The Unfriended : Lessons in social media arguments

Almost nobody I know fights in person anymore. Colleagues disagree on e-mail. Spouses express themselves with curt texts.

Written by Leher Kala | Updated: June 5, 2017 3:14:04 pm
(Representational Image)

In the bizarre world of reality TV, in shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, people routinely spring out of their chairs, and threateningly wag their fingers at each other. You listen! It’s an entertaining mix of a good old-fashioned fight, a war of words and loud voices. Eventually, it somewhat satisfyingly dissolves into tearful apologies and all is well. It almost makes the viewer envious for their ability to thrash out issues so fearlessly because in real life we know, speaking up is incredibly hard.

Arguments are more likely to be week-long ruminations in your head, till you get tired of thinking and let it go. Of course, it would be awfully inconvenient and time-consuming if we had to have long discussions every time we felt wronged: festering, then cooling off till you calm down is much more practical. At any rate, it’s better than a terrifying conversation where you actually might have to articulate what you really think.

Almost nobody I know fights in person anymore (welcome to adulthood). Colleagues disagree on e-mail. Spouses express themselves with curt texts. When acquaintances clash on politics in these tumultuous times, they simply block news feed and don’t ever hear from each other again. Nothing gets addressed, nothing ever gets sorted out. Recently, I suffered the ignominy of two very different disagreements, which convinced me that in our deeply interconnected world, relationships can turn to dust in mere minutes, over a few fervent and not clearly thought through messages.

The first, a 100 words exchanged with a friend on lingering resentments finished a 20-year association, without a single conversation. Even more uselessly, the essence of the argument was lost in text translation, with no one the wiser on what went wrong. The second, with my daughter’s ballet teacher, who cancelled a class three Saturdays in a row right after I had paid Rs 20,000, is going to be a lifelong lesson in humility and what not to do when you’ve been scammed.

When the ballerina claimed to have a pain in her ankle the third time and I raised the unfortunate question of how long, exactly, would recovery be, she accused me of being unsympathetic of her injury — on a WhatsApp group with 30 other parents. A two-minute angry tirade later, it ended with me saying, “You’re not a real ballerina! You’re from Ukraine!” (Pathetic, I know). Said ballerina, though not very nimble-footed, turned out to be extremely nimble-fingered.

Before I’d put my phone down, she’d spammed my 1,100 friends on Facebook and 400 followers on Instagram and her own 5,000 contacts, warning them not to listen to any lies being spread by a “crazed lunatic”. I got calls from friends as far as Jakarta and a lawyer contact even offered to sue her for defamation on my behalf. The lesson here is think before you type (especially when the person you’re responding to is far smarter at using social media than you are).

It would be naive to think that when WhatsApp messages are fuelling riots and bringing down dictators, they would not profoundly impact our personal relationships and the way we communicate as well. In this new world, arguments (unfairly) favour the one with the larger number of followers and it’s easy to get drowned by an unpredictable and fragile medium. Tone, over messaging, can be easily misinterpreted and too much gets left unsaid. As Robert Frost said, “the best way out is always through”, and this applies most to a fight. It means we must go through the ordeal of raised voices and recriminations to reach a point of resolution. When a relationship is close, it can be fundamentally necessary and totally worth it — to pick up the phone and yell.

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