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Advice For Believers And Atheists:
When Talking Religion On The Web, Email, Message Boards, and Other Forums Aren't The Best Ways To Communicate


This one seems to confuse a lot of people and has gotten me in trouble plenty of times. But the fact remains that typed messages - whether by email, newsgroups, message board forums, or in any other form - just aren't as accurate in conveying emotions and intentions as real face to face conversations. That means you're going to have to give people the benefit of the doubt if you want to communicate this way for very long. Especially if the topics are of a sensitive nature, such as "secularism versus religion." You might think that this is just common sense, but most of us seem to forget when we're actually in these situations. I've even had people insist that I was making up this whole online miscommunication problem to get out of taking responsibility for the things I wrote in whatever forum we used to frequent!

By far the best message board I've ever visited is on my links page, and its members actually include a mix of die-hard atheists and fundamentalist believers who generally get along. (gasp!) Too bad most forums aren't like JWD.

So what is the biggest thing to keep in mind when communicating online? One article on the New York Times web site had this to say:

In an article to be published next year in the Academy of Management Review, Kristin Byron, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, finds that e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.

One reason for this is that we tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.

There's a long list of articles out there that talk about studies which seem to confirm the fact that text communications are often misunderstood, including a really good one by APA Online. Another article with numerous links can be found at GSB NEWS.

So what are some tips you can use to avoid communication problems?

1. Watch the sarcasm.
This was one of my biggest problems. No one can really tell the difference between sarcasm and being a total smarta** on the web. The fact is that sarcasm just doesn't work well online unless you and the other person know each other in the real world.
2. Make sure to use emoticons and other signals to help people figure out the tone you want (especially if you're going to break rule #1!)
Emoticons are good because they can help set the tone almost instantly, but they aren't full proof. I've had experiences where others became so convinced that I was trying to sneak some insults past them that they thought the emoticons were part of a clever ruse. You will want to watch your choice of words and - if you're going to make some of the mistakes that I've made such as violating rule #1 above - you'll definitely want to remind everyone that you don't mean anything bad by what you're saying. But do so before you make the comment. It's often too late after the fact.
3. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
A short message written in a hurry can often sound as if the author is angry or dismissive. But they may have simply fired it off before scrambling away for a much needed bathroom break for all you know. Just don't assume the other person will always remember to return the favor.
4. If it's really nagging you, just ask them what they really meant before your suspicions get out of control.
Just copy the worst part of the message you aren't clear about and then ask them, "What did this mean? Were you mad or what?" When you copy the questionable part of the message into your own, the original author is more likely to read it as you did and to understand how it "sounded" in your head.
5. Proofread your comments and make sure everything will be clear to the reader.
Simple oversights can cause your readers to be confused or misinterpret your message so badly that it comes across as an insult. This can easily happen if you forget to indicate that part of your message is a quoted insult made by someone else. (Yes, I've actually seen this happen) And make sure you didn't skip any words or letters that could make your message come across as gibberish.
6. Be gracious when you - or someone else - makes a mistake.
If you misinterpret the intent of a message and flame someone who meant no harm, just apologize and explain why you reacted that way so they'll know better next time. If you're the one who gets flamed, be gracious and realize that the other person made a mistake that you might have made if the situation were reversed. So long as you both give each other the benefit of the doubt, everything can still go smoothly.
7. Don't write when you're angry or in a hurry.

As mentioned earlier, messages written in a hurry often come across as brusk or angry. Also, if you're mad at someone and write the other person about it, you're far more likely to say something really evil that you would never have said face to face. You may regret it later, so wait until you've calmed down.

You can find more tips on avoiding problems at SixWise.

-the Atheist Geek-

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