asking questions and genuinely listening to the answers will get you closer to understanding.

Be kind. Just because you’re met with anger doesn’t mean you have permission ot be cruel. Face the anger with kindness and understanding. The country is divided right now, and that is due to the fact that everyone is talking and people have stopped listening. People are yelling, throwing anger and hate about, and making quick and negative assumptions about people, which is not helping. We need to listen more, and that’s not easy, especially when what we’re hearing is so hostile and sometimes personally abusive.

And the most important thing to consider is why. Why would you respond to this person if all they offer is negativity and hate? Think about your why. If you respond, they will react, and they will up their hatred game once they feel that they’ve “owned” you. So make sure the argument, the response, and the impending back and forth are worth it. Ask yourself what you wish to accomplish, and then take a serious look at the situation and be honest. Will you be able to achieve your goal, or will it lead to more abuse? Chances are that you’re not going to change the mind of anyone who anonymously attacks you; they aren’t really championing an idea; they are trolling for weakness and easily triggered people. Don’t play into that.

When commenting online, to save yourself, it’s best to think of your comments are gifts you’re leaving for people; how they accept the gift and what they do with it is not up to you. You’ve done your part, you’ve offered your opinion, and you owe no more. Like any gift, once you’ve given it, your part of the exchange is done; anything after is up to you. You can engage, or you can just walk away. In this current climate, walking away will probably save you a great deal of frustration and hurt.

I hope that helps.

If you have a question or a problem that you think Paul can help with, drop him a line at paulk@thoughtlab.com. He’ll try to answer. Which may or may not be a good thing.