About Face


I've been thinking a lot about how I interact with people. In my professional life, I’ve adopted a fairly quiet, soft-spoken, and polite persona. That’s slightly contrasted with my “real” personality, or who I am when I’m at home. I’m still unfailingly polite (I can’t help it… it’s the Iowa in me!), but I’m also quick to make an inappropriate joke or laugh loudly, and I don’t know that any of my friends and family would call me quiet! That’s the me outside of work when I’m interacting with other people face-to-face. However, it’s estimated that Americans spend half of their entire day online, with at least 30 percent of that devoted to social media. I tend to feel that I come across as a vastly different persona when I’m online, and if so, that makes me essentially a different person for half of my day.

The term keyboard warrior and the idea that someone is “much braver behind a computer screen” are concepts usually reserved for online assholes, professional trolls, or pimply-faced man-children angrily pounding away about SJWs from the comfort of their mom’s basement. But what about the less extreme examples? I definitely do not fall into either of the former categories, but I was curious to examine my behavior and see if I unconsciously interact differently with people online versus in person.  

I do spend a fair bit of time online; however, I’ve not managed to make room for a multitude of social media platforms in my life (perhaps because I’m right on the edge of what is considered a Millennial). I mainly use Facebook, where I constantly find myself engaged in deep, thought-provoking, and occasionally feisty exchanges with virtual strangers.

I’m not a fan of confrontation, and I abhor public, online disagreements. Yet I’m not one to keep my opinions to myself, particularly when it’s my opinion expressed on my personal Facebook page. I’ve done two things to ameliorate this: 1. I very rarely post anything more scandalous than cat and dog pictures on my main page, and 2. if I do post the occasional politically-charged article, it’s only shared with a select group of people who I know can be adults about the discussion. In this way, I am consciously minding my online interactions and practicing social media etiquette.

I’ve also joined a few private groups that are specifically for discussions of select topics, namely politics and religion—the two subjects one is never supposed to talk about in polite company (if you don’t count the Great Pumpkin), or so I was always taught.

These private groups have the most interesting interactions! I’ve found that, although I don’t know these people, I’m more open and honest in my communication with them than with people I interact with face-to-face at work or social functions. Without meeting in person, these individuals may seem to be nothing more than an avatar with words next to them, and I am the same to them. That’s not to say that I’m rude to them or treat them with less respect because they aren’t physically in the room with me. In fact, I feel a shared kinship with my online friends that grew more quickly than many friendships I have outside of social media. These online interactions show immense humanity and passion.

And yet, as soon as someone says something that I find particularly onerous, I don’t hesitate to reply with a verbal punch. Again, I’m not shutting down a productive conversation by yelling “Cuck!” or “Fake News,” but I have definitely noticed that I respond more pithily than I might if I had to look the person in the eye.

For example, I remember an exchange back in 2016, pre-election. Someone online suggested that, because their state has reliably gone blue for the past twenty Presidential elections, their vote wouldn’t count. I’ve heard many people say that before, and while there is an argument to be made regarding gerrymandering and the Electoral College…that’s a discussion for a different day. When people say that kind of crap to me in person, I generally nod in non-committal way and say, “Well, we should all go out and vote anyway.”

My response to this line of thinking online was “I get douche-chills every time I hear someone say their voice doesn’t matter. That’s one step away from not voting because you think it won’t make a difference. If enough people follow through on that, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So just vote, it’s not hard.”

Looking back on it, I slightly regret my choice of the phrase “douche-chills,” but only because it made my point slightly less impactful because I resorted to an ad hominem attack on the person instead of logically trying to point out why voting is so important. I would never be that snarky or abrupt with anyone in real life, regardless of how much I liked or disliked them, or how well-acquainted I was with them. I also don’t see anyone taking too kindly to a response like that in person, even if I was speaking with a solid friend who was very used to my rather direct thoughts on politics.

Surprisingly, the person I directed my online screed toward did not react with vitriol or a searing attack of their own. They had a somewhat pithy response (“Everyone should vote; it’s just that some people are stupid.”) but were not offended at what I had said. I think that, just as the space between our computer screens allowed me to speak more boldly, that same space provided a buffer that tempered their reaction. Maybe they just didn’t have time to waste getting indignant at a stranger’s opinion. Or maybe my voice was one of many and didn’t stand out to them. Whatever the reason, I definitely noticed a coarseness to my exchanges online that is not present in the real world.

Again, I’m looking at somewhat civilized online interactions. There is a big difference between my interactions with a group of people (identified by name and picture) who I interface with regularly on Facebook, compared to the trollish experiences that many have within the YouTube comments section, for example. Facebook is still a community, filled by friends and peers that I respect. I don’t “know” them as I would know a group of people in my neighborhood, or at my place of business, or even acquaintances I see occasionally out for drinks. But we still recognize certain social norms and etiquette customs—they are just observed in a way that promotes an entirely different atmosphere.

How many times have you politely smiled and nodded at whatever someone was saying to you at work about the political or social topic of the day? I’m guessing those ideas don’t reverberate through your brain for hours after. I’ve had online discussions that have really made me think, question, and do some homework on my own to look further into something. That’s never a bad thing.

About the only conclusion I can come to is that this sort of more casual politeness online makes for better conversation. I may not be an entirely different person when I’m online, but I do think I’m a more honest person. It’s a lesson I’m going to try to take with me into the real world. Think about it - when you aren’t continually policing yourself and your thoughts, you better deliver your message. And I think speaking from the heart makes people pay more attention to your words and keeps all parties more engaged in the discussion. I think we need to keep some semblance of civility in mind, and work hard to attack ideas, not people. Remember that there are actual people behind those smartphone screens. Past that, we might all do well to inject a little more passion into our words, online or elsewhere.