In praise of politeness

HandshakeIt is no coincidence simplistic movements are finding success when our worldviews and personal relations are being shaped by chaotic and often ill-tempered online interaction. Opportunistic rabble-rousers are only too happy to ride this wave of digital bombast. The answer is a counter-wave of online civility.

There is nothing new about it. Newspaper comment sections have long been dominated by malign provocateurs, practical jokers, well-meaning jesters and truculent ranters. Twitter and Youtube also harbour bands of roving hoodlums. But even discussions in the more matey environs of online discussion boards and Facebook tend to deliver unsatisfactory results.


There is something about interacting online which seems to make us feel we should wholly agree or disagree with people, with little in-between. Is this because we completely share points of view or disagree entirely with other people when we go online? I don’t think so. Both are highly improbable since we tend not to offline. Our interests and values remain as varied and overlapping as ever.

We come out completely for or against each other so often online partly because the media we use are not up to the job of delivering anything more refined. We are by nature lazy creatures. Typing comments to each other about complex issues in a few spare moments is not the best way to build a sophisticated discourse. Being peeved or bonded with our interlocutors is a quicker fix than identifying minor differences or recognising common ground. The burning question is whether or not to hit the “like” button?

Typing messages to each other in real time is a lousy way to communicate. Writing is hard. Reading is hard too. With little time to compose or comprehend comments, with no tone of voice or facial expressions to guide us, one or two ill-chosen words are enough to sow confusion or irritation. To increase the odds of communication failures to near-certainty there is seldom a moderator to steer our online interactions, enforce turn-taking or resolve misunderstandings.

This means even the most patient and well intended is occasionally left shaking their heads about an online discussion that has mysteriously gone off the rails. The more hot-blooded might be left hopping mad or in despair. We might learn from experiences like these that we should not take anything online seriously. But, by trivialising everything that happens online, we can compound the problem. Entering discussions half-heartedly only makes it more likely they go haywire.

We might start to discuss something to relieve boredom, to crack jokes, the topic being merely a vehicle to satisfy our personal needs. Or we might want the warm glow of people agreeing with the opinion we have on it, blurring the line between an open discussion and a search for vindication. To be sure of it we could inject a newsflash about a presidential candidate’s hair.

There is nothing wrong with stepping back from serious online discussion, telling jokes or larking about. There is a valuable place for pranksters and jesters to lighten the tone. The problem is that it can often sabotage attempts at productive discussion. Mocking someone makes it less likely they will engage or alter their views. And we often rely on this willingness to reach solutions to shared problems.

A ripple of civility
So much for despair and negativity. Despite online discussion’s limits, it is surely possible to improve it and so benefit from it? We cannot simply blame it all on technology when we are behind the wheel.

Early 18th century London coffeehouse, internet chatrooms of the day
Early 18th century London coffeehouse, internet chatroom of the day.

One positive step would be to adopt a common protocol to reassure us we are aiming for the same goal and obeying the same rules. This would be like politeness, which sounds boring now but was a revolutionary way to enable discourse between diverse people in the 18th century. Just as “netiquette” has helped save us from inconveniences like spam, a ripple of online politeness could save us from serial discussion-failure.

People wanting to discuss an issue together might agree before they start, for example, that: an online discussion’s aim is to cooperatively investigate, learn and refine ideas about a topic; to be respectful of their discussion partners; to disagree only after clarifying; that no point of view is ever completely right, so to concede points as well as score them.

With clear shared principles like these online discussions would be far less likely to go into meltdown. This would mean fewer tempers would get frayed and more points of common ground could be found. We would emerge better able to express our opinions and to understand and accommodate other people’s interests and values.

Online, just as in the real world, courteous discussion has the potential to generate solutions to common problems and bring us together. We can do much ourselves by changing our approach. And can also create and support arenas designed to shed light rather than trap heat. ■

Note: At least two US web sites aim to bring greater equilibrium to online discussion, AllSides and Living Room Conversations.