THE BLOG
09/23/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

7 Ways to Communicate Online Without Sounding Like a Jerk

Alamy

In this day and age, we're still learning how everyday courtesy can translate into our online communications. Not only do we want to be effective at getting out point across, we want to do it in a way that we don't regret later on. After all, we know that emails, comments, and social media posts are not as private as think they are...and they're also permanent as well.

When you consider factors like the blending of personal and professional profiles, it can complicates things even further. How would we feel if our rants about co-workers trickled their way to a boss or major donor? Do we want members of our family seeing the comments that we leave on sites?

So how do we communicate online without sounding like a jerk? Here are a few tips to improve your online efforts:

Attack the issue, not the person

In any heated issue, it's best to focus on the issue at hand and avoid ad hominem attacks. It just makes you sound like a jerk. Even if the other person is frustrating you or directing attacks on you, be the bigger person and focus what is being debated about rather than the people doing the debating. This is even more important when you're communicating with people whom you have offline relationships with - things can easily get misread or misunderstood, as digital messages often lack tone and intention - so avoid causing hurt feelings and stick to the subject.

Keep it positive

They call it constructive criticism for a reason: find ways to actually improve or enlighten rather than simply to vent. A few things ago, I wrote an article called "11 Options for MBA Graduates to Launch Their Careers," which was shared in several places, including a networking group for my alma mater. In that group, another alum left several comments about how the articles was "stupid," how the degree was "worthless," and how they already knew everything. Is that really the kind of professional track record that one wants to leave with their university and group of business leaders/entrepreneurs? A better approach could have been "I enjoyed X part of the article, but my path was different. Here's what I did instead."

Don't end with a period

Try not to end your emails with a period. If often leaves unintended negative or unsavory connotations with your message. For example, the difference between "Thanks." and "Thanks!" can be huge depending on the recipients workload or other factors not in your control. If anything, veer on the side of courtesy and enthusiasm. Besides, if you want to increase your email response rates, you should end with a question!

Lose the passive-aggressive remarks

There's nothing less effective than an unaddressed open letter. If you need to vent, do it with a trusted individual or write in a journal. Don't post it on social media! Complaints about co-workers, customers, or even other friends can unintentionally hurt people who read it the wrong way, damage relationships, and reflect your unprofessionalism or immaturity. In fact, even private venting on blogs and social media have cost many people their jobs. What good is created with a passive-aggressive note? It's better to address the cause of that frustration instead.

Say nothing

The old adage still rings true, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all." If you can't add to a conversation in a meaningful way, sometimes it's best to just shut your mouth. Or keyboard.

Don't Shout

It seems odd to say it, but DON'T USE ALL CAPS. Seriously, people. How long have we had email now? Don't you find it annoying when other people leave the caps lock on? Don't inflict that on others too.

Be specific about actionables

When giving criticism, it's better to be specific about things that can be improved upon rather than using broad or generalized statements. For example, instead of saying "that video was really slow and boring," you could say "I think the video loses momentum in the 30 second mark, so you might consider cutting it down by a few seconds." Few things are more frustrating than vague feedback that don't actually make things better.

Don't assume

As mentioned earlier, tonality is often lost online so don't assume that you're reading the intention or tone correctly. It's often said to "expect the best but to prepare for the worst." Your online communications can be the same: assume that the person you're communicating with as good intentions, but be prepared to defend your position (in a positive way), if there's a disagreement.

Just because we've moved to more informal forms of communication (email, social media, texts, etc.), it doesn't mean that we should lose the basic courtesy that we'd give to others in person. I'm certainly learning this myself! Before you hit "enter," you might want to think ask yourself, "Would I want my entire family, coworkers, friends, or future employers seeing things?" "Do I want to be remembered or judged for this message?" "Is it something that I want to be a part of my permanent digital record?"