Before the Internet, politics was considered one of those topics you shouldn’t discuss in polite company, along with sex and religion. The Internet has vividly demonstrated why that was good advice.
Today, many people feel compelled to express themselves online by barfing out text that expresses their most immediate, unconstrained impulses. Some of those people follow that urge exactly one time. Once that experiment hits the fan, they realize that online conversations, especially those concerning election-year politics, should be approximately as free and candid as a dinner conversation with the President of North Korea.
Actually a dinner conversation with Kim Jung Un might a less apt comparison than, maybe, a hostage negotiation. That requires a body of specific skills that are useful in online political discussions as well.
- Phrase carefully—When dealing with people who are mentally unstable or online (very similar), you must be excruciatingly sensitive to phrasing and context, lest you set your counterpart off in a flurry angry recriminations, guilty counter attacks, or psychotic delusions. Remember, you don’t really know who they are, either.
- Be alert to signs of agitation—When people start conversing in monosyallables, profanity, or haiku, you should stop expressing your opinions and simply reflect theirs. That will often defuse a tense situation. If they start conversing in rhyming couplets, follow suit, but don’t come back with a limerick. Nobody likes a showoff
- Emphasize agreement—Some online personalities tend to seek conflict, so don’t pour gas on that fire. Promptly note areas of agreement and minimize areas of difference. You’ll never see this person in real life, so what’s the point?
- Let them think they originated the most rational ideas—You know better, but what does it matter? Do you want a pointless flame war? Or an exit strategy?
- Ask open ended questions—“Fascinating! How did you reach that conclusion?” Where did you learn so much about this amazing but totally secret conspiracy theory?” or “How does this compare with the first time you were Rickrolled?” These are suitable, open ended questions to divert the conversation away from another tedious online controversy .
Once you’ve mastered these simple techniques, you can avoid those time-consuming flame wars and get back to what really matters—sharing cat videos.