You don’t want to be one of those screaming jerks online, but anger lives in all of us. Andrea Weckerle provides some practical advice on not being that jerk.
I love the Internet. I cherish being able to connect with friends and family at a moment’s notice, being able to easily reach out to some of the smartest and most inspirational people on the planet, and having the world’s knowledge at my fingertips. My life is enriched immeasurably because of all these things. But at the same time, there’s a bit of trepidation when I go online. What company’s reputation do I see unfairly taking a beating by a disgruntled customer? Which individual is being viciously mocked and humiliated by an anonymous attacker? Whose good name is being torn to shreds through innuendos and lies? These are the things I keep a lookout for, because it’s my job.
I’m the founder of CiviliNation, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing online hostility, character assassination and adult cyberbullying. Its mission is to “foster an online culture where every person can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment or lies.”
When asked what prompted me to create CiviliNation, there isn’t one particular instance I can look back on and say that that was the seminal moment when I decided to take a public stand on this issue. Rather, it was something that snuck up on me over time after becoming increasingly frustrated with the ugliness I saw online. I realized that the best way to improve things was if I became a part of the solution. And the fact that I’ve been a target of online attacks myself actually helped because it made me fully understand what that feels like on a visceral level.
CiviliNation’s name is derived from a combination of the words civilization, civility, and nation. But how might civility look in the online environment? Well, it’s definitely not as simple as just applying the commonly-accepted rules of saying “please,” “excuse me” and “thank you.” The Internet, as much as some people might want it to be, is not a fantasy realm infused with perpetually-happy pink ponies and colorful rainbows. Instead, it’s a place where real life happens, and some of that’s not always pretty. CiviliNation regards civility as the foundational belief that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in passionate debate and spirited dissent, and be able to argue the merits of their views and positions, without feeling threatened, personally attacked or intimidated by their opponents, and without in turn doing it to others. All actions should flow from that.
When people are harassed, attacked or intimidated, what’s really going on is that someone is trying to take away their voice and browbeat them into submission. That’s not okay and it’s not an effective persuasion method. Unfortunately, with a low barrier to entry and the ability to remain anonymous or hide behind a pseudonym, coupled with instant dissemination, global reach, and the inability to fully retract statements, everything is amplified online. Poor self-control and anger management feed right into this. There’s a lot of hyper-aggressive posturing online, venting for the sake of venting, and being intentionally provocative just to get a reaction out of others. It’s as though some people are stuck in perpetual adolescence where being oppositional is a way of life. More often than not they don’t take into consideration the negative effect their behavior has on others or the reputational harm they’re inflicting on themselves.
My book “Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies, and Other Jerks,” devotes a whole chapter to anger and anger management. And, not surprisingly, there are gender differences:
Socially there are differences between who is allowed to express anger without stigmatization and who isn’t. For example, anger is generally considered more acceptable in men than in women. According to anger researcher Raymond DiGiuseppe, Ph.D., professor and chair of the psychology department at St. John’s University, men express their anger more physically than women and are more passive aggressive, whereas women hold on to their anger longer and don’t express their anger as openly as men do. Yale University psychologist Victoria Brescoll, co-author with Eric Uhlmann of the research article “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead? Status
Conferral, Gender, and Expression of Emotion in the Workplace,” noted, “For men, expressing anger may heighten status: Men who expressed anger in a professional context were generally conferred higher status than men who expressed sadness. For women, however, expressing anger had the opposite effect: Professional women who expressed anger were consistently accorded lower status and lower wages, and were seen as less competent, than angry men and unemotional women.
We need to keep in mind that anger on its own isn’t the problem. Anger is a normal and even healthy and appropriate emotion is certain situations. But it’s when anger is expressed negatively and becomes destructive to others or oneself that we need to sound the alarm. So what are some of the things that people can do to more effectively manage their anger? Here are things to consider:
- Learn how to properly label the emotions you’re experiencing. Feeling annoyed or frustrated is different than feeling furious, and recognizing this will help you decide what an appropriate action in a given instance might be.
- Find out what your anger triggers are. What issues tend to set you off, what people rub you the wrong way? Knowing this ahead of time will help you brace against them.
- Recognize your own physical manifestations of anger, such as feeling flushed, or experiencing an accelerated heart rate or tensed muscles, so you can take action corrective action before you erupt.
- Guard against cognitive errors such as making faulty assumptions about the intent behind someone’s statement, overgeneralizing an event in terms of its negative impact, or using anger as an emotional defense mechanism for an underlying problem.
- Learn how long it usually takes you to become angry and how long it takes you to calm down again. Commit to not responding to an anger trigger while you’re still in the midst of feeling badly.
- Decide if, when, and how you’re going to respond to something that bothers you online. Remember that in many cases, you get to decide these things.
- If you’re required to respond, practice self-distancing, which means taking a detached view of what’s happening and avoiding becoming emotionally tangled up in it.
It’s vital that all of us to learn how to better manage our emotions online. That’s the first part. But the second part is learning how to be more forgiving when other people make mistakes. It’s easy to slip up in a moment of frustration or weakness and post something we wouldn’t necessarily do unless we’re in the midst of an emotional hijacking. It’s happened to many people, even the best among us. So, if they’ve apologized, shown remorse, or tried to fix the situation, let’s cut them some slack and just be happy it wasn’t us that messed up.