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Last word standing

Sanchita Guha
Filed on July 17, 2021
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Social networks are the arena where the keyboard gladiators of today fight it out before an eagerly watching crowd. But what happens when we battle close friends or family members?


Oops, I did it again, I’ve been in a fight, got lost in the game…” — that’s how the lyrics might go — sorry, Britney! — if I were to write a song for our online lives these days. When we scroll up and down social network feeds and chat threads, there’s plenty to be outraged about, plenty to argue about, plenty of brickbats to be exchanged with even those online adversaries who pull double duty as our offline friends and relatives.

Some weeks ago, I took the extreme step of blocking my cousin — someone I had sort of grown up with — on Facebook, because of a flaming row over whether or not India really has a caste problem. This was not the diplomatic unfollowing of a person, where I could banish them from my feed without them knowing it; this was full-fledged “I want nothing to do with you anymore” kind of blocking, where, weirdly, her comments disappeared from my view, but my responses still remained visible to me, like body parts left on a bloody battlefield.

I was in this state of fury for about 30 seconds before realising that I was blocking the said cousin just before her birthday. We normally send each other birthday greetings, and I didn’t want to stop that — so I unblocked her and we both retreated in injured silence. Our WhatsApp interaction is now sparse, and our FB interaction is non-existent.

What gives online arguments the potential to ruin offline relationships is, perhaps, their intensity. It’s possible to compose a long, heated response without being interrupted, whereas a drawing room conversation would have physical and verbal cues influencing all of those present, and responses would be modified accordingly. Once a ‘strong’ comment has been posted, it elicits an equally strong response from those who oppose the views, and so it continues like a ping-pong rally — no one will back down, since it’s all being played out on the public stage. Some people back up their online views with facts and stats; some believe that facts shouldn’t get in the way of their opinion. Such disputes have little chance of ending in a shower of rose petals.

The urge to be proved right is an inherent part of us. In his blog ‘Why Is It So Important to Be Right?’, on Psychologytoday.com, US-based psychotherapist Mel Schwartz says: “One of the most prevalent — and damaging — themes in our culture is the need to be right.” Traditionally, throughout human history, being right is associated with getting ahead in life. Schwartz writes: “Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers and the ensuing higher grades, which generally lead to more successful lives. Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students, we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong. Getting the right answer becomes the primary purpose of our education.” Therefore, on social networks, discussions quickly become arguments, and then personal attacks ensue.

‘At an open forum, it is difficult to back down’

Commenting on this phenomenon, India-based school-teacher, artist, and poet Ruma Chakraborty says, “In the past year-and-a-half, we’ve seen unprecedented activity online (because of social distancing and limited mobility caused by the pandemic). The close proximity we had to friends and family has now moved to the digital platform. It has been a mixed blessing.”

Being able to stay in touch is very helpful, but the disembodied manner of communicating is not. Ruma says, “When you have an online argument, it creates a deep chasm with someone in your offline relationship. You may feel like you’ve lost face, if other people have witnessed the spat. It creates a schism that can’t be repaired by an offline apology. If the spat is one-on-one, it’s easier to kiss and make up. At an open forum, it is difficult to back down and in order to prove your conviction, you will carry on.”

But even a chat limited between two people can be seriously upsetting. Ruma had a WhatsApp argument with a friend on the subject of school fees at a time when classes had moved online during the pandemic and students weren’t getting the complete school experience. The friend, who has a daughter in school, spoke disparagingly about how parents weren’t getting their money’s worth. Ruma was incensed because she knew, being in the profession, how the online classes had added to the teachers’ workload. “I let her have it. I said, ‘You must take back what you said. Not only is it demeaning to the profession, but also very hurtful to me’.”

In retaliation, the friend blocked her. “Days later, we met in a WhatsApp group, and she was very arch, and I was very arch,” says Ruma.

It may seem like these online arguments just aren’t worth it, considering the damage they can potentially do offline, but sometimes they’re inevitable when the bone of contention is a big one — patriarchy; law and order; national policies; women’s rights; and so on. The open digital arena may bring as many allies as adversaries, especially on Facebook and Twitter, where our voices reach strangers as well as acquaintances simultaneously. Ruma says, “Sometimes, you know you might not have made a difference by being the only voice [on a social network], but you’d know that X number of women or men would support you.”

‘There are certain people that take an argument as a war’

As battles still rage on the bigger social networks, the instant messaging service WhatsApp has now emerged as a new hotbed of strife.

With more and more features added, it has become a daylong social space for groups of family members, school and university batchmates, and office colleagues. The conversations here span everything from personal accomplishments to professional requirements to good, old-fashioned armchair activism, all at the same time.

The feeling of “everyone is watching” is heightened by the fact that WhatsApp groups are much smaller circles than other social media communities — being in a WhatsApp group is like being in the Big Brother house minus any cash prize; one has to meet the same people every day, deal with the same character quirks and flare-ups, and exit from the group is usually covered in ignominy.

For the past 18-odd months, most WhatsApp groups (in India) have been discussing Covid. Healthcare, government success or failure, and vaccination are now burning issues. As usual, rows abound — and they turn ugly. Soumen Dutta, a very senior executive in the Indian telecom industry, found himself compelled to ask for decorum when, during a WhatsApp group chat among colleagues, “a basic discussion about vaccination snowballed into a major argument”. A “very low-level remark” was made by a certain colleague against a top political figure, triggering fury among others. This colleague began sending direct messages on the same subject to Soumen, which was very disturbing and might have been a violation of the company’s code of ethics. Though he eventually restored order in the group, Soumen’s face-to-face talks with that particular colleague became reduced to almost monosyllables unless necessary.

“For the past 5-10 years, I’ve been arguing less,” he says. “I only protest if I see someone saying something that’s a blunder, e.g. someone said that [Covid-19] vaccine can kill people, quoting an expert who allegedly said that the vaccine would kill a person in two years. Now, this expert says a lot of controversial things, but didn’t say that.” Soumen’s nature is to refute such misinformation by presenting credible documented proof against the original statement. If he senses that the argument would still continue, he lets it go, because “I would not want to feel better by hurting others”. However, “I do feel let down by what I see in that person, if they refuse to even consider the point I’m putting forth.”

“There are certain people that take an argument as a war — they have to win at any cost. They may understand that they’ll lose a very good relationship, but they still won’t stop,” says Soumen. An inflated sense of self-importance often fuels the fire. “There are people proud of their stature and they have an ego. They think what they say should be believed by everyone; this ego sometimes results in arguments.”

‘Humour is easier than saying sorry — when I’m right’

Dubai-based comedienne Imah Dumagay uses humour as her “go-to in breaking tensions” during online arguments with offline friends or acquaintances. And there are tensions, alright. A chat with a friend about the correctness of wearing the thawb — the long white robe — as a Halloween costume blew up into an argument. “I find it okay, and I mentioned all my sensible reasons, but he was adamantly against it — he was so angry I could feel the tension even digitally!” recalls Imah.

She used to get sucked into frequent heated exchanges over religion and Philippine politics, but she stopped about five years ago, because “all I got out of it was headache”. Her view of these social media arguments is: “They can cause a lot of stress and ruin relationships.”

Imah has a strategy for dealing with an argument that threatens to get out of control in a WhatsApp group: “First, what I usually do is take that row privately to avoid embarrassing each other. Second, I always apologise for how I made my friend or family feel, but I never apologise for standing up for what I believe in.” She uses humour — her forte — to defuse the situation deftly. “It’s easier than saying sorry, to be honest, especially when I know I’m right and I won’t apologise for it but, at the same time, I value my relationship with others.”

‘Counteract in a non-negating way’

Keeping bitterness out of an online argument may only take something as simple as a subtle shift in position. Dubai-based therapist and life coach Anne Jackson, founder of www.onelifecoachingme.com, advises, “The best way to talk about [a big issue] is to only ever talk about what you would do, what you feel, and what you think. For instance, you could say, ‘I would take the vaccine, because I believe it’d be the right thing to do’. It’s not about name-calling, not about trying to change the perspective of the other person. All you can do is to stay firm in your own values, own ideals. One of the best ways is to use ‘I’, to refer back to yourself — for instance, ‘I would not cheat on my husband’, rather than ‘You are a terrible person for doing it’.

“If you’re being an authentic person, being firm in your convictions, you shouldn’t mind meeting them in person afterwards, because you were only being yourself. But if you decide — because you’re online, and one step away from reality — to say things that you might not say in real life, that’s when it’s going to affect your relationships.”

On ‘debated’ subjects such as vaccination, “if you feel that your voice needs to be heard, because you’re so convinced that something is totally wrong, then you should go in and counteract it”, says Anne. “But counteract it in a non-negating way — you could say, ‘There’s enough research on vaccination being the best way to remove Covid… and I have never seen any research that says vaccination kills… so I wouldn’t necessarily give much weight to what’s being said here’.”

As a specialist in leadership, careers, and relationships, Anne sees a lot of “attack and defence”. Her advice to manage online arguments without losing offline relationships is: “In order to have a proper debate, you have to get out of that attack and defence mode and speak from knowledge; and if you don’t have that knowledge, don’t speak.”

Should a relationship suffer a rupture, one must acknowledge that “deep-rooted values” can’t be changed overnight through a WhatsApp discussion and that reconciliation means taking a step back. “If you want to re-establish the relationship, you have to go back to conceding that, ‘Look your views are your views, and my views are my views, on this subject. It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends’.” If the argument has gotten personal, there’s nothing else to do but apologise. “The best way to say it is, ‘I’m sorry that what I said might have offended you; that was never my intention’.” Emphasising on how much we “value the friendship” or “value the relationship” has healing power, too.

It helps to give ourselves permission to retreat when charging forward won’t change anything — “It’s not backing down from your views at all; it’s backing down from the argument.”

(Sanchita is a journalist based in India)





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