social media / writing

How to Talk to People Online

social media chatTalking to people online is nothing like in person. Sure, you must do this to build your PLN, but quickly, you realize how much communication is transmitted by body language, pacing in speech, facial expressions–all characteristics that can’t be conveyed with the black-and-white of words. That makes sarcasm challenging. Even humor–how often do you know someone’s being humorous because of their grin, exaggerated expressions, or laugh. None of that comes through online.

As a result, online conversations need to be sorted differently than in-person conversations. Consider these quick rules:

  1. Always consider the perspective of the person you’re talking to. They can be anywhere on the planet, with a world view entirely disparate from yours. Not better or worse, just different, with cultural norms that could make your comments insulting or intimidating (never good when you’re trying to make new friends). Sure, you can’t catch all of those, but you can start by avoiding comments you know could be misunderstood and adding details about your background to provide context to your conversation.
  2. Be international in your conversations. After all, you’re writing to the world, not your home town. Include international references (like Happy Canada Day on July 1st). That might take research, but that’s fine, especially for writers who hope to sell books in multiple countries.Children's drawings idea design on crumpled paper
  3. Don’t talk politics. Best case, you’ll annoy half of your readers. Few people understand the intricacies of foreign governments (few understand their own rulers). Most people believe the axiom, ‘Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t’. Here are two examples:
    • Most Americans think our education system is broken but think their local education is great.
    • This second is an opinion: While democracies (like America) value freedoms, lots (and lots) of people around the world don’t. They want someone else to make those big decisions for them. They believe having all those choices makes life too complicated. Be sensitive to that.
  4. Use good grammar and spelling. Lots of people conflate ‘texting’ with ‘online writing’. Not true. Texts are private, not intended for the world to see. Every online communication has the potential to go viral, bad grammar and spelling errors included. As writers, we don’t want to risk that.
  5. Where weather used to be a safe (albeit boring) topic, it isn’t anymore. Now, it’s political and could blow up into an insult-charged scream-fest about global warming. Don’t talk about the weather. Talk about books instead. Or dogs and children.

I’d love to hear what innocent online conversations you’ve been part of that have become toxic. What should I avoid in the future?

Check out this article from Wikipedia on the ‘online disinhibition effect‘ for an better understanding of online chats. Or this one from Jeffrey Lin on the toxicity of some online games.

–first published on Today’s Author

More on social media:

4 Reasons You Want a PLN and 13 Ways to Build One

Writers Tip #48: Have a Web Presence

27+ Tips I Wish I’d Known About Blogging

15 Tips Picked Up From Twitter

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor of technology in education, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 


45 thoughts on “How to Talk to People Online

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  7. What I have found to usually work, is to limit the conversation to what’s on the site where you’re conversing from. Sometimes it can go far after a while when you get to know that particular person better.


  8. I like this article and it makes very good points. In my voyage through social media I come across what I regard as quite extraordinary comments at every end of the political spectrum, but I never comment as such because it gains nothing. Minds will not be changed but quarrels will be opened.


    • Good phrase, Peter–minds will not be changed but quarrels will be opened. So true. It’s actually good advice in the physical world, too, though we have the benefit of being able to see the face turn red and the steam come out of the ears as clues to the fact we’ve stepped in it!


  9. I think that’s really important – the cultural aspect and remembering that comments are easily misconstrued without proper context. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about cultural norms online! Great post, Jacqui 😀


  10. There are some great tips here, Jacqui. One I would like to add is PLEASE DON’T USE CAPS. Okay, now I’ve shouted. Several times in recent weeks I’ve seen WordPress posts in my email where the title of the post is all caps. I delete these because i really don’t like people shouting at me 😉


  11. All good points to keep in mind. I can’t help getting a little political about the destruction of the planet, but I would never be disrespectful. I do avoid religion at all costs since it is such a touchy subject for so many.


  12. I don’t avoid conflict (I try to but it never works out). Once I read a blog post about a man who saved a dog from the streets. I wrote a very boring “oh, how wonderful that you saved a dog.” This somehow led into an angry (on his side) conversation about how much he hated Christians. I never used any code words like “blessed” or “pray” or “God” but he wanted to rant. I quickly unfollowed. I don’t have time for people who can’t express and read differing opinions without losing their minds. 🙂


  13. My guideline (that I don’t always follow since I rarely listen to myself . . .) is whether I want my opinion floating around in cyberspace in perpetuity.

    I think that a lot of what is said is probably governed by the reason behind the blog. When I was blogging to “promote” my blog I was a lot more careful. Now that I blog to amuse myself I’m less cautious.

    However . . . I’m a bit tired of all the “political correctness” and trying to avoid hurting EVERYONE’S feelings. I like what AVWalters said: “I yam what I yam” (well, actually my hero Popeye said it)

    There are always going to be people who don’t like what I say, do, or who I yam . . . and vice versa.


  14. I think the real test is knowing your audience and addressing specific and limited topic(s) on your blog site. Stick with travel, children, and writing. Or go with pets, elder care, and non-fiction. Or movie reviews, vegetarian cooking, and poetry. I’ve noticed that bloggers who are all over the place on their sites are the ones who seem to attract a few angry comments.
    I also use a few simple emoticons after writing comments so the reader can intuit my intentions. ;D
    Great post – the kind of article people need to think about before they publish.


  15. I’m still not very good about communicating much online, so I don’t say enough to get myself into trouble. At least not yet!


  16. I’m good with all of this…except that I cannot refrain from issues that some think are political. Is clean air political? Clean water? Unadulterated food? Oh, and don’t get me started on weather. What can I say, I yam what I yam.


  17. I agree with Miss Perry, great points. How often, especially with my dry sense of humor, have I wished for a “tongue-in-cheek smiley face to explain my remark and then wondered if the person half-way around the world would understand what tongue-in-cheek meant. I’m still learning – thanks.


  18. Very good points here Jacqui and I agree with most except the last. Is talking about the weather political?! The UK would become a very quiet place if we didn’t talk (ie. moan) about the weather at least once during the day:-))


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