Navigating conflicts on social media
James Garcia, a psychology graduate student at the University of North Texas, thought he and a fellow classmate shared similar world views. But that changed the day he read her Facebook posts on last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown. “Online, she had a different presence and a lot of the things [she was saying] were related to discrimination,” he says. It left Garcia disappointed and wary. “These issues are important to people of color like myself,” he explains.
It’s a 21st century dilemma: The impressions we make are increasingly shaped by how we conduct ourselves on social media. An Instagram picture showing friends drinking can communicate irresponsibility. A seemingly benign grumble on Twitter — “My classmates are blowhards!” — can easily offend. And posting your thoughts on current events can spiral into stormy debates.
“The challenge of social media is planning what you want to post as opposed to randomly posting things and being sensitive to the fact that people take, [say], humor in different ways,” says Katharine Brooks, EdD, executive director for personal and career development at Wake Forest University. “You really can be judged harshly with one tweet.”
That’s an important lesson since any online interaction might be seen by future employers, co-workers and clients. Your online posts are easily discovered — and not easy to erase, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, assistant director of APAGS.
Couple that with how the Internet creates a sense of remove, and you have a recipe for problems. “Social media presents the opportunity to be impulsive and trigger-happy,” says Ameen. Before you know it, an inflammatory post morphs into a battleground, pitting one person against another.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Art Markman, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Fact is, part of what graduate school is about is learning to grapple with people who utterly disagree with you.”
So what’s a grad student to do?
Start by being mindful in your social media presence instead of giving in to the immediacy these sites encourage. Brooks advises forgoing social media if you’re in an extreme emotional state, “either super-happy, super-sad or had too much to drink.”
And don’t forget to set your privacy controls. That doesn’t just mean ensuring the public can’t access your feeds — it also means making sure you have the ability, when possible, to approve what’s posted on them. Facebook, for instance, allows you to approve posts written by others and photos in which you’re tagged before they appear anywhere on your wall. It also has a privacy checkup you can run to see just how cloaked your posts actually are.
“You own the page and you have a right to choose what goes on it,” says Brooks.
That said, bear in mind that your friends can always share what you post or, in the case of Twitter and Instagram, take a screenshot of what you wrote and share it themselves.
Revealing your opinions about potentially controversial topics such as politics or religion isn’t necessarily imprudent, as long as you “take a second to think about it,” advises Ameen. “Think through what may happen when you post in the heat of the moment, especially if it’s a hot-button issue.” Facebook arguments or Twitter replies, especially, can easily go awry.
Also, be sensitive to the fact that there will always be those who won’t agree with you on many subjects big (politics) or small (the importance of a character in a TV show), Brooks says. But first ask yourself if you need to chime in at all. Is the subject your area of expertise? Do you have something new to say? If you decide to share your thoughts, Brooks recommends to “state it once and state it clearly,” and to resist the urge to go back and engage in “yes-butting” if someone else wants to elaborate. “Don’t keep going back, don’t defend,” she says. “Keep it short, keep it reasoned.”
What happens if your typing fingers, fueled by emotion, are faster than your self-control? For starters, celebrate the delete button. Luckily, most social media sites allow you to erase your posts and shares, which would be the first crucial step in undoing any damage, Brooks says. If you feel strongly that you may have offended others, consider posting an apology as long as it’s genuine. (Again, keep it short.)
If you find yourself at odds with a classmate’s ideas online and want to clarify what was said, take the conversation offline. “You’re going to be with your cohorts for several years,” says Ameen. “You’re not only peers during your training, but potentially could be peers throughout your professional career.”
Having an offline dialogue is exactly what Garcia chose to do with his classmate. “I had to take a step back and not react and have a conversation in person,” he says. The result? “We just agreed to disagree.”