It is possible to have nuanced and productive conversations online in text-based interactions.

It is possible to have nuanced and productive conversations online in text-based interactions.

Some of the skills that are important online overlap with the skills that are important offline, eg:

  • Making sure that you’re understanding someone correctly and that you’re understanding them correctly (some of the mechanisms are different, but the need to remember to do it is the same).
  • Remembering that no one knows everything, including you.
  • Remembering that you can decide who you want to talk to, and that you don’t have to have intense conversations with everyone who pays attention to you.
  • Keeping in mind that the person you’re talking to is also a real person.

Some skills that can be useful in person don’t work online, for instance:

  • Paying attention to other people’s body language can be useful in person, but online no one can see body language.
  • Expressing your thoughts through body language can be useful in person, but online no one can see body language.
  • Making or faking eye contact can be a useful way of signaling respect or attention in person, but it doesn’t work online. (It’s not always useful or possible in person either, it just can be sometimes for some people.)
  • Paying attention to tones of voice can be useful in person, but tones of voice aren’t available in text in the same way. (There are other ways to convey tone online though.)
  • In person, clothes or physical space can sometimes express certain things about what kind of conversation it is. Online, this is much less possible even if you post pictures.
  • (A caveat: I’m mentioning these skills because they are things that a lot of people rely on heavily, but none of them are universally useful or universally possible. For instance, sometimes eye contact can make it impossible to have a conversation.)

Some of the skills used for online conversations are different from the skills used in person, for instance:

Short version: Having good conversations on the internet is very possible, but some of the skills are different from the skills of in-person conversations. It can be a learning curve, especially at first — and it helps to keep in mind that it’s possible.

Conversations between people who disagree

Conversations between people who disagree with each other can be really difficult. They can also be tremendously valuable.

One reason that it’s hard is that it takes two to have a conversation.

Each person has to be prepared to listen to the other and be prepared to think about what they have to say. Each person has to respect the right of the other person to think for themself, and be prepared to accept the possibility that they will not be persuaded.

Without mutual willingness to listen and think, it’s not really a conversation. It’s just somebody (or multiple people) presenting demands. (There’s a time and a place for presenting demands, but they don’t generally lead to good conversations.)

Another difficulty in conversation between people who disagree is that some opinions can hurt to hear even if someone is expressing them completely civilly. This can be confusing in two directions:

It can be easy to think that someone is being mean when they’re not. If someone’s opinion hurts to hear, it can feel like cruelty even when they’re being completely civil.

What to do about this varies. Sometimes the right thing is to bear the pain for the sake of listening and learning. Sometimes the right thing is deciding that you’re not ready to hear this yet. Or any number of other possibilities. But it’s always important when this happens to recognize that it’s not the other person’s fault that the concept hurts to think about.

At the same time — it can be easy to make this mistake in the other direction. Sometimes people you disagree with are jerks. Sometimes, when you really want to be open to other opinions, it can end up being hard to tell that people are being mean. (And hard to remember that you don’t have to talk to mean people in order to be receptive to disagreement). Blaming yourself for someone else’s decision to be mean to you won’t lead to good conversations either.

I think it’s really important to learn to tell the difference, in both directions. I think important questions to ask are:

  • Do I feel ok about having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this topic right now?
  • Am I willing to listen to this person?
  • Am I willing to explain my views in a way this person can understand?
  • Does this person seem to be willing to listen to me?
  • Do they seem to be willing to explain their views in a way I can understand?

If the answers to any of those questions are no, it’s probably not going to be a very productive conversation. In some situations, it’s possible to fix this by changing your attitude and deciding to hear someone out. (And sometimes trying that is a really bad idea.) Often, the best thing to do is either find a new topic or a different person to discuss the topic with.

All of the skills involved in having conversations with people you disagree with get easier with practice. It gets easier to find disagreement bearable. It gets easier to tell the difference between people being mean and people expressing a difficult opinion. It gets easier to listen. It gets easier to tell when people are listening. It gets easier to explain things in a way that can be understood. It gets easier to learn from others.

These skills can be hard to acquire — and they’re really, really worth it.

Conversations get better when you focus on the conversations that you can have productively — and the range of possible conversations gets broader as your skills get better.

Short version: Discussing ideas you disagree with with people you disagree with is hard for a number of reasons. Under the right circumstances, it can also be highly worthwhile. Part of having good conversations is finding contexts in which they can happen productively. It gets easier with practice.

Identifying common interests

Conversations with unfamiliar people are easier if you can identify common interests as quickly as possible.

In college social environments, there are certain questions it’s almost always socially acceptable to ask that can be helpful:

  • What year are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your major?

Asking someone’s major can be a good way of detecting mutual interests. 

For instance:

  • Bob: Hey. I’m Bob.
  • Brenda: I’m Brenda.
  • Bob: Nice to meet you. What’s your major?
  • Brenda: I’m not sure yet, but I’m leaning towards physics.
  • Bob: Cool. I was considering that for a while, but decided to go with engineering. Did you ever have a class with Dr Physics?
  • Brenda: Not yet – is he really as hard a grader as everyone says? I’m really interested in optics but he kind of scares me.
  • (They then figure out that they’re both fascinated by optics, which they discuss at length).

Sometimes this works in other social settings in which you can reasonably assume that most people went to college. But in those settings, it’s generally considered more polite to ask where someone went to school before you asked what they studied. I’m not sure why.

You can also sometimes detect common interests by asking someone about their work. That can backfire though, since sometimes it’s used as a way of gauging someone’s social standing relative to the asker. Even if you don’t mean it that way, it might sound like you’re doing that.

Sometimes you can get away with directly asking “So, what do you like to think about?”. This question is considered a bit awkwardly direct, but most people are willing to answer it, and the awkwardness often goes away quickly once you identify a common interest.

You can also see if someone has buttons or pins or something else that indicates what they might be interested in. For instance: someone with a Batman pin is likely to be interested in talking about superheroes. Someone with a political pin is likely to be interested in talking about politics.