How To Avoid Being An Unintentional Jerk Online

You probably think of yourself as a decent human being who doesn’t go around pissing off your friends. But because we are all human beings it is inevitable that you will make some assumption that is not true, or not shared by the other person, or just not think something through from the other’s perspective and thus come across as insensitive or worse.

Here are a few things to consider before, and after, you put your foot in your mouth in an online situation:


1. Don’t assume everyone else is as technologically savvy as you, particularly about privacy settings. Consider who might be able to see what you are saying/linking.

For example: Don’t assume everyone knows how to set privacy controls on Facebook so that they get to approve, or not, any picture or comment in which you tag them before the world sees it. While you may consider that photo or comment innocuous, silly, or just something you want to make sure they see – they may feel differently when it shows up in their feed automatically.

2. Your idea of being cryptic may not match theirs. If it’s something about which you feel a need to be cryptic then perhaps it isn’t the right place to say anything at all about it.

You may think you are communicating to the original poster without making their private business public (“Hey, does that mean that thing is okay?”). But if you haven’t been so obscure that they don’t get the reference, they may still perceive your comment as too revealing  because they DO know what it’s about. Which leads to the next point:

3. Before posting ask yourself: is this the right communications channel?

There are times when you may read a post in one online venue and do need/want to respond to the poster. But, especially if they are someone that you know and with whom you communicate in a variety of ways, consider how publicly or privately your response is best made.

Even if the person posted their information/comment publicly you may not want to make certain responses in the same public forum, such as corrections or information they may wish kept private. When there’s any room for doubt send the person a private text, DM tweet, FB private message, etc. instead.

[N.B: There are certainly other ways to be an unintentional jerk online. I provide these examples because I write about what I know, and have myself unintentionally done each of the above…]

Uh oh – despite your best intentions you now find you’ve stepped in it!

Here are some best practices for damage control:

1. Don’t argue with the offended person about why they shouldn’t be offended!

It doesn’t matter that

  • you didn’t intend to offend them.
  • you feel they are making a mountain out of a molehill.
  • you think it’s their fault for not configuring privacy settings, talking about it first, etc.
  • you feel embarrassed so want to stop feeling like a jerk.

You do not have the right to dictate how another person feels about you and your actions (though you do have the right to stop associating with a person whose default behavior is to be a serial blamer or drama llama).

2. Take responsibility and apologize.

Taking responsibility: “I’m sorry that my actions offended/embarrassed/revealed something private about you.”

NOT taking responsibility: “I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my actions.”

3.  Make amends as far as possible, and with the affected person’s approval.

Know how to undo what is able to be undone, e.g.,

  • delete a Tweet
  • edit or delete a FB comment
  • remove a FB tag.

but ask the person if they’d like you to do that, especially if doing so unannounced would itself cause a problem, e.g., removing a comment in a string of comments makes the following comments non sequiturs (in that case perhaps edit the comment to remove the offending info if possible).

Do NOT post a public apology unless the affected person requests or specifically approves it (e.g. in a mailing list discussion where you can’t go back and undo your original post) – that in itself may just make matters worse by calling more attention to the original post.

4. Accept whatever other actions the person may take for themselves with respect to your relationship.

E.g., if they decide to unfriend you on Facebook you may feel it’s overkill for what you did, but you do not get to decide that. More likely (assuming you weren’t a flaming jerk)  they may be cool to you for a bit, or just accept your apology and life goes on.

Whatever their reaction, don’t hassle them about it or whine to your mutual friends that they are being unfair – as the person who broke their trust you do not get to set the terms for regaining it.

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