When a neighbour sent a graphic, racist, crude cartoon stereotyping a religious community on our building WhatsApp group in the charged early days of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), I really wanted to respond calmly and maturely while letting him know that sharing this sort of material was irresponsible and unacceptable. Unfortunately, what came out was vitriol. I called him racist and communal, and did not hold back on the sarcasm and name-calling, with results that will be predictable to anyone who has been on a school/college/housing society WhatsApp group—people ganged up, talking past each other and refusing to back down, their stances getting harder and harder and the conversation becoming incoherent. Finally, unable to take it (and feeling somewhat guilty about not ignoring the offensive post in the first place), I quit the group, with the result that now I don’t get updates on the water situation in the building or notices on cat adoption.
I have thought a bit since then about how things could have gone differently. What else could I have said? Was it the substance of what I said that didn’t go down well, or the tone in which I said it? Should I have added a smiley emoji? In this issue of Lounge, as we delve into the rewarding but thorny territory of self-improvement (in my 40s, I seem to have lost an earlier disdain for “self-help” and started devouring all the sleep, mindfulness and productivity-enhancing articles that come my way), I decided to learn one thing: how to communicate better online, even with those one disagrees with. Particularly with those one disagrees with.
My friend Udhay Shankar, who has managed India’s oldest email list, Silk, for over 20 years, has a number of rules of engagement for the mailing group. Many are technical: Write in complete sentences, don’t quote entire messages while replying, stay on topic, start a new thread if the discussion goes off-topic, etc. His Rule Zero, however, is quite revolutionary in its simplicity: Assume goodwill.
It makes sense when you think about it. In an email list—or any form of social media—where most people are strangers to one another in real life and have no knowledge about the other person’s background, beliefs and values, it is easy to misunderstand tone and content. You don’t know where that person is coming from. Hence, assume goodwill. Trust that the person is not saying something maliciously or insultingly, and then respond.
“I am not sure when I explicitly made it a rule on Silk, but this has informed my thinking about online communities since the beginning. One set of experiences was from the days of the early internet, when we were on ‘bulletin board systems’ (and textual communication was even more rudimentary than it is today). The other is the writings of critic Howard Rheingold and poet John Perry Barlow on this topic,” says Shankar. This is what Rheingold, a veteran of virtual communities (a term he coined), has to say to “hosts” or moderators of online communities in his 2012 book Netsmart: How To Thrive Online: “Assume benevolence, assert trust until convinced otherwise, add knowledge, offer help, be slow to anger, apologize when wrong, politely ask for clarification, exercise patience when your temper flares.” Twitter doesn’t moderate every conversation unless tweets are reported, but the hope is that we moderate ourselves.
Columnist and podcaster Amit Varma has, over the years, developed a keen sense of the factors that derail online conversations, and one of these is sarcasm or its digital avatar, which has developed its own vocabulary and verbal shorthand—snark. “Snark always comes from a superior, condescending place. It says, ‘Look, I am too smart to discuss anything with you on equal terms, so I am going to mock you instead.’ Snark is the epitome of rudeness. Too many people do it on Twitter to get a laugh and a few retweets, and to raise their status within their own echo chamber. It poisons the discourse,” says Varma on email.
Snark can feel satisfying, sure, but it doesn’t do anything for the conversation. “Snark is only meant to signal to people who already agree with you how witty you are. It will never change the mind of anyone you are arguing with. If your purpose is to mock and not to change minds, snark is fine. But it diminishes the snarker and not the snarkee,” adds Varma.
On a new email list he runs (yes, email lists live on), Varma is diligent about applying the “no snark” rule, along with some of the basic rules of online engagement: Don’t be rude; always address the argument and not the person making it; don’t abuse, don’t question the other person’s intent, don’t look for gotcha moments. On his podcast The Seen And The Unseen, where he invites guests to talk about the obvious and hidden aspects of public policy, Varma follows the same principles, so much so that listeners have complained that he only invites people he agrees with. “Actually, I have disagreements with all my guests. Only, they are expressed in such a civil, thoughtful way that they don’t seem like disagreements to those used to the rhetorical violence of Twitter,” says Varma.
Many of these ideas and principles are not new and share a lot of DNA with “nonviolent communication” (NVC), a set of guiding rules developed by American psychologist Marshall Rosenburg in the 1960s (which in turn may have roots going back to Bertrand Russell’s theory of kindness and clear thinking, or even Stoic philosophy and its preoccupation with personal ethics). NVC is based on the assumption that “all human beings have a capacity for compassion and empathy and that people only resort to violence or behaviour harmful to others when they do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs.”
“In online conversations, it is good to be mindful of the fact that the people you disagree with also have the same needs to be understood or believed. The aim should be, ‘how do I engage without compromising on my truths and beliefs but with care and empathy for the other person?’” says Ranjitha Jeurkar, a certified trainer with The Center for Nonviolent Communication in Bengaluru who conducts workshops on NVC. The two elements of communication that often determine its outcome are openness and curiosity, says Jeurkar. “We often start by assuming the other person’s position, and by labelling them in our minds. Openness and genuine curiosity about their beliefs and why they hold them are more effective. Go deeper than ‘you are fascist’. Instead, ask questions like ‘why is this important to you?’” adds Jeurkar.
Despite the obvious benefits of assuming goodwill, it is difficult to do so on social media, where opposition to a certain viewpoint is often organized and not spontaneous. “Most political debates are not out of good faith, but are meant mainly for what is called ‘sealioning’ (a type of trolling in which a person persistently requests more information on a subject with the purpose of disconcerting the opponent, while pretending to be civil and curious)…their intention is primarily to wear you down and waste your time,” says communications consultant Karthik Srinivasan, the author of Be Social: Building Brand You Online.
Srinivasan, who has been blogging for almost 20 years and is very active on Twitter, says he makes it a point not to engage in conversations on Twitter that begin with the dreaded “quote tweet”: “When someone replies to you, it is fair to assume that they intend to have a conversation with you. But when someone quote-tweets you (or quotes you on Facebook/LinkedIn) with their views on top of yours, that primarily means they want to talk about you to their followers and audience, and you are not necessarily invited. You don’t need to engage in good faith in such cases, because if their intention was to engage they could have simply replied.”
Choosing who one engages with is important, and even Shankar qualifies his Rule Zero: “One misconception about ‘assume goodwill’ is that it means one has to ascribe goodwill to someone in all circumstances. It is only a default position—when you don’t know enough about someone. One can expand the statement to ‘Assume goodwill in the absence of evidence to the contrary’.”
“Respond, don’t react,” says Jeurkar— a simple shift in perspective that can convert a stressful environment into an empathetic one.
Armed with these tools, I am even planning to rejoin my building WhatsApp group.