Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.

By | March 31, 2014

This is a reflection on how we communicate using social and other media. I have said some things I have regretted on social media in the past, but I’m learning slowly. Vigorous debate on-line is a wonderful thing and to be encouraged. It would be a shame if the mistakes we occasionally make can’t be accommodated by those taking part. Respect for readers and forgiveness for writers is essential if we are to make progress in understanding and build relationships. Without the capacity to be honest and take risks we will be seriously held back.

Each way of communicating requires rules and boundaries which are commonly understood. The way we read, say, a political drama on BBC ONE is very different from the way we interpret the Ten O’clock News which immediately follows it. A harrowing scene in Silent Witness is entertainment, violence shown the news is shocking. Communication requires a relationship in which the language is commonly understood.

The internet hosts many different ways of communicating and social media itself can be broken down into different forms. Even within one form of communication the expectations can be varied, take for example email. Is an email conversation or a formal letter? Can an email be a formal letter in paragraph one and a light hearted chat in paragraph two? How do we know whether a person is joking or is being serious? It seems to me that very few people use email as effectively as they could.

Social media is a minefield of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and social media is both ephemeral and permanent. A throw away comment on social media intended to be quickly forgotten amid small talk can be permanently etched into the history. When we say something as a poke to get a conversation going we sometimes say things we would like to retract and say sorry for, “I didn’t really mean that, I was playing devils advocate, what I really think is….. “ And if you know the person, forgiveness is quick and easy, but if they are strangers the damage can escalate.

Good communication is founded on good relationships and good relationships can be forged out of good communication. Where strangers are communicating for the first time extreme care is required to establish the rules and boundaries of the conversation. It is dangerous make an assumption that the recipient will discern whether you are being deadly serious or light hearted.

So what should our response to on-line communication be and how should we behave?  I think that the responsibility is as much on the reader as the writer.

For the writer of a public message I think great care should be taken to explain the motivation for the communication and why they choose the words they do. When writing in a public forum we should take the publication as seriously as writing for print or broadcast. This may be an unrealistic expectation but a deep breath should be taken at the very least.

For the reader I think we must make allowances for the spontaneous outbursts some people make. Of course we all say things we regret and we often change our minds, so let’s, be charitable. If we see something we don’t like on social media the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is respond in anger. Better to be cool and let the facts do the work.

The most powerful communication is that in which the facts speak for themselves and the story is true. The poorest communication is where the emotion masks the real message. At its worst emotion is used in the absence of an argument or defensively. I love humour contained in a fact of a story but I think as soon as the writer uses their own emotional state to get one over on another person they are on a sticky wicket.

So there we have it. I’ve said a few things that I may want to change my mind about, but it’s just a conversation, I’m sure you understand.