Danger! Words Falling

Or, How to use your words and not get in a virtual punch-up.

Or, How to ask a question in a conversation without it being interpreted as defensive.

Or, How to count to three before becoming defensive and typing something you’ll regret.

Or, Use Your Words! (a refresher course for grown ups).

So many words, so many ways to use them.

Lately it seems that there’s been a spate of word wars going on – from the national level all the way down to the whispery back alleys of Facebook Messenger. Is it the weather? Do we all just need a bit of sunshine? I’m not sure.

I’ve been ruminating on the whys and wherefores, while I’ve dodged missives, and read posts about people feeling misunderstood, and found myself wondering about intent and purpose in some of the words I’ve been reading. We often talk about the new landscape we’re in, the digital world, that our kids are growing up as digital natives, while dinosaurs like me remember using a manual typewriter for some of the tasks in my first job.

I wonder if we need to form a whole new etiquette around how to interact online. Actually, I don’t wonder, I know we need it.

Rule no. 1 seems a pretty good one – Don’t be a dick.

But what about Rules 2 – 286? Who is writing those, and how do we agree on what’s acceptable and what’s not? (I know blogs are supposed to be useful, but I don’t think I’ll actually be able to tie this one neatly up before I have to get ready for work today. It’s a start though!)

What I’d like to do, with my words, is start a conversation about online civility. Eek, how totally old school is that?

Let’s start with an example around the Adam Goodes furore that’s caused a lot of heated words to be exchanged.

A blogger I like and follow was talking about this topic on her Facebook page last week. She was saying that some people react very strongly to any statements about Australia being a racist country. The observation was made that if you react strongly, it’s possible (read that word carefully) that it is because the accusation stings, that perhaps booing Goodes isn’t just about the nature of sport or ‘Australian tradition’ or whatever else you want to call it, it’s a demonstration of what is perhaps a sadly unconscious level of racism at play in the general population. I’m only using this as an example, let’s keep that in mind.

Of course, that started a long conversation with people chiming in with their points of view, myself included. Then someone else that I ‘know’ online replied to my comment, and I didn’t understand what she meant. I read and re-read her words but couldn’t work out her intent.

I knew right then that I could go one of two ways. I could get all huffity and assume (a very important word in the online world) that she was perhaps saying my response fell into the ‘she protests too much’ category – which seemed at odds with my other interactions with her – or I could ask her a question about what she’d written.

I took the latter route, asked a question, and by morning, clarification ensued! I didn’t need to be offended or start badmouthing her, or the blogger that started the conversation, I just needed to stop, think about whether the comment seemed in character and then ask a question. I hesitated before I did it, I don’t mind telling you. I did not want to get into a fight!

Have you noticed that asking a question on line is much harder than it is in real face to face, or voice to voice conversation? I have.

There’s something about typing, say, ‘What do you mean?’ that seems, well, a bit snarky or possibly rude. Toneless mediums are vastly different to the other ways we are used to communicating, and I think sometimes we forget that we can’t see the person’s face or hear the inflection in their words or read their body language, and that those things play a huge part in how we receive words. This can cause us to assume a defensive posture, when there’s absolutely no need for it.

Lightbulb moment, what if this is just me, and everyone else is happily asking questions online and getting through life merrily?? Say it isn’t so!!

I think it’s a thing though.

I reckon we don’t quite know yet, how to actually have conversations online, to have discussions and dialogues. I think we’ve become very good at tap-tap-tapping I THINK THIS. And depending on where we hang out online, it just sits out there, or other like minded people read it and hit the like button, or tap back, me too, isn’t it great!

Where I would love to grow, as an new citizen in the digital world, is in asking questions and in receiving questions without a single frown line or grimace or huffity-huff micro-response. I can manage that when I’m face to face with people (mostly), so I really think it’s a skill that’s transferrable.

Online communication, lightning fast as it is, also takes more patience and practice.

One of my major goals for I Give You The Verbs – world domination aside – is to create a genuinely interactive space, where questions are welcomed, where respectful, lively conversation goes on, where my awesome reader pals help each other out, and (politely, privately) even set me straight when I need it.

I don’t know about you, but spaces online that promote inclusive, engaged, inquisitive chat are the places I want to be.

It’s one of the big items on my check list for following a blog; how much conversation flows, how I feel when I read it and whether I think about what’s been written later on. Is that blog a good-for-me space? A space that builds me (and others) up and makes me see the world as connected rather than disconnected? Do the readers treat each other with kindness? Am I sometimes challenged by what I read? If that blog was a dinner party, would I be texting under the table, or fully engaged in the conversation around me?

I think we can all agree on Rule 1 of online etiquette: Don’t be a dick.

Anyone want to offer up rule 2, 3 or 4?

I’d love to hear what you think about online civility and asking questions.

Have you ever misunderstood someone online, or been misconstrued?

Do you ask questions online? Tell me everything!

Here’s to learning how to navigate this terrain together, and to being each other’s teachers and cheerleaders as we go.


Annette x




21 thoughts on “Danger! Words Falling

  1. Rule number 1 covers it for the most part…. But what about ‘always give the benefit of the doubt’? Or something close to that…? …invite people to clarify before responding strongly in the opposition?
    Great post Nettie. X


    • It should shouldn’t it? Sadly I think there are wildly varying definitions of what people see as being a doofus online. I think invitation to clarify should be in the top 10. Thanks!


    • Give the benefit of the doubt is HUGE I think. I think that should be rule #2!

      I adore the written word, but as you say Annette: “I reckon we don’t quite know yet, how to actually have conversations online, to have discussions and dialogues.”

      We genuinely have not figured out how to operate in such a toneless medium. And I think an excellent place to start is (after ‘don’t be a dick’) is … let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt. As you did Annette … and look, clarity ensued!


      • It did, phew! I do worry about the snark that sometimes seems ever present becoming our default position. Let’s keep pushing back with a bug dose of benefit of the doubt. Good rule!


  2. An enjoyable read Nettie! I relate to this too and that’s why I still prefer asking questions face to face rather than online. I haven’t mastered the art, so I tend to avoid.


  3. Great topic, Annette – I’ve been wondering the same. A couple of other suggested rules

    2. Before commenting, try to ‘walk around for a while in their shoes’ (and find the correct quote, too!). I TRY – before I fall into the ‘what a stupid comment – clearly written by an idiot’, I am trying to pause first and think what might be behind the comment, what experiences they might have had first. And if I respond, frame it in this way.

    3. Is this something I need to get involved in? Lots of questions I can ask myself first on this –

    Is it something that actually matters? (lots of people seem to get worked up over things that a day later will be irrelevant). Am I chiming in because, you know, I have a lot to say through my great knowledge (guilty – I have an opinion on almost everything). But will my contribution actually help anyone else to gain an understanding? Are they likely to listen, let alone change views? Am I actually concerned about their views or just trumping them with my far better arguments? All of this can cut out a lot of unnecessary angst on line, I think!

    Cheers, Helen


    • Brilliant contributions Helen, I think walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes is really powerful – usually leads us to empathy. Thanks for joining the think tank.


  4. Well said, I really don’t think most people go out of their way to be intentionally offensive, it’s mostly in perception. What I will add is if you read something that offends you then speak up and don’t go bad mouthing the blogger in private groups. That right there is bullying. Send a message or speak up but don’t be a nasty pastie. Sometimes we need to look within first and work out why we feel the way we do about the words.


    • Yes!! I couldn’t agree more Jenni. That’s totally uncool, if you don’t have the courage to go back to the source, just let it go. Great contribution. Thanks lady!


  5. This is just so relevant and true. The online world holds a whole set of different (unspoken) rules and I think it is important that we somehow teach our children from the start what these are. But it is hard to put it into words. Rule 2 – if all else fails, follow rule 1!


  6. I’ve seen & like the THINK acronym: ask if my words are True? Helpful? Informative? Necessary? Kind? Hopefully this is working for me!!


  7. Hi Annette,
    Not sure how but I missed this post. Very glad I scanned back and found it.
    Lately I to having been thinking about online discussions. In the real world a conversation goes back and forth. This helps clarify people’s conversation and even modifies thought as you learn more about the topic. Online discussion seems to be more like throwing a question out there and readers tossing back a comment.
    Over the past few months I have been ticking the “notify me of follow-up comments by email box” for many blogs when I commented. It has meant that I have to manage my inbox additional emails however has created some much more interesting conversations.

    Keep up the great writing and sharing of you thoughts , Fran


    • I often go back to blogs I’ve commented on to read the conversations Fran, sometimes that’s where the real meat is. Online chat is still a new realm, but I think we are finding our way.
      Rule no. 1 is key!


  8. In a space where relationships are often formed by shared points of view, I wonder if it is too hard for some people to open themselves up to an alternative view.
    Rule #4 never enter a discussion without the willingness to have your mind changed.


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