One Saturday afternoon I checked my texts and emails to find a message that couldn’t have been better engineered to evoke social anxiety!
It informed me that:
• Things were being said on a private social media platform I’m not on.
• People were being misled and getting caught up in drama.
• I was involved.
• It was my job to get filled in on what was being said to help correct things.
I haven’t completely abandoned the Facebook account that was a go-to strategy for authors before Facebook changed the algorithm. But, Jon Ronson’s cautionary book So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed alerted me early on that my sense of humor (deadpan/ironic) didn’t travel well online, even with winking emojis. It’s why I have always taken great care to avoid being controversial with my online posts.
In an NPR interview with Steve Inskeep, Ronson shares the consequences of an innocent jest gone wrong.
Hank was in the audience at a tech conference when he whispered a “Beavis & Butthead”-type joke to his friend about big dongles.
(This is exactly the kind of lame joke I might attempt.)
Adria, a woman sitting in front of him turned around and took a photograph. Ten minutes later, Hank was called into an office and told that there had been a complaint about sexual comments. He apologized, and that was that.
But Adria had communicated her complaint to the conference organizers in the form of a public tweet. She published her photograph of Hank and his friend on twitter.com saying, “Not cool, jokes about big dongles right behind me.”
The next day, Hank was fired, and he posted a message saying “I was fired today. I’m sorry for what I did, and I’m sorry that my comments upset Adria. But I was let go from work today, and I’ve got three children, and she just turned around and smiled and sealed my fate.”
Internet trolls decided to involve themselves in this story. People were saying a father of three is out of a job because of some innocuous comment overheard by this woman with more power than sense. Let’s crucify her.
Adria was inundated with death threats. Every aspect of her life was being discussed by strangers. Her company’s servers were attacked. And she was fired from her job.
Which Joke Did I Tell?
In my case, the message didn’t specify which irreverent statement I’d made had been deemed offensive, or by whom.
Based on the identity of the person who sent it, I knew that the drama was related to one of my social circles, not my livelihood.
Since the social media platform was private, I knew that damage to my reputation would be restricted to that group. If I needed to, I could leave the group and hang out with other people.
Reason vs. Emotion
Despite the modern, reasoning part of my brain reassuring me that everything would be okay, the ancient (fight or flight) part of my brain feared expulsion from the tribe. My reason gave me every reason to be calm. My body was scared to death.
The next day, my partner and I drove out to a suburban store to find a dedicated task light for her knitting and take a hike through a natural area we’d never visited.
During the hike, every cue from my external environment was soothingly pastoral. But something my stomach was still clenched. Whenever I recognized this, I started laughing to myself.
“What’s so funny?” my partner asked.
“Social media,” I said.
“Just opt out,” she said. She’s not even on Facebook.
Forgive and Forget
In Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan offers some reasons to forgive and forget emotional text communications and online posts.
When we talk to another person face-to-face, most of the emotions we communicate with each other are done nonverbally, usually with our facial expressions, tone of voice, postures, and gestures.
When the brain receives insufficient data about others’ feelings, it just makes stuff up. The brain makes assumptions about the emotional context of the message and then fabricates the missing information accordingly. It does not just fabricate information, however. It also automatically believes those fabrications to be true. Worse still, those fabrications usually have a strong negative bias—we usually assume people to have more negative intentions than they actually do.
Ten Minute Exercise
Though my deadpan humor will continue to get me in trouble in real life, this Mindful Emailing exercise adapted from Search Inside Yourself is more effective than a winking emoji at keeping me from screwing up via text and social media posts.
1. Begin by taking one conscious breath. If this is a particularly sensitive situation, calm your mind by paying attention to your breathing, noting whether it’s peaceful or agitated. If there is tension, try some slow, conscious walking meditation to ground yourself in the body.
2. Mindfully reflect that on the receiving end, there are one or more human beings. Human beings just like you. If this is a particularly difficult situation, it may be useful to visualize the receiver or receivers in your mind and to engage in a few minutes recalling that just like you they want to be happy, just like you they don’t want suffering or stress. Take a moment to cultivate friendly intentions toward them. May you be well in body thoughts and feelings. May you face and cope with life’s inevitable stresses. May you work productively to benefit yourself and others. May your actions contribute to your community.
3. Write your e-mail.
4. Before sending, mindfully reflect on the insight that if the emotional context of your message is unclear, the receiver’s brain will just make something up that is likely more negative than you intended. Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes, pretend you know nothing about the sender’s (your) emotional context, pretend also that you have a negative bias, and read your e-mail. Revise your e-mail if necessary.
5. Take one conscious breath before pressing Send. If this is a particularly delicate situation—for example if you are writing an angry e-mail to your boss or your subordinate—take three slow, conscious breaths before pressing Send. Feel free to change your mind about pressing Send. Ask yourself whether this information would be better conveyed in a face to face meeting, over video conferencing, or a phone call.
This ten-second reality check offers additional tips for our texting and social media posting age.