How to have a conversation on my park bench — or anywhere on the internet
Let’s do a little experiment. Imagine for a moment, that you and I are friends. We run into each other in the park and sit down on my favorite park bench to engage in a little conversation.
I say “Hey, I heard that there is a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store going into that vacant spot on Main Street.”
Since it’s a conversation, you get to respond to what I said. Which of the following responses would make sense?
- “I love Ben & Jerry’s. I wonder if they will have my favorite flavor, Phish Food?”
- “Did you know Ben & Jerry’s was sold to a big company, Unilever? I wonder if that has affected the quality of their ice cream.”
- “That’s great. There are too many vacant places on Main Street. I hope some other stores come in.”
- “I am not sure you are right. I saw in the local paper that a jewelry store was going in there. Let me show you the article that says that.”
- “I know a lot of people like ice cream, but I am worried about too much fat and sugar. I think we don’t really need an ice cream store in that spot.”
- “Ben & Jerry are always pushing progressive causes. I wouldn’t support that store, because that doesn’t match my political philosophy.”
- “Ben is Ben Cohen. My favorite Ben is Ben Shapiro. Let me tell you what Ben Shapiro says about liberals in Congress.”
- “Why are we talking about ice cream when Joe Biden and the filibuster is really the important topic right now?”
- “There is a vast liberal conspiracy lined up in opposition to Israel, and it’s destroying Main Streets all over America.”
- “You are clearly a left-wing Marxist idiot, I can tell by the way you talk.”
- “Racists are taking over our country. I’m sure some of them are behind this new store on Main Street.”
- “I think corporations like Ben & Jerry’s are too closely aligned with the mainstream media poisoning the minds of our children and credulous sheeple.”
It’s pretty clear that the first six answers make sense in the context of a conversation but the rest don’t.
Conversations thrive on relevance and respect
What makes a conversation? It depends on give and take — listening and talking. When you respond in a conversation, you acknowledge what you heard and respond to it. You don’t have to agree with it, but you need to acknowledge it.
So on my park bench with me, you can get excited about Ben & Jerry’s and you can wonder what it means for Main Street. You can even disagree with me. You can question my facts if you have a source that contradicts them. You can disagree with me about whether my opinion that the event is positive is a good thing or a bad thing. You can even question whether Ben & Jerry’s politics are problematic, or about the company and how it may have changed.
What you cannot do, at least on my park bench, is to launch into an unrelated political diatribe, cite unrelated and unsupported facts, assume without evidence that I have a certain set of beliefs and express an opinion about those beliefs, or insult me. Those are not elements of conversations. They are not civilized. No one wants to have a conversation with people like that — it’s just unpleasant.
On a park bench, people wouldn’t do those things. But they do them on blogs all the time.
My blog is my park bench. It is not the biggest park bench in the world, although it is very nice. Lots of people visit my park bench because they are interested in what I have to say.
But is my park bench.
If you want to come here and disagree with me, great. I love to hear people who disagree with me, I always learn things from them.
But if you think you can come here and shout, insult me, and go off on oddball tangents just because I have a comment form, well, you’re just an ass. You’re not contributing to the conversation, you’re polluting it. You’re not listening, you’re just talking. I like to keep things civil here on my park bench, and I expect you to do the same. If you wouldn’t say it to me in a nice park bench conversation, don’t type it my comment box.
Honestly, please learn how to have a conversation. If you just like to see your words appear on the internet after you type them, go somewhere else, like Twitter or Parler or Medium or your own blog. If you are going to attack people or spout wild theories that have nothing to do with what you just read, just please go away.
Learn to listen and be respectful. It won’t just improve my blog’s comment section. It will open you up to interactions with all sorts of interesting people. It might even win a few over or — amazingly — you might learn to change your mind, or at least expand your perspective.
Trust me, it’s a better way to live than shouting at everyone who disagrees with you or trolling the comment sections on blogs or Facebook or wherever.
Raising your blood pressure isn’t good for anyone. It doesn’t make you smarter and in the long run it’ll make your life shorter and less enjoyable.
I’m mildly disappointed you didn’t leave any examples of these non sequitur messages. Although I have certainly seen countless others just like them. Do you delete them? Sometimes they are so outrageous as to be entertaining, but you are right, in general, they are disruptive and corrosive.
The antagonism on the Internet is clearly a symptom of social and emotional distress. I wonder if the Internet is not a healthy experience for many people: if it exposes them to too many ideas that contradict their beliefs and assumptions, and makes them feel powerless, scared, and desperate.
I have to wonder how this Internet experiment is going to turn out. I think it has proven to be dangerous for society. It has created positive feedback loops: an arms race of needing to shout down any different opinions. I wonder if we will come up with a better way to collective share information that is less distressing, without jumping to authoritarianism.
I delete those off-topic or insulting comments. And if people post them repeatedly– which happens — I block or ban them.
There isn’t any way to “like” the above comment, so I’m doing that here. However, I have to say that discourse has deteriorated to the point that some people WILL reply with nasty non sequiturs in a park bench conversation. I’ve had it happen to me at social and family gatherings. It’s truly sad.
I agree entirely with your sentiments, and applaud your attempt to change internet behavior, but I don’t see anything better happening in the civility arena. In fact, it’s another climate change that we’ve brought upon ourselves. Opening one’s mouth in public is an invitation for others to open theirs and you can’t control what will come out. You can only hope for the best. You’ve been blogging for quite awhile. Did something happen recently that pit you over the edge?
Now, about your park bench conversation. I think the biggest ingredient needed for that conversation is a response that includes a question. Examples would include: A. That’s great! I’m a big fan. What’s your favorite flavor? B. I stop by their plant in Waterbury every year. They have a great tour and store there. Have you been?
If I’m with someone who doesn’t ask me any questions and requires me to do all the asking, I feel like whatever I offer is of no interest to them and I have little desire to initiate with them again, unless they are elderly, pre-adult, in emotional or physical pain, or incapacitated. I have no idea if current curriculums include this question asking education, or if critical thinking education includes it, but it should.
The nastiness is recent. It happened when some of my posts on politics began ranking on Google, attracting people without any prior experience with my blog.
Too bad this was necessary. Your post here is excellent. When your politics lean a bit to the left, you attract the right-wing nuts. If (or when) you lean the other way, you attract the left-wing nuts. Your approach of ignore/delete/block is best. If more people did that rather than respond in kind, the nuts from both wings would find something else to do.
Thank you for this, which I am about to share. What I found most helpful was examples of specific types of responses, demonstrating that you are open to a WIDE range of responses as long as they ARE responses. (all caps standing in for italics)
Funny: while posting here I’m being extra careful with my writing! Because an editor will be reading it 🙂
Another helpful discussion of this issue is Celeste Headlee’s TED talk, “How to Have a Good Conversation” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6n3iNh4XLI