How to argue on the internet

It’s plenty hard enough to get someone to listen to your arguments in a debate, given how attached people are naturally to their own ideas and ways of thinking. But it becomes even harder when you trigger someone’s emotional side, by making them feel like you’re attacking them and putting them automatically into “defend myself” mode (or worse, “lash out” mode), rather than “listen reasonably” mode.

Unfortunately, online debates are full of emotional tripwires, partly because tone isn’t always easy to detect in the written word, and even comments intended neutrally can come off as snide or snippy… and also because not having to say something to someone’s face seems to bring out the immature child inside grown adults.

But on the plus side, debating online at least has the benefit that you can take the time to think about your wording before you comment or email someone. Below, I walk you through my process of revising my wording to reduce the risk of making someone angry and defensive, and increase my chances that they’ll genuinely consider what I have to say.

DRAFT 1 (My first impulse is to say): “You idiot, you’re ignoring…”

Duh. Get rid of the insult.

DRAFT 2: “You’re ignoring…”

I should make it clear I’m attacking an idea, not a person.

DRAFT 3: “Your argument is ignoring…”

This can still be depersonalized. By using the word “your,” I’m encouraging the person to identify the argument with himself, which can still trigger a defensive reaction when I attack the argument. That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

DRAFT 4: “That argument is ignoring…”

Almost perfect. The only remaining room for improvement is the word “ignoring,” which implies an intentional disregard, and sounds like an accusation. Better to use something neutral instead:

DRAFT 5: “That argument isn’t taking into account…”

Done.  Of course, chances are I still won’t persuade them, but at least I’ve given myself the best chance possible… and done my part to help keep the Internet civilized. Or at least a tiny bit less savage!

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