Why people get offended by social media and how to fix it.
Social media is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, more than ever before, social media connects people, helps them find common ground, company and empathy when experiencing and reflecting on the joys, trials and tribulations of the everyday. On the other hand, people seem more ready to take offence, and at times, over the most trivial of matters.
Social media is a world that is built almost entirely on non-face-to-face contact, often devoid of the subtle inflexions of verbal tone, facial expression and body language that give communication its context (no, emojis don’t count!). It’s a world where it’s as easy to misconstrue one’s message – no matter how well-intended – as it is to be deliberately hostile or downright offensive. It’s a world where friends who have otherwise enjoyed each other’s company find themselves engaging in long, trivial online tirades that seem to bear no resemblance to the camaraderie and kindredness they share offline.
This faceless communication seems to give people a sense of invincibility which is probably only strengthened by the triviality of online connections. Because your chances of socialising, let alone meeting with ironman_013 (the author of 72 comments of grief) is nearly NIL, it’s perhaps more convenient to give and take offence online, than face-to-face. I hate to think that these “invincible” online personas of otherwise law-abiding, socially adept people are in fact time bombs just waiting for the next hook to go off on; but the truth is, we’re not as rational as we’d like to think.
Perhaps we owe it to Descartes who famously proclaimed “I think therefore I am”, that science, until only recently, had concentrated on the cognitive aspects of the brain function while disregarding emotions as part of a person’s true being. One of the world’s leading neurologists, Antonio Damasio, in his 1995 book, Descartes’ Errors, demonstrates with a series of case studies how emotions are not a luxury, but essential to rational thinking and normal social behaviour. In one of his studies, Damasio illustrates that patients who still retain their intellectual abilities in spite of having suffered injury to the areas in the brain that control emotion, end up acting in ways that are socially deviant.
Yet we know that the cognitive and emotional parts of the brain don’t always work hand in hand.
Have you ever done the “right thing”, at least according to your cognitive brain – put the knife back in the drawer, not send the email – but yet feel the burn of <insert emotion> that would consume more energy and time than you’d like? The truth is, suppressed <insert emotion> would have to come out one way or the other; some people take it out on the treadmill or worse still, clueless family and friends, some people go for therapy (like me), while others take it out online. In most cases, people would rather sweep these emotions under the carpet than own and process them. Sweeping these emotions under the carpet however, is only a stop gap measure for keeping the peace, until comes the point of no return when “you can’t take it anymore” and having a hissing bitch fit seems the only way to get it out of your system.
Social media, knowingly or unknowingly, has the ability to expose all the chips that you’ve been carrying on your shoulder from the moment that you were born. All the slights and hurts that you’ve had to swallow or brush off from as early as you can remember, from being harassed by peers of a certain race/ gender/ religion, to being unfairly treated by an authority figure of a certain race / gender/ religion and hundreds of other incidents besides are all embedded as emotions somewhere in your psyche, ready to warn you in the in the form of a headache, a twist in the stomach or even the urge to cause physical harm whenever you come across a similar situation. While you may feel these same emotions no matter the trigger – online or offline – more often than not, you’re more likely to act on them online than when in a face-to-face interaction.
It’s no surprise then, for someone like me who has had an illustrious early life, that my psyche, until only a handful of years ago, had been riddled with minefields. However, far from being an explosive, impulsive person online or offline, for a large part of my adult life I’ve managed to deny or suppress any sort of feeling that I may have to oblivion, whether they are good or bad. In my childhood, I had seen how emotions – even the subtlest display of them – can be destructive and disruptive. So I simply learnt not to trust them. At best, I keep a cool head in potentially explosive and dangerous situations. At worst, I appear to have a lack of emotional empathy. I’ve had to re-learn how to feel again, and to calibrate my entire being to identify and own my emotions and letting them lead me to experiences and people that are aligned with my highest interests.
Oh, but it doesn’t stop at personal experience.
A study by researchers at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, the United States, reveals that mice can pass on traumatic or stressful experiences to subsequent generations through chemical changes that occur in DNA. The results of this study which was published in the January 2013 issue of Nature Neuroscience, may help to explain why people suffer from seemingly irrational phobias – perhaps even prejudices and other related emotions – that they have had no prior personal experience of.
In short, emotional triggers are more than just skin-deep. Social media tends to strip people down to their bare, raw, and sometimes obnoxious selves. But we don’t have to remain prickly and explosive. We don’t have to continue to be burdened and dictated by chips (or logs) on our shoulders.
Having had an illustrious childhood and having freed myself of some of these logs, I can assure you 100 percent that harbouring a gripe or a grudge – whether you’re right or wrong, victim or perpetrator – is not the way to live. It takes away the energy that could have been channelled to more positive pursuits such as embarking on that overdue fitness regiment, attracting the right soul mate, and a hundred other things besides. Sure, many people have transformed these negative experiences into the driving force behind personal goals and achieved great things with them, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to just process and release them so that you can open up your life to other, less challenging, but just as rewarding opportunities? Stress from negative emotions takes energy and it doesn’t need feeding!
Perhaps we should all look at ourselves and if and how we’ve been playing the same old tired role – just in different scenes and/or with different characters – and examine how we have contributed to a situation, rather than insist that we’re just victims of circumstance and that everyone else is to blame. And perhaps we should also look for opportunities to rid ourselves of that baggage.
And if you find yourself feeling constantly triggered and drained rather than empowered and enlightened by your social media feed, perhaps it’s time to switch off the computer and do something else. Subconsciously, you could just be gagging for a fight.