(It’s worth noting, however, that this may also be useful advice for interactions with others offline.)
I don’t know what’s in your heart. I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t have direct access to either of those (because I’m a distinct person from you), and if I did, you’d probably feel violated.
The only sensible data I have on what’s in your heart and your mind when I’m interacting with you online is how you present yourself — and your regard for others — through your words.
Here’s the thing: words are an imperfect tool for communication. There are lots of them, which makes it tough to pick the right one, and then you have to string them together just so. And, after all that work, the person with whom you’re trying to communicate may still not get what you’re saying*. They might even think you were trying to say something else and get mad about it!
Is this frustrating? You bet! Shouldn’t you be entitled, therefore, to expend a little less time and effort choosing your words, instead just shooting from the communicative hip and sorting out communication misfires as they happen?
Perhaps. But let’s think about whether this is a consistent course of action. (Here, I’m not worried about an I-contain-multitudes kind of inconsistency so much as a making-yourself-an-exception-to-the-rules-by-which-you-wish-other-to-play inconsistency. We ethicists have a thing about that.)
If you opt out of the effort of communicating carefully – of actually thinking about how your words will likely be received (or could possibly be received) by their intended audience, you’re counting on that audience to assume, going into the communication, that you’re a good guy**. Depending on the circumstances, this might mean asking people to take on faith that you’re someone who helps others, eats his vegetables, and could never harbor, even subconsciously, an unkind, unjustified, or biased thought in his head or in his heart.
But, are you asking your audience to interpret your words in the light of the “I’m a good guy” assumption regardless of your actual words (because it’s a lot of work to think about how those words might come across to other people)? Do you think it’s unfair for the people with whom you’re trying to communicate not to make that assumption as they try to decode your meaning? If you’re getting upset that your words are being misunderstood – that they may even be causing hurt and offense – then this is what you seem to be doing.
Do you notice that this spreads the burden pretty unevenly?
You can say what you want, because you’re a presumptive good guy, but if those quickly chosen words feel like pokes in the eye, others are still supposed to give you the benefit of the doubt and respond with appropriately worded criticism. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, after all. So it’s not really fair for them to hurt you (say, by expressing pain that your words felt like pokes in the eye to them).
Heck, you may even want to reserve the right to disagree with the appropriately worded criticism. You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so – because a good guy like yourself doesn’t go around saying offensive things! The right thing for them to do, clearly, is to accept the non-offensive interpretation that you are offering for what you said (even though it’s a pain to do the extra work of offering that non-offensive interpretation, since they shouldn’t have taken offense based on how you said it in the first place, what with being a good guy and all).
In this little scenario, you’re communicating a lot more than you might have thought you were. You’re conveying that your audience ought to assume your good intentions even if your actual words cause them pain. Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience’s claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience’s hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn’t really count. At the very least, you are putting your need to see yourself as a good guy above the perceptions of others, even when their perceptions are informed by your words.
I don’t know what’s in your heart. The only sensible data I have on that is how you present yourself — and your regard for others — through your words. Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts. Discounting pain because we did not mean to cause it doesn’t help us avoid causing more pain in a future communication misfire. Instead, what it does is undermine the plausibility of the “good guy” assumption.
Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating. Those distinct hearts and minds clinging to words as a way to connect with each other also have distinct experiences and interests, priorities and plans. Engaging with each other – even successfully – does not make us all the same person. Agreement is not the ultimate goal. Taking other people seriously in a conversation ought to be.
* Here, I’m only thinking about the straightforward case in which your message is being received by someone with whom you intended to communicate. The structure of online venues like blogs increases the chances that your words will be picked up by an audience that was not your intended audience, and that can complicate things a lot. To the extent that some blogs are intended by their writers to be intimate loci of venting to a group of people who “get” them without too much explanation (something we all seem to need in our lives), that may amplify the opportunities for misfire. I suppose one has to decide where to allocate one’s effort in making communication work, realizing that explicit or tacit “I wasn’t talking to you” can communicate a lot, too.
** I’m in the camp that uses “guy” as a non-gender-specific word. If you don’t like that usage, substitute “person” for each instance of “guy” above.