Recently I invited my neighbors to a volunteer fundraiser I was helping with through a neighborhood list-serve. It was a simple invitation with the hope of raising money for people in need. However, the fundraiser struck a nerve in some of the people on the list and they started challenging the purpose of the event. What I had intended to do to help others became a debate and a source of division in my own neighborhood.
As I tried not to feel too misunderstood, it struck me that we need to be as civil in online communication as we would be if we were discussing issues face-to-face with our next-door neighbor. In fact, it just may be a neighbor you are hurting, or your future employer, or the parent of a child your child plays with at school.
Then, almost as if by fate, I stumbled upon a notification from an area police department that anonymous complaints about neighbors were no longer going to be accepted online. Apparently, the police department was being overwhelmed with people complaining about their neighbors but not leaving their names, so the police had no way to verify the claims and too little time to follow up with all the complaints anyway.
I understand it is hard to get along with people. However, the greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourself still applies, even if the neighbor is not physically present. It saddens me that the distance and anonymity afforded by social media is resulting in neighbors feeling free to let it all hang out, with little regard to actually building real, human connections with people on their own street.
The power of social media does have many useful applications. Here are some guidelines for how I want to communicate using digital media:
1) Believe the best about others. It is easy to have hurt feelings from social media interactions, but most people are not trying to hurt others. If you feel misunderstood, ask the person for clarification or just let it go, trusting they weren’t meaning to offend you personally.
2) Seek first to listen and understand, then to be understood. Before you spout off your opinion, make sure you understand the other person’s viewpoint. Over 90% of communication comes through non-verbal signals, which are absent in digital communication. Misunderstandings are abundant because tone, pitch, volume, and facial expressions are missing.
3) Exit the conversation if it is going in a direction where you do not want your name attached. Just because you read something you disagree with does not mean you need to state your disagreement. Just scroll on by. You can always privately message someone if you need to clear up a misunderstanding, or actually call or meet in person.
4) Seek to encourage others, not argue. If you wouldn’t say it to a person in real life, it is probably not helpful to say it online. Most everyone needs an encouraging word. Try to be a voice of hope and encouragement rather than giving into complaints.
Relationships are hard enough when you live in the same house with people. But now, many of our relationships develop over social media. You may spend more time interacting digitally with your friends than in person. How you do that matters more than you may ever know.