Have you ever noticed how conflict can get blown out of proportion online? What may begin as a small difference of opinion, or misunderstanding, becomes a major issue very quickly. Conflict can be difficult at best of times, but what is it about online communication that seems to ignite “flaming” and make conflicts more difficult to resolve?
There are a number of reasons to explain why conflict may be heightened online. One is absence of visual and auditory cues. When we talk to someone in person, we see their facial expressions, their body language, and hear their tone of voice. Someone can say exact same thing in a number of different ways, and that usually effects how we respond.
For example, someone could shout and shake their finger at you, or they could speak gently and with kindness. They could stand up and tower over you, or they could sit down beside you. How you feel, interpret, and respond to someone’s message often depends on how they speak to you, even when it’s a difficult message to hear.
In online communications, we have no visual or auditory cues to help us to decipher intent, meaning, and tone of messenger. All we have are words on a computer screen, and how we hear those words in our head. While people who know each other have a better chance at accurately understanding each others’ meaning and intentions, even they can have arguments online that they would not have in-person.
Projections and Transference
While many people are convinced that how they read an email is only way it can be read, truth is, how we read a text, or view a work of art, often says more about ourselves than it does about message or messenger.
All of our communications, online and in real-time, are filled with projections. We perceive world through our expectations, needs, desires, fantasies, and feelings, and we project those onto other people. For example, if we expect people to be critical of us, we perceive other people’s communication as being critical - it sounds critical to us even though it may not be. We do same thing online; in fact we are more likely to project when we are online precisely because we don’t have visual or auditory cues to guide us in our interpretations. How we “hear” an email or post is how we hear it in our own heads, which may or may not reflect tone or attitude of sender.
We usually can’t know from an email or post alone whether someone is shouting, using a criticizing tone, or speaking kindly. Unless tone is clearly and carefully communicated by messenger, and/or we are very skilled at understanding text and human communication, we most likely hear voice we hear, or create in our head and react to that. This is one of reasons why controversial or potentially conflictual issues are best dealt with by using great care and explicit expressions of our tone, meaning, and intent.
Where do projections come from? They come from our life experiences - how we’ve been treated, how important figures in our lives have behaved, how we felt growing up, how we responded and coped, etc. All of us project or transfer our feelings and views of important figures in our lives onto other people.
To take a look at your own projections or transference with people online, think back to last time you felt angry at someone online. What was it about them or their email that made you so angry? What did you believe that they were doing to you or someone else? How did you react internally and externally? Was your reaction to this person (whether spoken or not) influenced by someone or something from your past? While it certainly happens that people are treated with disrespect and anger online, if there are any parallels between this experience and any of your past experiences, it’s likely that how you felt and responded was coloured by your past. When our past is involved, particularly when we are unaware of it happening, we invariably project and transfer old feelings onto present situation.
Conflict can be heightened online by what is known as “disinhibition effect”, a phenomenon that psychologist, Dr. John Suler, has written extensively about. Suler (2002) writes,
“It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. On other hand, disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats.” (Suler, 2002)
Suler (2002) explains that disinihibition effect is caused by or heightened by following features of online communication:
a) anonymity - no one knows who you are on net, and so you are free to say whatever you want without anyone knowing it’s you who said it.
b) invisibility - you don't have to worry about how you physically look or sound to other people when you say something. You don't have to worry about how others look or sound when you say something to them. “Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can slam breaks on what people are willing to express.” (Suler, 2002)
c) delayed reactions - you can say anything you think and feel without censorship at any time, including in middle of night when you’re most tired and upset, leave immediately without waiting for a response, and possibly never return - in extreme this can feel to someone like an emotional “hit and run”.
d) perception that interaction is happening in your head - with absence of visual and auditory cues you may feel as though interaction is occurring in your head. Everyone thinks all kinds of things about other people in their minds that they would never say to someone’s face - online, you can say things you’d otherwise only think.
e) neutralizing of status - in face-to-face interactions, you may be intimidated to say something to someone because of their job, authority, gender, or race. Because this is not visible to you online, you feel freer to say what ever you want to anyone.
f) your own personality style may be heightened online - for example, if your communication style tends to be reactive or angry, you may be more reactive or angry online.
Tips for Resolving Conflict Online
What can be done to prevent unnecessary conflict in cyberspace? The following are tips for handling conflict online with respect, sensitivity, and care:
Don’t respond right away
When you feel hurt or angry about an email or post, it’s best not to respond right away. You may want to write a response immediately, to get it off your chest, but don't hit send! Suler recommends waiting 24 hours before responding - sleep on it and then reread and rewrite your response next day.
Read post again later
Sometimes, your first reaction to a post is a lot about how you're feeling at time. Reading it later, and sometimes a few times, can bring a new perspective. You might even experiment by reading it with different tones (matter-of-fact, gentle, non-critical) to see if it could have been written with a different tone in mind than one you initially heard.