Outrage Is the New Black: Don't Be a Troll

Remember that noise is easy; quiet is hard. The effectiveness of online communication is staggering and the ease of engaging in this medium makes it tempting to jump into flame wars with both feet.
10/09/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Nothing ruins an intellectually satisfying article online like perusing the comments section beneath an article that may have previously restored our faith in humanity. Take for example, a wonderfully warm Huffington Post piece by Doyin Richards that catalogued a set of pictures of engaged fathers doing what they do best, from snuggling with a newborn to getting toenails painted, from making silly faces to bring a smile to their kids' faces to climbing uncomfortably into a crib to provide a child with a sense of comfort. One might be tempted to think this article is about as safe a topic as can be penned. After all, who in the world would disparage fathers from pursuing relationships with their children?

Skip down to the comments section, and that's where you will find them: the trolls of the worldwide web. Mythically speaking, trolls were terrifying creatures who hid under bridges, waiting for their prey to cross, at which point, in all their hideousness, they would ambush travelers. In comparing the two, it is easy for us to see how modern trolls derived their moniker, but the act of naming the beast presents a problem.

"We" (as in, those of us who would not consider ourselves trolls) compare "them" to the mythical creature because it makes it easier for us to psychologically distance ourselves from them. In transforming our intellectual enemies into a terrifying and despised monster, we rob them of their humanity, thereby reminding ourselves that we would never stoop so low as to complain about trivialities such as these. The problem with this thinking is that we are all to blame. Any one of us is just as likely to become a troll on a moment's notice, without warning, and it is due to an intriguing scientific fact.

The very nature of the way society interacts is changing, and we are in the throes of a communication revolution. As we navigate the rapid changes, we discover new ways to adapt to these changes on a daily basis, but not all of these adaptations work. Some methods fail, and sadly, it will probably take several generations before we have the kinks worked out of our new systems of interaction.

Thousands of years of human interaction have developed interesting sets of rules that govern our social interactions. For instance, when discussing a heated topic with someone in a face-to-face conversation, we might pay close attention to nonverbal signals as a way of gauging how well or how horrible the interaction is going. We listen carefully to the tone and volume of the other person's voice to see if the debate is getting out of hand, we watch facial expressions and body language for increased animation, and even our subconscious pays attention to things like the dilation of pupils or the redness in one's cheeks to watch for inflamed tempers. Over the millennia, we've gotten pretty good at it, generally speaking, to the point where most of our conversations, touchy subject or not, are conducted with a reasonable amount of civility, or at least, they are civil in comparison to the incensed flame wars seen in the comments section of just about any given online article.

So, what happened? Why are we displacing the age-old governing rules of social interaction and degenerating into virtual bedlam, but more importantly, what effects are these interactions having on our offline relationships? There are several factors at stake here.

First, we are typically comfortable with speaking at a rate of about 100-150 words per minute, but we can think at a significantly higher rate of about 400-500 words per minute. In other words, our brains move considerably faster than our mouths. This means that, in any given face-to-face interaction, we will likely use that extra time (called the thought-speech time differential) to process what is being said and to think about what we might want to say in response. When reading text, however, our rate of comprehension is much closer to our thinking capacity, which robs us of that added time needed to process what is being communicated, heightening the likelihood of a regrettably kneejerk reaction.

Secondly, mediated communication (email, chat, text, discussion threads, etc.) comes prepackaged with an inherent lack of immediacy. When face-to-face with someone, there is a physical sense of presence that often causes us to think critically about how we might respond. Theoretically, this emanates from the animal part of our brain that does so out of the desire for self-preservation (i.e., if I say the wrong thing, I could provoke a response of immediate violence), but regardless of the cause, the effect is that, while online, the removal of physical immediacy emboldens us to communicate thoughts, beliefs, and opinions we might not normally share. This partially explains the driving force behind road rage, seeing as how, in cars, we are removed from physical immediacy by surrounding ourselves with cocoons made of metal and glass. When communicating online, this lack of immediacy is only made more pronounced.

While there are many voices currently raging in protest against the revolutions in communication brought about by the Information Age (i.e., technology is the downfall of modern society), it doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, barring any unforeseen extinction-level events, so we must learn to adapt or be swallowed up by the inherent drawbacks that come with utilizing the new media.

This begins with what I term, "virtual listening."

Epictetus was credited with saying, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak," but he didn't have to deal with the constant barrage of information flowing from the internet. We need to update this philosophy for the modern era, and it starts with understanding the nature of "listening" as applied to the virtual world.

We know what poor virtual listening looks like, because it resembles our previously mentioned "trolls."

  • Poor virtual listening sometimes occurs when we get hung up on a specific detail within a larger message, such as a spelling error, poor word choice, or use of a potentially inflammatory or unrelated example. We become hooked on that item and immediately skip the rest of the writing so that we can "let 'em have it" by unloading a high-capacity rage-clip on an unsuspecting author. Our misdirected anger likely has nothing to do with the original point of the article, which only results in inflaming an already volatile conflict.
  • Poor virtual listening may also occur when we mistakenly take something out of context. Perhaps an author unintentionally references something that triggers a complex I may have been carrying around while waiting for an opportunity to explode. Such a case may occur within an article aimed at all parents, but for the sake of the example, let's say that the female author of the article in question unwittingly (and mistakenly) replaced the word "parent" with "mom," and suddenly, every father reading the article feels slighted or ignored and reacts accordingly. In reality, the author may have used the word "mom" simply because she happens to be one, and that is the term she is most familiar with, but we still make the assumption that "she should have known better" and that she "needs to be enlightened."
  • In examining these sample scenarios, it becomes easy to see why outrage and backlash have become the new norm, but if these attitudes continue propagating day after day, they have the propensity to spill over into our face-to-face lives as well, and before we know it, our personal interactions could start to mirror our more dysfunctional online interactions.

    To become a better virtual listener, here are a few tips:

    1. Wait to respond. The more irate you feel, the longer you should wait before responding. Thomas Jefferson once said, "When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred." Taking a break, going for a walk, or even distracting yourself from the potential conflict could be just enough to give you a sense of perspective that could prevent WWIII from breaking out.

  • Ask questions. Often, the situations that get our ire up the most are those in which a misunderstanding has taken place. Ask clarifying questions from the original poster to ensure you understand his or her intentions clearly. Knowing the motivation behind someone's communication can often diffuse even the most heated disputes.
  • Recognize that virtual listening is hard work. If you've made it this far into the article, kudos, because it means you already understand the nature of this recommendation. Some messages will require reading and re-reading the writing several times to digest all the layered complexities and underlying messages. Acknowledge this and take your time. Savor the work the author put into the message and show some respect by working just as hard to virtually listen as the author worked to create it.
  • Assume the best. Unless unequivocal hate speech has taken place, assume the original poster is not deliberately trying to hurt your feelings. Even if they are, assume that it is because of some external cause that has nothing to do with you (unless it does, which is another article for another day).
  • Look for alternate interpretations. We often assume that our interpretation of someone's communication is the only interpretation, but to abide by that assumption is arrogant. Any of us are equally apt to get it wrong, so look for other ways of seeing the message being communicated.
  • In closing, remember that noise is easy; quiet is hard. The effectiveness of online communication is staggering and the ease of engaging in this medium makes it tempting to jump into flame wars with both feet. However, as the old adage suggests, discretion is the better part of valor. Being silent on a topic often holds more power than dramatic outrage because it demonstrates mastery over one's tongue, even if that isn't the offending appendage in this case.

    Read more from Josh Misner, Ph.D. on the Facebook page, Mindful Dad: www.facebook.com/drjmindfuldad