Why Write Mean Things Online You Would Never Say in Person?

December 2, 2010 | By | Comments (16)

Scolding image

“You are a terrible mother.” “You should be ashamed of yourself.” “You’re an idiot.” “Your children must hate you so much.”


All this may be true. Yet no one has ever said anything like it to me in person. But during the 12 years since I’ve been writing regular magazine and newspaper columns— about parenting and life and, now, etiquette—I’ve been barraged.


And it’s not just me; vitriol litters nearly any online comments section, no matter how innocuous the topic under discussion.


I just stumbled across a comment, for instance, taking me to task for suggesting in December’s Real Simple magazine that it might be OK to bring along an extra guest, if attending a large cocktail party where one more person might not make a difference. “…it might be fine. But why not call to check anyway?” I wrote.

Which sparked this response from a reader: “You have done every host and hostess a disservice…SHAME.”


Note the use of ALL-CAPS, which gives the impression of quivering wrath, righteous indignation—a deep, bone-shaking disgust. Is this reader really that ANGRY?


Somehow, I don’t think so. I picture her hitting the “Post” key and then never giving it another thought as she skips off to a large cocktail party, possibly with an uninvited guest in tow.


In fact, I doubt she ever was truly angry. Or thought I would feel SHAME. Or, if she stopped to consider, would have wanted me to mope around the rest of the day, all hang-dog and sad, feeling bad for having had an opinion and expressing it.

I have a few theories about why people write angrily online: (1) They think it’s expected, because everyone else does it; (2) They think it’s the only way to get noticed, amid a cacophony of opinions and views, or (3) They’re blowing off steam anonymously, because something else in their lives is making them feel bad, and they don’t know how to address that problem directly.


So, where’s the harm? Sticks and stones, etc. 

Well, as an etiquette columnist, I have to ask: Is this the best way to carry on a public conversation in the 21st century? Do we really want historians of the 22nd century to feel sorry for us, for not having been capable of handling gracefully the giddy delirium of being online?


One solution: Teach “Internet comments writing” in school. Remember “business letter writing?” And “how-to-address-an-envelope-properly writing?” We need better writing skills to give us confidence we can use words to express ideas, not just insults.


Right? Or am I an IDIOT?


(image by Digital Sextant, courtesy of flickr)