by Clare Noel Bender

Many students can agree that they have been caught up in the storm of controversial topics online. Even though it is seemingly easier to hold a conversation online where a person can simply text an instant message without giving it a second thought, online conversations can often lead to miscommunication and negative results. According to Dr. Kent Kaiser, a professor of the communication department, holding a controversial topic online can turn into a negative experience.

“Online conversations tend to turn harmful because there is a lack of non-verbal communications, such as facial expressions and body language,” said Kaiser. “Because a person cannot read facial expression through social media, it can often lead to misinterpretation. I would recommend in-person conversation to eliminate the possibility of miscommunication and, ultimately, help keep relationships and feelings intact and undamaged.

Students interact with positive and negative online conversations on a daily basis (photo courtesy of Clare Zuspann).

Students interact with positive and negative online conversations on a daily basis (photo courtesy of Clare Zuspann).

Joseph Glerum, a current student of the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, stated why in-person conversation is encouraged: “In a face-to-face conversation one is able to read body language and understand higher forms of speech, like sarcasm. It’s also intentional. It’s harder to just drop a comment into a conversation and just walk away. If you contribute [to conversation], normally you would feel invested to some degree. In addition, when speaking with another person interruptions take place. Normally that’s a bad thing, but in a way it helps break up emotional rants and forces the speaker to think about what they’re saying. There’s also social pressure to hold some amount of respect for the other speaker, which helps people to refrain from destructive conversation like insults or silencing.”

Sometimes holding an in-person conversation is impossible when the other person is in a different state or country. In this situation, a phone call seems to be the best solution, according to Kaiser and Glerum. “If it can’t be in person, I’d recommend a private message or a phone call. Now, this can go wrong too (I have a friend who was recently ‘ambushed’ for something they said on social media). But it prevents the ‘circus’ that can occur on a public forum,” said Glerum. “It’d also be good to make sure that before the conversation takes place, some explanation for the conversation is given (‘I’m confused about what’s going on, and I’d like your input,’ ‘I’m just really hurting right now, and I need to vent,’ etc.) so that both parties don’t enter the conversation with different expectations.”

According to Kaiser, it is important to clarify where you’re coming from when it comes to controversial issues. He advised: “State the value proposition and then state some facts to show that you know something about the topic before you finally talk about it, like what your opinion is on the topic. Because if you state some sort of value first and then express that you know something about the topic, then at least if a person disagrees with you on a policy prescription, at least they’ll say, ‘Okay, I disagree with her on her policy, but I understand how she got to that conclusion,’ or they might think, ‘at least I know that she’s a rational, thinking person when she comes to that conclusion.’”

Kaiser provided an example of what a value statement would look like: “One of the ones I use as an example in class is on gun control. Let’s say somebody is arguing with somebody who’s for gun control, and of course, I’m a gun rights activist. I might say, ‘I think we all agree that the first rule of government is the protections of its citizens.’ See, that’s the value statement. Well, nobody disagrees with that really. Most people agree that the government should protect us. And then I might state some facts, and they don’t even have to be out of a textbook.”

What if a person is already embroiled in an online controversial argument? Glerum said: “Drop out of it and pursue private or face-to-face conversation with them. If an online conversation is negative to begin with, or turns out to be a hostile environment, there is going to be little you can do to produce productive conversation.”

In the end, it is important to maintain respectful and thoughtful interactions with each other. Glerum said: “The most you can do is just love people. Care for them when they hurt, mourn with them when they cry, laugh with them when they’re happy and respect them when you disagree. We can have amazing conversations both online and in person, but only if we model our lives after Jesus.”

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