We are less than two weeks from Election Day while living through the seventh month of a pandemic. Our feelings are raw and our collective anxiety is at an all-time high. Social distancing, working from home and remote learning mean that for many of us, face-to-face conversations with people who are not living under our roof are no longer taking place on a regular basis. We are having real-world discussions virtually, and that is where we are running into problems.

It appears as though we have become a nation of polarization. From COVID to social justice reform to politics, the divide between ideologies seems too wide and too deep to overcome. The emotions that come from these topics are valid, regardless of where you are in the conversation, and the mix of that emotion added to a pandemic, the economic uncertainty that a lot of us are facing and our overall stress has made nearly every conversation a potential powder keg.

We’ve ended relationships and estranged ourselves from relatives. We are routinely unfollowing or unfriending people on social media, but not without giving them a detailed list of the reasons why we now dislike them. We are arguing and name-calling in the comment section of friends and strangers alike. In a time when human connection has never been scarcer, or more vital, we are willingly separating ourselves from each other at a record pace.

I am not advocating for keeping that racist uncle on the holiday invite list or not taking a hard look at how being Facebook friends with a homophobe you haven’t laid eyes on since high school is affecting your rage level. What I do believe (and this belief is actually backed up by experts and not a social media-ologist) is that there are ways to have healthy conversations with people whom we may not see eye to eye with that don’t have to devolve into a name calling free for all.

     In the spirit of full disclosure, I am guilty of everything that I will be advising against, so in a sense, we’re all learning together!

     When you come across a post that bothers you, take a deep breath and ask yourself, is it worth it? Meaning, is it worth your time, energy, emotional bandwidth or blood pressure to react to that post? Is this an important person in your life? Someone whose opinion you value? Or is it some guy from high school who has NOT changed? Connect with what you are feeling, and make a choice: you can comment, which may lead to an escalation you do not need nor want, or you can scroll, hide from feed, unfollow or unfriend. As much as you may hate what they have posted, they have the right to use their feed to communicate in their way, and you have the right to cultivate your feed and get them out off of your page and out of your already severely frayed energy field. Worse case scenario, you share an awkward five minutes together at the next reunion.

Sometimes it’s more complex. The person on the other side of an issue is a good friend, family member you are close to, or someone else you respect. Maybe this is the first time you learned their stance on an issue. You find yourself struggling because you do care about this person, but you cannot find a way to see their side. You believe that you can sway them, that just one well worded comment from you will cause them to completely change their point of view. And if you can’t, well, then you’ll be done with them, it’s that simple You crack your knuckles and get typing.

Stop. Take a deep breath. Give it time. Let it marinate.

Personally, when it comes to the people I actually give a damn about, I try to utilize the overnight or “24-hour rule” when it comes to responding. As a trained writer with a natural penchant for sarcasm, I have gotten myself into trouble by responding with a “ready, FIRE, aim” type of vigor. Taking the time to compose my thoughts and really explore my feelings has made me a lot more intentional in my responses, if I choose to respond at all.

Notice I used the word TRY… I can and will still fire off a snotty reply when provoked.

Ask yourself, how would you respond if you were having a face to face conversation?

     The issue with social media and the reason why we are all so much more prone to reacting without thinking, is because that sort of interaction does not require us to practice empathy. If you are sitting across from someone you care about and you have to take their feelings into consideration, the tone of your response will more than likely change. We are able to read body language and facial cues, and tend to be more open and diplomatic when talking to each other, than we are when we are typing at each other.

     We also do not consider intent when we are reading. Is someone simply exercising their right to express their opinion, are they being provocative, or are they truly setting out to offend? If we are not in conversation with the person, it can be hard to discern what they are trying to get across, which can be maddening. Add that to black and white thinking – a common symptom of anxiety – that our current state of being has caused us to be in, and we are prone to make major decisions regarding relationships that we may not make in a more calm, thoughtful state.

     If you take all of this into consideration, take time to let the post marinate and still feel the need to speak your piece, do not do it publicly. Your words and your own intent could get muddled, and you are putting yourself at the risk of arguing not only with the poster themselves, but with their other friends (and supporters) as well. Compose a thought-out, well-intentioned response and send it via direct message. Try not to argue their feelings, but state yours clearly. Explain why the post made you feel the way that it did. Offer a personal perspective while letting them know that you want to open up a dialogue and that you value them and their thoughts.

It is also helpful to play out each scenario in sending the message. Not only what happens if you are able to get your point across, but also how you will proceed if you don’t. Will you be able to speak your piece and agree to disagree, or are you willing to die on this chosen hill and take the relationship with you?

I encountered this recently when I came across a meme that one of my closest friends had posted. It wasn’t overtly offensive, but it was ‘hinky’. It came during a time where I was feeling incredibly sensitive to the world around me and it struck a nerve. I sat with my discomfort for a minute and thought about how to proceed. I texted my friend and let them know how the meme made me feel. They explained honestly that they had posted it without considering any sort of nefarious, possibly racist undertones, and after we talked, they took the down the meme.

     I told them that they did not have to take it down, the fact that they acknowledged my feelings and took the time to explain why they posted it was enough. More importantly, as a grownup, I could choose to ignore it now that I knew the backstory. They told me that the fact that it hurt me was more important than the fact they thought it was a HILARIOUS meme.

Now, I know that not all discussions are going to end like this (and trust me, I was 50/50 on my own response having a happy ending.) You may end up not agreeing, but you are more fully able to understand where they are coming from and are satisfied with their explanation.

You could also reach a stalemate, or things could get ugly. This is where you will want to put your mental health and wellbeing above being ‘right’. If you see no way around your difference of opinion, then you do need to consider the future of your relationship. If you believe that there is no way to go forward from your dispute, then it is in your best interest to find the most amicable way to end things. It could be as easy as simply removing yourself from their lives digitally, but if your relationship goes beyond social media into the real world, a necessary but uncomfortable conversation may need to happen. Just as with your initial response to them, it is always best to keep things civil. Use “I” statements and not “you” statements. Speak plainly and be done. Do not allow yourself to be dragged into a last word competition, no matter how tempting it may seem at the time.

     Social media has it’s good and bad points. Like most things in life, it’s all in how it is used. The important thing to remember is that you need to prioritize your mental health over your ability to make a point. Practice discernment when it comes to what you allow on your feed, and therefore into your space. You feed is your social media garden, and it will require regular weeding in order to maintain it to your standards. There is absolutely no reason to suffer over the opinion of someone you haven’t laid eyes on in decades.

     There are excellent, scientifically valid resources that you can refer to when you are trying to modify your social media use, or just want to learn effective ways to communicate on the various platforms. The American Psychological Association (APA) and Psychology Today have great articles on all aspects of social media use. I go to these sites regularly when the noise gets too loud. They offer sound, rational information that is helpful on many levels.

     It is equally important to remember that like it or not, everyone with a social media page has a right to post what they want, when they want. The caveat to that, of course is violent posts or threats. If you come across one of those posts, block and report them ASAP. You cannot control what others say (nor should you want to), but you can control your response, or lack of, towards what you see online.

     Remember, you do not have to attend every argument you are invited to.

     I read that on a Facebook meme.

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