Social media can be a great way to, well, be social. It allows you to connect, to stay in touch, and create a larger community. It can work well, especially when connecting with people you already know, such as family and friends that live far away. This is a wonderful innovation.
But, I believe that in many cases, social media dehumanizes human interaction, especially when you don’t know the other person. Real human interaction consists of not only words, but sights, sounds, smells, gestures, facial expressions, tone and inflection, body language and more. And these interactions happen in real-time. You have the ability to ask a question or to reply to one. You can nod to indicate understanding or furl your brow to express confusion. The other person can pick up on these things while you’re talking. Hopefully all this interaction leads each of you to better understand the other.
But, when you don’t know the person on the other end of a social media interaction, that person can seem to simply be the set of words they wrote or a profile picture instead of a human being. It’s sometimes too easy to think of those words or that picture as the complete representation of the person, because you don’t really know them. It then becomes much easier to label them and put them in a box.
When you get a reply to a post on social media from someone you don’t know, and it agrees with you, you’re more likely to label this person as “smart.” And when the reply doesn’t agree, perhaps that person is labeled as “stupid.” Or maybe worse. Without really knowing the person, we more easily take what we see and use it to define them. This can lead to some pretty bad interactions and “mob mentality” which can turn ugly very quickly.
How can we make this better? While I’m not naïve enough to think I have an answer that will solve all of these issues, I do have a couple suggestions that might help.
Long ago, I read the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. Now, I don’t normally buy into these types of “self help” books as they often over-simplify things or are far too narrow in their approach. This book has some of that, too, and I don’t agree with everything it suggests. But I did get a lot out of reading it. The habit from the book that has always stood out the most for me is:
Seek first to understand, then be understood.
If you truly seek to understand someone, then it’s your responsibility to do what is necessary to gain that understanding. You’ll ask questions, you’ll try to empathize with their point of view, and you’ll listen. Really listen.
Once you really understand where someone is coming from, it is so much easier to have a discussion. If you put yourself in their shoes, you can more easily see why they might believe the opposite of what you believe. Maybe you’ll see that their life experience has been different. Maybe you’ll see that they are just a human being with hopes, dreams, and fears. Just like you. Only different.
How does this translate into better interactions on social media? Well, it’s difficult. As I’ve pointed out (and you know), there’s not a lot of “human” interaction possible via social media. But, you can try. Here are a couple ideas:
- Start with The Most Respectful Interpretation. That is, assume the other person has the best intentions and has a reason for their post. I know that many people resort to name-calling, foul language and the like. Even then, give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are really scared about something. Maybe they are going through the most difficult time of their life. If you think about it that way, then maybe you can be a little forgiving and move to step 2:
- Seek to Understand. Try to learn more. Ask them questions. Really try to understand their point of view. Be respectful even if they are not. Do this before trying to get your points across.
- Try to be understood. Respectfully and thoughtfully describe your point of view, your desires or fears, your solutions. If you’ve really embraced #2, then you might see a way to relate your opposing view to theirs that you never would have if you hadn’t understood first.
- Don’t get discouraged.
Look, I get that this isn’t a perfect solution. And I understand that a lot of people will just want to continue trolling or being obnoxious for whatever reason. And I’m not perfect at this either. I sometimes read something inflammatory and react poorly. But we can all try.
Look at it this way. Say that only 20% of the interactions you have this way lead to a better outcome. You will have learned something, and the other people will have learned something from you. You both will have expanded your views.
Or, put another way: if one million people use this approach, and get the 20% outcome, then those two hundred thousand people will probably try the same approach on their “others.” The more people that try can cause a cascading effect.
Will this make all the divisiveness and anger go a way? No. Will it help? I think so. Will everyone agree with each other? Of course not. But, if we learn more about other views, we can at least agree to disagree and try to come to a compromise and better understanding.
I am often told that I’m too optimistic, in many things. This is probably one of them. But I truly believe that if just one person better understands someone else and that causes them both to expand their world-view, then it was worth writing this post.