Trolls. These are the posters on social media, blogs and elsewhere online, who feel free to express their most vile, insulting, obscene, and/or hurtful thoughts. It just happened to teenage baseball wiz Mo’ne Davis. (Do a search for the story.) Some idiot from a college called her a slut. Inappropriate to say the least. He didn’t know her. So what caused him to think anyone would be interested in this type of opinion?
It’s known as the online dis-inhibition effect and it has resulted from our continuing preference for communicating in writing, particularly when the poster can remain anonymous (though not in this case). There is a significantly lower level of inhibition vs. communicating face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice). Online, people don’t watch what they say. In this case, the poster was expelled from his university. But often, there are no consequences. We’re all victimized by this type of thing from time to time. But are we the victimizers, too?
When we are communicating via written means (text, email, etc.), we are more likely to express ourselves inappropriately. We more easily say things while sitting alone at the keyboard that we would never say face-to-face. We are less restrained and controlled. These are the types of communications we might even decide to let go, leave unmentioned or, at the very least, state more diplomatically.
I first noticed and started to write about this phenomenon several years ago with my kids, who seemed able to be very frank with friends and others when text messaging. At first, I admired that they could and would say what they really felt. I thought it was refreshing. As a regular cheerleader for directness in communication, I could not imagine how this could be a bad thing — until one of them broke up with a boyfriend via text message. That was my wake-up call. For the important stuff, face-to-face has tremendous advantages. (I’m not saying that two 16-year-olds breaking up is that important; it is, however, practice for dealing with future conflicts.)
When we communicate facing another person, a cascade of nonverbal signals that can be very subtle constantly cues us. The flick of an eyebrow, the twitch of a mouth are only two among many other signs we read and consider. They occur in fractions of seconds and we are barely conscious of them, but we do read and consider them and they influence our responses. Our empathy centers are activated and we work to ensure the communication stays on track, even goes well.
And empathy is key. In my speeches and writings, I identify it as one of three critical communication skills (the other two are apology and courtesy. When we are alone, typing, there is an absence of information that we instinctively respond to when we are in another’s presence. We hit send before we think better of it. This creates problems. I see it with my clients all the time and I experience it myself both in email exchanges and in rude and gratuitous comments to my blogs and on social media. It is a major component of cyber-bullying of young people.
It is just too easy to hit that send button. I know we live in a frenetic, sometimes frantic world, but it’s important to take a step back. So follow this rule: if you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it in writing.
By the way, Mo’ne Davis asked that the offender be reinstated.