How to Talk to People Online

social media chatTalking to people online is nothing like talking to them in person. You realize quickly how much communication is transmitted by body language, pacing in speech, facial expressions–all characteristics that can’t be conveyed with the black-and-white of words. That makes sarcasm challenging. Even humor–how often do you know someone’s being humorous because of their grin, exaggerated expressions, or laugh. None of that comes through online.

As a result, online conversations need to be sorted differently than in-person conversations. Consider these quick rules:

  1. Always consider the perspective of the person you’re talking to. They can be anywhere on the planet, with a world view entirely disparate from yours. Not better or worse, just different, with cultural norms that could make your comments insulting or intimidating (never good when you’re trying to make new friends). Sure, you can’t catch all of those, but you can start by avoiding comments you know could be misunderstood and adding details about your background to provide context to your conversation.
  2. Be international in your conversations. After all, you’re writing to the world, not your home town. Include international references (like Happy Canada Day on July 1st). That might take research, but that’s fine, especially for writers who hope to sell books in multiple countries.Children's drawings idea design on crumpled paper
  3. Don’t talk politics. Best case, you’ll annoy half of your readers. Few people understand the intricacies of foreign governments (few understand their own rulers). Most people believe the axiom, ‘Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t’. Here are two examples:
    • Most Americans think our education system is broken but think their local education is great.
    • This second is an opinion: While democracies (like America) value freedoms, lots (and lots) of people around the world don’t. They want someone else to make those big decisions for them. They believe having all those choices makes life too complicated. Be sensitive to that.
  4. Use good grammar and spelling. Lots of people conflate ‘texting’ with ‘online writing’. Not true. Texts are private, not intended for the world to see. Every online communication has the potential to go viral, bad grammar and spelling errors included. As writers, we don’t want to risk that.
  5. Where weather used to be a safe (albeit boring) topic, it isn’t anymore. Now, it’s political and could blow up into an insult-charged scream-fest about global warming. Don’t talk about the weather. Talk about books instead. Or dogs and children.

I’d love to hear what innocent online conversations you’ve been part of that have become toxic. What should I avoid in the future?

Check out this article from Wikipedia on the ‘online disinhibition effect‘ for an better understanding of online chats. Or this one from Jeffrey Lin on the toxicity of some online games.

More on social media:

Writers Tip #48: Have a Web Presence

27+ Tips I Wish I’d Known About Blogging

15 Tips Picked Up From Twitter


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor of technology in education, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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12 thoughts on “How to Talk to People Online

  1. Online conversation is a funny character with a strange dimension, suspending us in time but without responsibility. It lets us talk as easily to folks Down Under as to the person across the table from us. For some people, it lets them cower in anonymity, and they feel able – compelled? – to spew invectives and opinions they might under other circumstances state with caution, or not at all. All the more reason for those of us who start a conversation on a blog site to be circumspect and aware of our world wide audience.
    Still, sometimes a conversation must be encouraged – about the weather or national holidays or social concerns. There is an appropriate place and also an appropriate protocol. Thanks for the reminders, Jacqui. At the very least, I can double check my spelling and grammar. And not lurk under a bridge.

    • Good thoughts, Shari. I realized as I re-read my post–it definitely came across differently than I intended, for the very reasons I mentioned. Frightening.

  2. My normal response to on-line comments is: don’t feed the trolls. There is a group of people out there who will take any comment, post, or whatever and twist it just to get a reaction. Ignore this type. They don’t like silence.

    When I am commenting on someone’s post, I focus on what is on the writing on the page and don’t try to second guess anything. I generally try to be positive, supportive, or ask a relevant question. If I can’t be any of those, I follow mother’s advice, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

    I only have one good example of a conversation gone wrong. I was on a cancer support forum where a person posted a question like, “I’ve been having some pain, should I call the doctor?”

    My innocent reply, “If you have any concerns, you should give the doctor a call.”

    Shortly after that a different commenter went wild accusing me of practicing medicine and worse. The thread devolved from there and I haven’t posted there since.

    My suggestion is to always keep things positive, relevant to the subject on the page, and short (unlike this comment which violates my normal policy of brevity).

    • That’s a perfect example. I have taken to mitigating anything I say with “I’m not a doctor/lawyer and you should talk to one first, but…” Your comment though is far more benign. Someone was looking for a problem.

  3. I’ve never run into the issue where using the word “text” became a problem. It also depends on the content you’re using the term in. Also, many readers are going to realize based on your dialogue if you’re from another area and they’re almost going to expect differences. If I read authors from other places who have children younger than I am or who are talking about college if they use the term uni or university it’s more likely he or she is in a different location from where I’m at. You also run into this in the same regions. For instance, the United States you have multiple places and multiple markets so where one place might have a Piggly Wiggly, others have Walmart. Text might also be if you’re reading a text or written work. Some people might also not think of certain texts as private due to certain websites where people share what mistakes autocorrect has made.

    The cultural variations are what I’ve run into the most, but if you’re friendly with your audience/readers you can overcome most boundaries. Some authors I read blog about polyamory and how it’s different or BDSM because it’s in what that author writes. There are authors who are known for “foul language” and use that as a sort of brand which might make some people hate the author, but might draw the audience that the author is going for.

    I work at a public service desk so I have a lot of human interaction, but I also have a large number of friends and followers I communicate with through messaging and texting. At first it seems like there’s a world of difference, but after a while it seems like it’s all the same. It’s still interaction with another human being. You just need to be more careful about certain things.

    • Great points, Heather. I agree–as you get to know the people around you, virtually even, it’s like a group of friends who knows you and understands your connotations.

      I keep going back to a time–in the real world–where my daughter and I were visiting her Asian friend and her mom in their home. A spider crawled across the floor and my daughter stomped on it. Much to the dismay and shock of the family. All I could think was, ‘They think my daughter just killed grandma’.

  4. Jacqui, most of my online conversations are at a blog, either mine or someone else’s. This means I’m responding to someone. This takes the edge off of a lot of the chatter because I see what they say before they see what I say. It still can get uncomfortable sometimes though. I do chat at Twitter occasionally, but again, I’m replying to what someone else has said. It’s okay to have opinions online but you have to temper them until you know how the one you’re conversing with feels. Also, Do Not get upset with someone’s opinion. If you don’t like what they convey, move on. 😉

    • Both of those are wise pieces of advice, Glynis. I like hearing opinions other than mine that are well-evidenced. I learn. When I get comments that are nasty, I won’t approve them because I think it intimidates people. They fear they’ll be next.

  5. Who was it who said ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’? I find some of the most inflammatory articles fascinating because they express a point of view the writer won’t compromise. I may not agree with them but I will defend to the death..
    I do respect – or hope I respect – cultural differences. But I have been fed some of the most awful BS about those differences sometimes. Maybe I am thick skinned, but generally I find a sprinkling of humor and a consistent philosophy will win through.

    As for text-speak and all it implies? Well, vile as it may at first appear it is almost certainly the language of tomorrow, so we must embrace it, I fear. And I certainly fear it, though I relish the challenges of tomorrow’s English.

    I am reminded of my first trip to Holland, a lot of years ago now, and reading up my travel books like the good little soldier I was then. I read about the legendary onion soup which was served on the ‘workers’ ferry’ at Middleberg. Well, I went on that ferry and I struggled with the throng at the food counter to ask for my onion soup. They had never heard of it. What was more, they were less than pleasant that I should even suggest they served onion soup.

    The moral of my story? In trying to accommodate the mores of others you can make a colossal fool of yourself. Stick to ground you know well – home ground. And if you are ever on the Middleberg ferry, just order coffee!

    • I agree, Fred. There is no way to accommodate everyone so ultimately patience and understanding is required on the other end. Most people are fine about that. Some, though, I dunno. Doesn’t seem to work.

  6. Religion is a sticky one too. As long as you share something as a personal belief and not as a generalization (and even then you’ve got to be careful) it’s usually ok.

    • Nothing has changed, has it, since our parents warned us against discussing religion, money or politics in conversation. Objective becomes subjective begets emotion and the collaborative learning conversation dies. Sigh.

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