Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

Sturgis’s Law #11

A very long while back, like in May 2015, I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing, but I can’t help noticing that some of them apply to other aspects of life as well. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time.

It’s been more than three and a half years since I blogged about Sturgis’s Law #10, and I’m only halfway through the list. Time to get cracking! As I blog about them, I add the link to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here at long last is Sturgis’s Law #11:

The burden of proof is on the editor.

We editors live to make good prose better and awkward prose readable. We mean well and most of us are at least pretty good at what we do, but this has its downside: the writers we deal with are usually pretty good at what they do, and even when they’re not, they generally have a better idea of what they’re trying to get across than we do.

Newly fledged editors can be a bit, well, full of ourselves. I sure as hell was. I got hired for my first professional (i.e., paid) editor job on the basis of my knowledge of English grammar, usage, spelling — the basics, in other words. I was quickly introduced to “Chicago style,” which then in its 12th edition was still called A Manual of Style. (It became the Chicago Manual of Style with the 13th edition and so it’s continued through the 17th and current one.)

Oh dear! So many recommendations to remember and apply! I learned, I applied — and I got pretty obnoxious about some of it, notably the which/that distinction: That is used for restrictive clauses, which for non-restrictive, and which is invariably preceded by a comma. Thus —

The house that I grew up in had green shutters.

That house, which was built in 1956, is the one I grew up in.

In the first example, “that I grew up in” provides information essential to identifying the house. In the second, “which was built in 1956” is almost an aside: you could put it in parentheses or drop it completely. (For what it’s worth, the house I grew up in was built in 1956, but it had no shutters at all.)

Never mind that I’d lived almost three decades and learned to write pretty well knowing zip about the which/that distinction — now it became my litmus test for sorting writers into categories: those who “got it” and those who didn’t. This stood me in good stead when, almost two decades later, I started freelancing for U.S. publishers, because many of them include the which/that distinction in their house style, plus it’s in Chicago, which most of them use as a style guide.

Long before that, however, I’d learned that in British English “which” is often used for restrictive clauses and little if any confusion results; it also dawned on me that the distinction between restrictive/essential and non-restrictive/non-essential often isn’t all that important to the sentence at hand. Consider, for instance, the convention for setting off non-essential words with commas. I’m supposed to write “My dog, Tam, likes to ride in the car” because (1) I’ve only got one dog, and (2) it’s important that the reader know that. True, I’ve only got one dog, but if it’s important that the reader know this I’m not going to rely on commas to get the idea across. Besides, that’s an awful lot of commas for a short sentence.

I also learned that in turning which/that into a litmus test, I was acting perilously like the English-language grammarians and educators in the mid to late 19th century. Concerned by increasing literacy among the working classes, they came up with a bunch of rules to distinguish the properly educated from the riffraff. Most of those “rules,” like the injunction against splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, have been properly consigned to the dungheap by good writers and editors. Nevertheless, they’re tenacious enough to have been dubbed “zombie rules” because they don’t stay dead.

Me at work in my EDITOR shirt

While that first editorial job introduced me to the potential for editorial arrogance, it also presented a couple of antidotes. One was Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. My paperback copy is in two pieces from years of frequent consultation. Since it was first published in the mid-1960s, it’s no longer quite as “modern,” but it’s still a good antidote for editors, educators, and other word people who are sometimes tempted to take ourselves and our esoteric knowledge a little too seriously. Bernstein is also the author of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, which I think is still in print.

Most important, that job required that each manuscript be “cleared”: you sat down side by side with the writer and went through the whole ms. line by line, answering the writer’s questions and explaining why you’d made this or that change. (These were pamphlets, brochures, training manuals, and such, ranging up to perhaps 40 pages in length, not full-length books.) These writers weren’t pros. Some were definitely more capable than others, and it wasn’t uncommon for the less capable to be the most defensive about edits. I learned to justify every change I made to myself so that I could explain it clearly to the writer.

When freelancing for trade publishers these days, I have zero direct contact with the authors of the book-length mss. I work on, but I know they’re going to see the edits I make and the queries I write. On most other jobs, I do deal directly with the author, but almost exclusively by email. That early experience has stood me in very good stead over the decades: I never forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the manuscript.

For more about that first staff editor job, including how I got that T-shirt, see “1979: I Become an Editor” in my new blog, The T-Shirt Chronicles.