The problem isn’t what you have to say but how you’re saying it.
Spend enough time in any community or social circle—whether online or in person—and you’ll inevitably hear people complaining about the group being too insular, too much of a circle jerk, or just plain unwilling to listen to people who disagree with them. You may especially notice this when forums have active moderation or websites and YouTube accounts turn off the ability to post comments.
Now, on occasion, you will find a group or community that is unwelcoming to divergent voices, but more often than not, the problem isn’t that people are unwilling to hear an opposing opinion, but rather a case of “we don’t like assholes in the clubhouse.”
There’s a difference between having an unpopular or opposite opinion and being a dick to other people. If you’ve found that you’re regularly getting excluded from conversations or kicked out of forums for the apparent crime of not agreeing with everyone, then it may be that the problem isn’t what you have to say but how you’re saying it.
1) Does this argument need to happen?
One of the first things to consider when you have an opposing opinion or belief is whether there’s a real need to actually express it in the first place. The fact that you may disagree with someone doesn’t necessitate sharing that disagreement, nor does having an opinion mean that you absolutely must make your position known. Yeah, you may have strong feelings about the topic, but not every thought you have needs to be shared.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of sharing your opinion at this particular moment? Are you trying to change people’s minds about something? Trying to correct a perceived mistake? Or are you just looking for an opportunity to show off how “superior” you are for being correct
Sometimes injecting your opinion into a topic is just plain dickishness. To give one example: If someone is asking for help with their iPhone, leaping in to say “I never have this problem because I have an Android” doesn’t contribute to the conversation. It’s just a way of saying: “Look at me, I’m better than you.”
Not every statement—even ones that you may feel are gobsmackingly incorrect—needs someone to leap in to challenge or correct it. Sometimes it’s better to hold your tongue and (metaphorically) roll your eyes at the wrongness of it all than to get involved in an ultimately pointless fight—especially if it becomes an issue of who’s the biggest pedant.
Another common mistake is to assume that just because somebody has stated an opinion or position means that they’ve opened themselves up for debate, even if it’s in a “public” space such as on YouTube or Twitter. While I’m a believer in “you have a right to what you can defend,” there’s a time and a place for challenging others, and many people wrongly assume that’s “any time.”
The fact that somebody is having a conversation on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean that they’re looking to take on all comers. Yes, they may not have their settings on “private,” but simply being in a “public” space doesn’t serve as an invitation for anybody to put their two cents in. Restaurants or shopping malls are also public spaces, but inserting yourself uninvited into somebody else’s conversation there is still rude.
Part of not being seen as a dickhead means recognizing that you can pick your battles. Some arguments are simply not worth having. You may enjoy a lively debate, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does, and trying to drag other people into it is a quick way to end up alone. Being “right” is a hollow victory when it comes with a side of “and this is why nobody likes you.”
2) Focus on the debate, not the debator (or: an argument is not a fight)
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they’re trying to express an unpopular or opposing opinion is that they aren’t having an argument, they’re having a fight. Arguments are about trying to change minds and bring someone around to your point of view. Fights, on the other hand, are about beating the other person either literally or metaphorically.
This becomes significant because mistaking one for the other is part of how you get singled out as being an asshole. If you’re presenting your opinion in a way that focuses less on the subject and more on the person you’re disagreeing with, then you can count down the time until you get ignored, blocked, or banned in minutes.
The fact that you have a difference of opinion with somebody—or the community at large—doesn’t excuse insulting them, mocking them, ad-hominems, tone-policing, gish-galloping or otherwise switching from an actual discussion to an insult match. If you want people to listen to you instead of disregarding you, the last approach you want to take is “your opinion is stupid and you’re stupid for having it.”
This means that no matter how strongly you may be disagree with the other person, losing your cool or insulting them (or the community at large) is an effective way of losing the argument. This has less to do with the “U mad bro” school of arguments, and everything to do with pure practicality. To reiterate: The point of an argument is to persuade people to change their minds, and as soon as you start getting angry and insulting people, you’ve given them reasons to quit listening.
Moreover, insulting them will only reinforce their belief in their initial position, even when their opinion is factually incorrect. This is known as the “backfire effect,” and you can witness it in just about any argument about religion, sex, money, or politics. If you want to persuade people, you have to connect with them. Reaffirming their positive values—they’re not idiots, they’re not crazy, etc.—is far more effective for making actually persuasive arguments. Attacking them, on the other hand, just shuts things down.
This also means not getting upset and defensive when defending your own opinions. Being calm and collected—not smug, not dismissive, but calm—helps keeps the argument from escalating into a fight. You may not win, but at the same time, you’re not making an ass out of yourself. People may not agree with you but they will respect you, assuming that you give them that same respect, too.
3) Debate the real opinion, not the one in your head
When we get into arguments—especially over topics and opinions we feel strongly about—there’s a tendency to quit listening to what the other person is saying and to argue against what we think they’re saying. We end up arguing against our (frequently distorted) version of their opinion rather than what they actually think—a form of argument known as a “straw man.”
Sometimes this is unintentional, particularly when the subject is heated and controversial; there’s a tendency to assume that we know more about what the “other side” is thinking and is really saying and we argue against that. Other times it’s a deliberate misinterpretation, particularly when one side or the other is playing to the crowd or when “beating” the other person is more important than persuading others.
When it’s unintentional, it’s annoying at best. People are quickly going to get frustrated constantly having to correct you or pointing out that they never said what you’re accusing them of. Just as with getting angry or defensive, annoying people through straw-manning is counter-productive; annoying people is a great way to get ignored and/or banned. It’s especially galling in written media, such as arguments on subreddits, forums, or comments sections; after all, their exact words are right there for you to refer to.
Part of what makes unintentional straw-manning annoying is the lack of respect it conveys to others. It indicates that you can’t be bothered to actually stop and listen to the other person—and if that’s the case, why should they bother to talk with you at all if you can’t afford them the basic respect of actually listening? If you’re looking to share your opinion, especially when it’s unpopular in the group, then you need to give the respect you’re hoping to receive from others.
(You may notice that respect comes up a lot in this topic. There’s a reason for that.)
Intentionally straw-manning, along with taking things out of context in order to score points, on the other hand, are signs that there’s no point in talking to you because you’re clearly not there to discuss things in good faith and are a fast-track to meet the ban-hammer. You can complain about people’s intolerance for outside opinions all you want—just don’t expect anyone to take you seriously when you announce your intentions with the Asshole Signal.
4) Want respect? Participate in the community (without arguing)
Have you ever noticed how some people get greater leeway than others in communities, both offline and on? Ever wonder why some people get the benefit of the doubt, while other people get labeled “troll” right off the bat?
This is because the former are valued members of the group, while the latter are unknown quantities. The regulars have built up their relationships with everybody else over time; there’s a solid base of previous exposure and experience to weigh against their apparent misbehavior. They’ve earned themselves the benefit of the doubt through their contributions to the group as a whole.
Meanwhile, the newbie has yet to prove themselves. They don’t have that same reservoir of goodwill and respect to draw upon that the regulars do. When a known member of the community acts up, the others have their past behavior to use as context for their current actions. A newbie does not.
There may be extenuating circumstances for the regular’s behavior, or they simply may be well-liked enough that people are willing to forgive them a temporary aberration of behavior. Somebody who doesn’t have that relationship with others, on the other hand, looks less like a valued potential member of the community and more like someone who’s there just to be an asshole.
Is that fair? Well, it depends on whose definition of “fair” you’re using. If you work under the assumption that everybody should be precisely as equal as the others regardless of seniority or relationships, then no, no it’s not fair. But then again, expecting to be given the exact same levels of respect and consideration just for showing up as is given to people who’ve been participating for months or years is equally unfair to everyone who came before.
Communities are built upon relationships and relationships are in no small part based on previous behavior. Coming in as an unknown means that you’re of neutral value to the group and the way you participate is going to affect people’s first impressions of you. If your first introduction is to come in like a seagull—making a lot of noise and shitting on everything—then you can’t be surprised when people have a less than charitable opinion of you.
Similarly, people are going to judge you on your previous behavior. You don’t get a blank slate with each new forum thread, party, or Facebook posting. If you have a long history of being a contentious dick, people are going to respond to you accordingly and the question of whether your presence brings more benefits than drawbacks is going to tilt quickly into the drawback territory, even if you’re completely correct.
Forget about House or Sherlock. People would rather spend time with someone who may be wrong but is still fun to be with than with a competent asshat.
On the other hand, if you’re able to put disagreements aside and take part in other conversations, to share jokes and contribute positively to the group by helping others have fun, people will give you more leeway and respect within the group. Yeah, you may have the odd opinion or two that people may take issue with, but overall, you’re going to be considered a more valued member of the community, especially if you can disagree with people without it turning into a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Whether you’re talking about a circle of friends or an online community, respect is something that’s earned through building connections and relationships with others. If you’re able to show that you can be a part of the community and participate in it as a whole, then people are far more likely to give respect in return, even if you disagree on some subjects.
Plus, being a valued member of the community means that people are more likely to listen to your opinion and take it seriously instead of just dismissing it (and you).
5) Silence isn’t the same as winning
One of the fundamental mistaken ideas about arguing is the idea that getting the other person to shut up or tell you to go away is a “victory.” Winning an argument means that you’ve persuaded the other person to change their mind. Getting someone to ignore you, block you, or otherwise quit paying attention isn’t winning; it just means they no longer feel like wasting their time and energy responding to you and their time may be better spent doing something more productive and/or entertaining—like organizing their sock-drawer.
Arguing to silence or frustrate someone isn’t a debate, it’s bullying. When all you’ve done is convince someone to ignore you, you haven’t proven your point through superior rhetoric or the correctness of your opinion. In fact, you’ve highlighted the weakness of your debating technique. You haven’t changed their mind or gotten them to concede victory, you’ve just annoyed them into shutting you up so that you no longer waste their time.
Similarly, a refusal to engage with you in the first place isn’t a sign of weakness of their position, it’s an indication that they don’t feel that arguing with you is worth their time. The idea that every statement or position must be defended is a fallacy, because it assumes all challengers are equal. It’s rare the (random) challenger actually has something new and valid to say, or standing which makes their input valuable in the first place.
Anti-vaccination activists on Twitter or Facebook yelling at medical professionals aren’t on the same level as, say a peer-reviewed medical journal, particularly as the anti-vaxxers have no medical background and are frequently relying on debunked information they read on conspiracy websites. Anita Sarkeesian disables comments on her YouTube videos not because she can’t take the criticism but because frankly YouTube comments are a sewer at best and the “criticism” tends to be nothing but gendered insults, hardly hard-hitting commentary from respected thinkers.
The other mistake is to assume that all communities are intended to be free-for-all bastions of complete and unregulated speech. Every community, forum, subreddit, website, and social circle has the right to set the rules as they choose, and abiding by those rules is part of the price of entry. If, for example, someone decides that every comment on their blog needs to start with the phrase “Bless $BLOG_OWNER, May his passing cleanse the world,” that’s their choice. People who don’t want to play along are free to go elsewhere.
People aren’t obliged to listen to or respect your opinion, and being an asshole about it only justifies your exclusion from that community. If that makes you throw your hands up and complain about circle-jerks and hugboxes, so be it; go find a place more to your liking. And to be frank, people who use the term “hugbox” unironically are demonstrating why the community is better off without them in the first place.
More to the point, not giving you a voice in the community isn’t a violation of your rights, nor are you being censored if people ignore you or kick you out. You aren’t guaranteed access to a person, an audience, or a platform. If you want to express your opinion, you have the entire Internet with which to do so, from blogs to Tumblr to open publishing platforms like Medium to YouTube.
But if you want to be an active, accepted part of the community, then you need to be able to express yourself—unpopular opinions and all—without being a dick. Sometimes this means recognizing that you’ve hit an impasse and let the argument go. Yeah, it sucks that people disagree with you. But sometimes agreeing to disagree is the price of being part of the community. It’s easier—and much more pleasant—than dragging things out to the bitter end and letting other people decide that they’re better off without you.
Having a conflicting opinion isn’t the problem. Being an asshole is.
Harris O’Malley is a dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove, the Dr. NerdLove podcast and The Good Men Project.
This post was originally featured on the author’s blog and reposted with permission.
Photo via kurayba/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)