My wife and I have a rule within our relationship — don’t go to bed angry at one another. This serves two purposes — for one it helps to ensure we actually resolve disagreements while we still remember all of the details of the situation. But it also helps prevent us from creating a snowball effect with all future disagreements.
Something we identified fairly early on in our relationship, based on experiences that both of us had observing other couples in our lives, is that unresolved issues tend to carry over into future disagreements. When you make a habit of letting things go unresolved, it can often result in all future disagreements turning into arguments, not just about the specific situation, but also about all previous situations that have yet to be resolved.
This sort of trend has dire consequences on any relationship, but especially on a marriage because there’s so many opportunities for things to flare up again. What starts with one of you innocently forgetting to empty the dishwasher and the next thing you know you’re arguing about thirty other issues that are completely unrelated to the current disagreement.
This eventually builds to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to effectively resolve any issues at all because each of you are so caught up in all of the other disagreements that it becomes difficult to focus in on one and come to a resolution.
So our rule of not going to bed upset with one-another is our way of preventing this from ever taking place. We make every effort to resolve disagreements as quickly as possible and always do so before the end of the night so we never let it grow into something bigger than necessary.
But I think this is exactly what we’re seeing with discourse online. And there’s a key component that causes it — I don’t think we are effective at attributing disagreements correctly when we’re not face-to-face — I’ll circle back to this in a bit.
Take the disagreement between Mac users and PC users, for example. If you’re a Mac user and you see someone comment in support of PCs, all of a sudden you’re coming to conclusions about what they think — even when they aren’t directly related to what they actually wrote. You’re attributing all of the disagreements that you’ve had with all PC users about that topic to that single individual.
While this may seem trivial when the topic of discussion is what computer you prefer, when this same phenomenon is extended to more contentious topics within the realm of politics, you can see where it can quickly get out of control. What starts as a simple disagreement about the risks (or lack thereof) of a large percentage of the US voting by mail, it can quickly escalate into a disagreement in which both sides are arguing past each other. You’re no longer having the same argument with one another because each person is carrying baggage of past experiences that each person is wrongly attributing to the other.
To a certain degree, I think we’ve been online long enough as a society that each of us has finally reached that tipping point. We’ve had enough disagreements with “the other side” and are now finding it increasingly difficult to resolve relatively simple disagreements — each side is so caught up in all of the other arguments they’ve had in the past that neither is able to focus in on the specifics.
But back to the face-to-face versus online interaction differences. With in-person interactions, I don’t find myself or others incorrectly attributing ideas and positions to someone based on adjacent views that they express. It does happen, but I don’t find it to be nearly as common as with interactions on the web.
I think it’s difficult for us to correctly attribute views/positions online because it’s just a sea of usernames and profile pictures that tend to blend into one another. You don’t hear someone’s voice, see their mouth move, or observe their facial expressions as they share their thoughts. And this is exacerbated with so many of our discussions taking place on Twitter and Facebook, where everyone’s words are in the same font, in the same color, with the same background as everyone else.
So what can we do about it?
To a certain extent, I think that going through this contentious time might actually be necessary. The internet is still so unbelievably young. We likely haven’t fully felt the effects that the web will have on us. We as a culture will have to adapt and adjust to this new paradigm. And that takes time. A lot more than you would expect.
But as a good starting point, publish your thoughts on your own site. Having your own unique combination of fonts, colors, backgrounds, and other design elements will help prevent your words from being lumped into the sea of usernames on Twitter and Facebook.
And when you get into disagreements online, take a step back and read what the person you’re interacting with actually said. Before you reply, consider whether you’re arguing with their words or if you’re arguing with some adjacent viewpoint that you’ve attributed to them. Choose your words carefully and be as respectful as you can.
If you notice them straying and starting to argue with a viewpoint that they’ve attributed to you, gently nudge them back to the topic at hand.
It’s not easy. And it will take time to build those habits. But I think it’s powerful to lead by example. You’d be amazed at how much of an impact you can have on those around you if you ensure that your means of debate sticks to the words that are actually spoken or written by the person you’re interacting with. And in doing so, you’re view has a stronger chance of coming across in the discussion.