Understanding Etiquette Part Three: Online Etiquette

Welcome back to Understanding Etiquette – the series where we get to grips with the customary codes of polite behavior, and how to abide by them.

In the past two editions of this series, we talked about the etiquette of face-to-face conversation, how to make a good first impression and the way to approach difficult subjects like politics and religion.

But, in this day and age, online conversation is often as pervasive as its face-to-face counterpart. And, when you’re not speaking directly to another person, but mediated via a screen, a whole load of new issues crop up.

As we all know, online conversation spaces can be volatile. Between the trolls and s—tposters, the uncompromising ideologues and petulant politicos, it sometimes feels like the concept of etiquette has gone to hell in a hand basket.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. Surprising as it might sound, it is possible to have civil conversations in online spaces. And, doing so often comes down to adhering to the tried-and-tested rules of etiquette you’d use in the real world.

If you’re sick of flame wars and crave real, meaningful and gentlemanly conversation on the internet, then check out the advice below.

Remember that you’re talking to human beings:

Online anonymity is a strange thing. When you’re not face-to-face with a person, but an avatar or a user name, it has a big impact on how you behave. In no small part, that’s because the person on the other side of the screen ceases, in our minds at least, to be human being.

But, that’s a huge problem when it comes to behaving like a gentleman online. Remove that human element, and we feel positively uninhibited when commenting on forums, articles or social media.

The notion of “hurting someone’s feelings” goes completely out the window. Without that consequence, people get mean, hurl insults and say things that would never fly in polite conversation.

That’s in no small part why things get out of hand in online conversation so quickly. When you get a whole group of people disconnected from one another, not viewing each other as human beings, then things get volatile fast.

If you want to change that, you need to remember that you’re not interacting with robots. These are people you’re talking to, so treat them as such. They might not always respond in kind, but you’re just going to have to take that on the chin, be a better man and not rise to it.

Ask yourself: “would you say it in real life?”

Ok, so far so good, but what should writing like you’re talking to a human being look like? Honestly, not that dissimilar from what it’s like when you talk to people in person.

If you’ve not read it already, we’d recommend checking out the first two articles in this series on conversation etiquette (LINKS HERE). Because, when it comes to interacting online, those same rules broadly apply.

A good rule of thumb when positing on forums, social media etc. – especially if you have reservations about the tone or content of the post – is to run it through the advice laid out in those articles. Does it fit the criteria? Or does it fall short?

If what you’ve written in that response box is something you’d never say to someone in real life, consider very carefully whether you want to post it online. Chances are, it’ll go down about as well in cyberspace as it would at a real world social gathering.

Pause before you post:

As we’ve already noted, it’s easy for online discussions to get heated. Someone says something that rubs you up the wrong way, something that you vehemently disagree with, or something that goes against your core values. The instant response is to write a response that either:

  1. In no uncertain terms shows them that you’re the intellectual superior and that their point is garbage.
  2. Tells them that they’re a terrible person and that you have the moral high ground.

So you jump straight in, rage post, and feel vindicated… until your online nemesis posts their expletive filled response and the process starts all over again.

To avoid getting stuck in these cycles, it’s important that you think before you post. If you’re getting riled up during an online discussion, take a step back and assess whether the manner in which you’re posting is exacerbating the situation. If the answer is “yes,” then try a different approach.

Oh, and remember that, even though you’re passionate about the subject you’re talking about, this is just a discussion on the internet. Proving your point to a bunch of random people in the comments section isn’t going to change the world.

On a related note, if you are a truly passionate individual who really does want to change the world, put your energy into activism, community work or something else that will have a real world impact. You’ll find your desire to rage on the internet significantly diminishes if you do.

If in doubt, walk away:

Returning to a point we made in Part 2 – on politics and religion – ask yourself what’s prompted you to respond in the first place. Are you genuinely interested in understanding someone else’s point of view? Do you have something constructive to add to the conversation? Or are you diving headfirst into this discussion because you want to prove you’re right?

If the answer is point three, then walk away from the computer, make yourself a hot drink and go for a walk. Jumping into this online discussion is a waste of your time and will not get you anywhere.

Likewise, if you respond to a post cordially, politely and with a genuine desire to understand, but get a barrage of abuse from the other poster(s), don’t rise to the situation. If someone’s behaving like a petulant teenager (and remember, as we pointed out earlier, they might actually be a petulant teenager), you’re not going to get through to him or her, so don’t waste your energy trying. Walk away, move on and find a space where genuine conversation is valued.

That’s it for this week’s edition. Make sure you join us next time, when we’ll be talking about the correct approach to written correspondence; from letters of sympathy to winning business e-mails.