Unempathetic Words

I'm not a psychologist, nor have I had any psychology classes since high school.  My understanding of the subject is limited, so what I say is mostly from my own experience and world view.  Young children do not think of other people's feelings.  It's not so much because they don't care how other people feel, but rather that they're not aware of how other people feel.  As children develop, they learn to feel empathy.  They are taught by their parents or mentors to think of other people's feelings.  They learn that other people feel the same feelings that they do.  A child will learn that ey isn't the only one who feels pain when ey is hit, that other people will be happy if ey does something pleasant for them, and so forth.

By the time we are adults, we learn several cues to help us understand how other people are feeling.  We pick up on body language, tone of voice, context, verbology, and many other things to help us understand what another person is feeling.  We feel empathy.  We can relate to other people.  We can anticipate that a certain action will have a certain effect on another person's feelings.  When we are talking to someone else, we filter the things that we say based on what we know about the other person.  I may have one friend that I feel comfortable teasing about his weight and another friend whom I feel would be hurt if I did, so I refrain from that kind of humor around him.  I may think that belief in God is silly and childish, but when I'm in someone's home and eir telling me how important God is to em, I don't feel the need to share my thoughts--at least not in the same wording as given here.  I think that sometimes we carry this a bit too far, but for the most part I think it's very helpful in maintaining peace and diplomacy in interpersonal relationships.

So, I find it interesting that this does not hold for Internet communication.  I've wondered why this is.  I've tried to analyze my own behavior for some insight.  I often post things online that I would never say in person.  That is, there are things that I say on the Internet about religion that I would never say directly to a friend who is religious.  There are political views I share online that I would not necessarily share with some of my friends in person.  Why is this?

One common explanation for why people are "jerks" on the Internet is anonymity--that people can be trolls because they can hide behind a mask of namelessness.  They don't feel any direct repercussions for their actions because nobody knows who it is that's saying the things they're saying.  But, that only explains this kind of behavior when it is done by people who do not attach eir name to eir words.  I do. There may be a few sites where I post anonymously for various reasons, but for the most part everything I share online has my name on it.  I am not hiding my identity on this blog nor on Facebook.  And yet many of the posts I make on Facebook are of this "trollish" nature.  Not that my intent is to be a troll, but that I do not take the same care that I take when conversing in person.

For me, I think that the biggest reason why I so often make posts which may hurt others is because it is easier for me to be strictly unfeeling with my words when I'm talking to a computer.  I don't feel empathy for my computer.  My laptop doesn't have feelings.  I can't injure it with words.  It is completely indifferent to whatever I type into it.  And it's easy for me to forget that on the other end of the Internet, the person reading what I say is actually human and has feelings.  I find that I often lack empathy when I say things online.

Sometimes I think this is a blessing.  I think that this detachment from emotion helps me to be more honest and accurate in my description of how things are and how I see them.  I think that I am more accurately representing myself and being more authentic in doing what I do and saying what I say online.  I have a very analytic mind and I enjoy being as logical as I can possibly be.  I even enjoy the thought of removing emotion from my conversation.  But, the truth is when I come across something that someone else says that's of the same nature as these kinds of unempathetic posts that I make, my feelings are hurt.  I get angry, I get upset.  I do not remove myself from emotion when I read what other people say, so I cannot remove myself from emotion when I say things myself.  I cannot think that people will read my words objectively and interpret them logically.  I must remember that people will interpret things emotionally, just as I do when I read things other people say.

Psychologists say that children develop the concept of object permanence at an early age (like 2 or something, if I remember correctly).  That is, you can hide a toy from a child and up to a certain age, ey might think that the object is simply gone forever.  But, after a while, the child learns that the object still exists but is simply no longer in view.  I say that our whole lives we suffer from some degree of lacking this concept of object permanence.  I think that part of the reason why people are so inconsiderate on the Internet is because of this very principle.  We do not always show the same degree of empathy that we would show in-person because we are not directly looking at the person we are talking to and reading eir body language.  The person's face is hidden from us and so we think that they are not there. That is, we need to develop object permanence all over again.  We need to make the realization that the person on the other end of the line is a person with feelings and the things that we say will affect them exactly the same as if we were saying those things to eir face.