Dealing With Difficult People Online

June 8th, 2011 by admin Business & Law, Gotta Love the Internet No responses

When you walk down the street and see someone acting a bit strangely do you go over and say “Hey, buddy, you’re sure acting strangely?” Or do you walk past them quickly, or even cross the street? What if they yell (or even mutter) an obscenity?

Most people do walk by, and for good reason. You’re not going to change someone who’s path you cross walking down the street. And who cares if some stranger on the street called you a bad name.

But get online and if the same thing happens people feel the need to respond and to point out the error of the other person’s ways. And if it doesn’t work (which it usually doesn’t) people will go back and try time and time again, totally forgetting that old adage, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Having been advising people about online interactions (social and business) since before the www part of the Interwebs became popular, there’s one thing I’ve learned is effective for dealing with difficult people online: IGNORE THEM.

Yes, I do understand, they said something terrible about you, your family, your religion, your politics, your favorite flavor of ice cream. And sure, with the anonymity of some message boards and comment threads it’s tempting to set things right. But will it actually work?

Sometimes someone very calmly posts something you know to be in error, or with which you just disagree and in all innocence you post back. And only then do the invectives fly.

For some reason when someone is sitting at a computer and writing in recognizable words, we don’t have the same “this person is strange, just walk on by” reaction, even if the words indicate that the person is strange. We’ve not been taught since childhood how to identify “strange” (ie, not a good person to interact with) from words as we have been from physical behavior.

But we can recognize acrimonious, argumentative and rude. It’s just when we come across that in the flesh we walk on by. When we come across it online we engage. And that’s exactly the wrong thing to do if you want the person to stop.

Walk on by. Ignore. Hit delete. Get up from the computer and have a snack. Go outside.

I realize the temptation is there to engage these people. But doing so will escalate the discord. It has been known to escalate right off the Internet into your physical space.

A few years ago a client asked about a friend who had a weblog and someone was posting incorrect and insulting things, even threatening things in the comments on his blog. I recommended, through my client, to ignore the woman. She was clearly “strange” (actually she was clearly nuts) and he wasn’t going to convince her she was wrong, nor was he going to cure her. But he had to set the record straight. She ended up finding out who he was and where he lived and sent snail mail and eventually made threats in person which finally brought in the police, but only after he spent months in fear dealing with this.

But she had done this to several other bloggers in the past who had ignored her, and she had moved on until someone engaged her. That of course was an extreme example. But every “strange” person you engage could become her.

So here’s my really far out there suggestion. Think of people you interact with online as…. people. Think about the online experience as walking down the street. Think about whether you would say a bright and cheerful “Hi, there” to this person, or would you look down and walk quickly by. And then get up from the computer and have a cookie.

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