What does it mean to be kind? Is it possible to come to a shared understanding of what kindness online would be like, feel like and look like? That has been a question that has been in our mind as we started this campaign.
I am 46 years old and I was already a postgraduate student when I bought my first modem. Back then the internet was a place where a few computer geeks and academics (or both like me) interacted via bulletin boards where we would post something and wait days or a week for an answer. The internet was great for people who mainly interacted in the world of ideas and some of the social awkwardness that we experienced IRL was mitigated by the computerised environment.
Although my Dad worked creating computer systems, the technology we have now was beyond my parent’s imaginings. My parents encouraged me to take keyboard/typing at school because they could see it would be important for my future that was likely to be computer based. But they didn’t think to teach me how to interact online – how to live a life where we connect via technology rather than face to face. My parents are kind-hearted people and were often doing things to help others, but interactions were still often about rules of politeness. The rules that they learnt, that they taught me smoothed interactions, and helped people get along. Although the rules didn’t help everything that needed to be said to be aired. Eventually, it became clear that some of these rules were old-fashioned, culturally and socio-economically bound.
We are not taught how to interact well online, we are in a new technologically based world that hasn’t existed before. The rules of politeness no longer seem to be relevant, and we are left without a framework of what kind, good, considerate interactions look like.
I would like to propose four key foundations that may help us understand what considerate interactions look like.
Allow For Learning
In some ways, the internet is a huge big learning space because none of us were taught how to interact online. We are all learning how to put our ideas across, we are learning how to interact wisely with others. No matter our intentions we will make mistakes (especially when we are trying to reduce things down to 140 characters). It is ok to make mistakes, we don’t have to be perfect all the time even if we are a ‘public’ persona. We need to be a bit more generous and forgiving of people that get things wrong in an online interaction. Especially people who are open enough to apologise or edit their mistake when it is pointed out to them. We learn from making mistakes, we need to give people space to grow and to learn from our difference and challenges.
Considerate interactions generously give people the space to learn.
My Normal Is Not Your Normal
I used to train people to live and work cross-culturally. My starting point for this was to help them realise that their normal was not everyone else’s normal. We have so many assumptions and expectations that are based on who we are and our experiences and preferences, and personality. Often we expect that someone else feels or experiences things in the same way that we do. We may expect others to find the same things funny that we do. If we are not hurt easily we might expect that others are not hurt easily. But that is not the case, we are all very different. A step to kindness may be being able to step beyond our expectations and allow others to be different to ourselves. That means that other people get to name when they feel hurt by a comment and we respect and acknowledge that because we recognise that their normal is not our normal.
Considerate interactions allow people to have different settings to us.
Passionate Diversity Is A Good Thing
In the old days debates used to be conducted formally with set rules like whose turn it was to speak. We also used to have disagreements with our friends or neighbours. The disagreements contained in a wider relationship. We were able to contain a difference of opinion in election year because we remembered that they brought us dinner when we were sick. Now however, we have the opportunity to interact with complete strangers. In some ways the disagreement is the only thing that draws us together. There seem to be no rules and no other aspects to an interaction other than the disagreement. As our world becomes more diverse we seek to affirm our normality and we actually protect ourselves from experiencing diversity. We become less experienced at disagreeing and debating well. This is coupled with a tolerance mentality where it seems the latest PC concept is that we are meant to tolerate difference of opinion without trying to persuade others to agree with us. This must be making it very hard for politicians in this election year. I am not sure how we hold all this together, and debate ideas robustly and create open minds to let others try and persuade us with the quality of their argument, and respect peoples rights to believe different things. Considerate interactions allow people to express their ideas with passion and commitment, they allow diversity and persuasion without expressing intolerance.
Considerate interactions find ways to express ideas with passion and commitment, allowing for both diversity and persuasion.
Psychologists think that some of what happens online is because the technological environment creates a disinhibiting effect on peoples behaviour. There is some anonymity online, and other people don’t feel quite real to us, especially when we have never met them. This can be a great thing. Personally I feel much more comfortable discussing infertility online than in person. It has allowed some big issues to be talked about like sexual abuse, miscarriage and post-natal depression that somehow seemed much harder to talk about in real life. BUT if other people don’t feel real to us, if we are not looking them in the eye, it allows us to let go of the inhibition that stops us hurting people, or being deliberately spiteful. We all need to have a greater awareness that the lack of personal immediate feedback in the online environment may be influencing how we are expressing ourselves.
Considerate interactions are ones that you can imagine having IRL not just through technology, that you can imagine having while looking at the other person.
These four foundations are a starting point for us all to think a little more about how we comment and interact online.
Christina Baird lives in Auckland, NZ and nurtures creative wisdom by providing coaching, professional supervision and by blogging at bread and pomegranates