Paul Chiusano

Functional programming, UX, tech, econ

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In praise of universal warmth and kindness toward others in online discussions

[   culture   tech   ]            

A little over a month ago, I started an experiment in being “exceedingly polite” to everyone I interacted with online:

I’m not sure how serious I was about it, but I did make a conscious effort to be more “polite”. Though what does that mean exactly? Politeness is not a well-defined thing–it’s a “mere” set of social conventions. For purposes of this post, I’d like to think of politeness as dimension separate from the actual content of the communication. There’s what you are trying to say, and then there’s how it is being said. Politeness is merely addressing the how.

Sometimes, there are things that need saying that are bound to upset people (the what). But saying these things politely matters. Another way of stating it: politeness is acting in ways that are no more off-putting than necessary given what you are trying to communicate.

If you have something to say, you owe it to yourself, the other party, and most importantly the thing you are trying to convey to communicate as politely, warmly, and generously as possible. Why? Several reasons:

But importantly, showing politeness gives the other person, and anyone else observing the conversation an unobstructed view of the underlying issues, and hence the greatest chance of being influenced by what you have to say. When someone is being unpleasant or impolite, it’s unfortunately easy to not see past that to the actual points being made. In theory, mere violation of some social conventions shouldn’t justify dismissing what you have to say. In practice, seeing past these things requires conscious effort. By being polite, you are giving your ideas the greatest possible chance of being heard.

I liken this idea to the nonviolent resistance practiced by leaders like MLK and Gandhi (bear with me, here). Not fighting back appeals to the humanity of the aggressors and observers and makes it crystal clear to any reasonable person who is in the wrong. Fighting back raises ambiguities–observers now must disentangle the events that transpired, who did what first, and it becomes possible for some to claim that the aggressor was acting reasonably to deal with a difficult situation.

Likewise, being pleasant, warm, and generous in online discussions lets the other person and observers focus on the real issues and see your side clearly.

And this gets to the heart of the matter. What are our goals? Is our goal the communication and exchange of ideas? Or are we looking to vent, express frustration, feel good about ourselves, and validate our egos? If we’re being honest, does how we communicate online reflect our actual goals?

This post is my reminder to myself to reflect on these things. Especially in online communication, it’s easy to get into a mode where one communicates reactively, without taking a step back to consider what the purpose of the communication is, and whether we’re doing it in a way that’s actually consistent with our goals.

I’ll close with one more observation: writing on the web can sometimes compel people to write in a way that provokes attention (with flamebait titles, aggressive writing style, and so on) to get more readers. I plead guilty to this charge. But once your readers are there and reading, your best bet in convincing them of anything is actually a calm, well-reasoned argument rather than an angry rant.

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