Whether on blogs, social networks or news websites, the Internet is a giant platform of discussion and debate. To get into an argument about politics, you no longer need to get down to the local pub – just enter the world wide web.
But parallels can still be made between the two worlds. Those who are skilled at communicating offline are also often pretty good at defending their point on the net.
Face-to-face communication involves not just words, but also facial expressions, gestures and cadence. Without these devices for emphasis and clarification online, the risk of being misunderstood increases dramatically.
This is why it is especially important to sound genuine in discussions on the internet. “We should take off our masks,” says Martina Dressel, a coach from the town of Freital, near Dresden in Germany.
Users should not disguise themselves or create a fake online persona, because this will make it more difficult for them to gain the trust of other users. Dressel also recommends avoiding irony or sarcasm in unfamiliar settings.
When making statements online, users should always be aware of the public at large. Unless you are communicating through private chats or conversations, anyone can read, judge and poke their nose into your comments.
“The Internet has increased the number of people that come to the table,” says Oliver Buttler from the consumer organisation Verbraucherzentrale Baden-Wuerttemberg. And it can be very difficult to take back what has been posted online.
The ground rules for online discussions, however, remain the same as those offline: users should engage with each other on a level playing field, tackle the content not the character, and treat their opponents with respect. “Avoid making assumptions and spreading rumours,” recommends Dressel.
For those keen on using the internet to vent their views, the most important rule to follow is to keep things short and to the point. The Internet is a fast-paced medium. According to Dressel, users decide within less than five seconds whether to continue reading. They must therefore be able to recognise immediately that the information is important to them.
Some quick and intriguing facts can help to pique people’s curiosity. But at the same time, the reader should not feel disappointed at the end of the read.
Dressel also suggests making direct appeals to readers. “‘You’ always works better than ‘I’ or ‘we.'” However, when it comes to managing conflicts, the opposite is true.
Your target audience is also an important factor. Who exactly do you want your message to reach, and where are these people based? You might not get the most attention on the likes of Facebook. Sometimes, local forums or private chats offer a better response.
The language you use should vary depending on the forum and target group. “I write differently to my boss than to my friends,” explains Dressel. This applies to the way you address readers as well – with formal or informal language. Essentially, you should expect readers to behave the way they would in an equivalent offline setting.
If you do happen to cause a stir, Dressel’s advice is to remain calm. “I am always in control of how I deal with a situation.”
For the most part, ignore hateful or insulting speech, so as not to give the person any more attention than they deserve. With acquaintances, it is always better to resolve problems that arise on the net by meeting them in person to clarify your point.
But you shouldn’t always turn a blind eye to hate speech. “It is important to react with active objections and to report hurtful comments,” says Christian Solmecke, a lawyer from Cologne.
In the case of a serious threat, it is advisable to inform the respective platform or the police. Buttler also suggests staying away from inappropriate or heated discussions. “Extremist positions are gaining ground on the Internet. The language is getting more and more abrasive.”
Engaging with disrespectful remarks or letting your emotions get the better of you in your responses is almost always the wrong solution. “When you get enraged, lift your fingers off the keyboard,” says Dressel.
That doesn’t mean that users should suppress their emotions, but they should ask themselves how their counterpart was able to get them so riled up. Many people falsely believe that they can get away with more online.
It can be more difficult to have a persuasive and constructive debate on the internet. Ultimately, it is worth working on your own communication skills, and asking friends for honest feedback. — dpa