The 5 Forgotten “Secrets” Of Being A Decent Human
Remembering the good old days of civility
Are we meaner to each other today than we were twenty-five years ago? If you’re under forty, you wouldn’t know. If you’re over forty, the passage of time has corrupted your memory.
I’m going to answer my question, fully aware of the memory-lane bias I mentioned.
People are the same, but our environment has changed. The immediacy and anonymity of our communication make it easier to act like an asshole. It happened before the internet age too, of course. But back then you had to do it face to face, or at least over a telephone, and you always knew the other person. There were social consequences for taking things too far.
It’s normal today to berate and abuse strangers on social media. Treating strangers that way twenty-five years ago got you in trouble. It would get you in trouble today too in a face to face encounter, but that’s not where most communication takes place.
In a throwback to the early 1990s, here are five forgotten rules for being a decent human in the digital age.
Start with dignity
What does dignity mean? I bet you’d have trouble defining the word without a dictionary. Even the main dictionary sources on the internet can’t agree on a definition. Here is the one that resonates with me most.
The right of an individual to be treated with honor and respect regardless of their status or position in life
We often struggle with this concept in real life. Online it’s easy to ignore altogether. You’re not dealing with a human being. You’re dealing with an avatar. There may be real human beings behind the scenes (unless you’re battling a bot), but it does not feel like a human to human connection.
In human to human interactions, we default to treating others with dignity. In the virtual world, we act with suspicion until we know where the other person lies on the political and social belief spectrum.
What’s the fix?
Assume a real-world human being stands behind every action. Pretend that person is sitting across from you in your living room, and act accordingly.
Understand their back story
There’s a reason your Twitter nemesis believes what he believes. He probably wasn’t born with the Hitler gene. His backstory, everything that happened in his life up until the point of your interaction with him, influenced his beliefs.
I’m not suggesting you give everyone a pass because they have a valid excuse for their disagreeable beliefs. That doesn’t serve the greater good. But you can take a timeout and discover what led your nemesis to his belief. Pause a few seconds and remind yourself he has a back story. When you consider the backstory, it makes you more sympathetic. You can still disagree and argue while treating your foe with dignity.
Walk away from no-win situations
Do you feel like you always have to squeeze in the last word? Most of us adopt beliefs and point of views that serve our perceived self-interest. Everyone should support combatting climate change, equal rights for women and minorities, healthcare reform and a myriad of other issues. Good luck getting the CEO of a health insurance company to support Medicare for all.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. — Upton Sinclair
In addition to salary, you can also add worldview, relationship, friends, and identity. You can argue that we’re often wrong about what is in our self-interest. That’s true, but it’s a hard battle that requires nuance and patience. You can read about that here.
Most of these arguments descend into an escalating tit-for-tat.
If I push a little harder, yell a little louder, explain with more facts, he’ll finally come around to my point of view.
This approach almost never works in your favor. Your opponent fights back harder. He’s as stubborn as you, and you end up despising each other. It’s okay to walk away from no-win situations.
In face-to-face conversations, someone throws out the “let’s agree to disagree” phrase. Neither party wants to inflict permanent damage to the relationship. Consider a similar approach to strangers online. Call it before you reach the point of hostility.
Think And Consider Before You Act
In the digital age, we respond to slights, insults and negativity by reflex. You see something on Twitter and send off your reply, often by typing the first thought that comes to mind.
This behavior wasn’t possible thirty years ago. We could not easily converse with strangers, friends too. I graduated from high school in 1989. If a buddy of mine had said something disparaging about me (that I had heard from someone else), I couldn’t blast a scathing response on social media.
I’d stew about it for a while and then pick up a phone or say something face to face. By then, I’d cooled off. The anger dissipated and I took a more measured approach. The closeness of that type of communication almost guaranteed a more civil exchange.
Digital distance allows us to act vicious without the normal gatekeepers of civility: voice, close contact and fear of consequences.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that when he was angry with someone, he’d write a letter and let his emotions run wild. Then he’d throw out the letter and start again. His next letter would take a more civil and respectful tone.
That advice still holds today. Get your anger out of the way and then reply respectfully. At the very least, wait ten minutes and let your anger dissipate.
The world would be a happier place if everyone waited fifteen minutes before replying to an outrage-inducing social media post.
Stay above the fray — Be the statesman
When I was a teenager, I often played the role of peacemaker when disputes arose among friends. I wasn’t the kind of person to take sides. A friend of mine had once told me that my refusal to pick a team was a sign of weakness. Of course, he used more colorful language, typical for a high school boy.
Conflicts often need peacemakers to resolve the dispute to everyone’s satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with being that person. It comes with benefits. Your opinion garners more respect when you express it selectively and judiciously.
American politics once had the idea of the statesman.
A respected figure who acted in the best interest of the nation without regard for personal gain or political party benefit.
I don’t know if this ever really existed, but we once cherished the idea. We’ve seen politicians act as a statesman at times, but never as a guiding principle.
In the rare instances politicians act this way, we laud them as messiah’s in a world of distrust and hostility.