When my columns appear in the Northside Sun my publicist, er, wife, often posts a link to the online versions on her Facebook page. On one such occasion recently a friend of mine from Berkeley challenged me on a couple of points in my article. This led to a dialogue between us from which I extract some general principles. But first, the dictionary definition of dialogue might be helpful.
Dialogue: noun – an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement; verb – to discuss areas of disagreement frankly in order to resolve them.
Thus, without further ado, I humbly offer a model for dialogue in the social media era.
1. Take it offline. I’m not suggesting going analogue here – pen and paper – although even today the handwritten letter has its place and can be more meaningful to the recipient. Rather, I’m suggesting it is better to carry on the dialogue in private than in public. In our case, after Alan reached out to me via comment on M’lee’s Facebook page I suggested we continue the discussion offline. He quickly agreed and sent me his email address.
This is countercultural, I realize, as the norm in the social media era is to post your thoughts for all to see. (Twitter strikes me as especially narcissistic; rather than congratulating someone directly on an accomplishment, if you tweet your congratulations are you more motivated by congratulating the person or having everyone see you congratulated them? But I digress.) If I take my dialogue offline, I’m more likely to focus on the person with whom I’m in dialogue, rather than everyone who may be listening in. And we can have a more productive discussion.
2. Be polite. This is also countercultural. In the age of talk radio, reality tv’s contrived conflicts, and confrontational “news” shows, politeness is a forgotten virtue. But to be heard in dialogue – to communicate – how one says something is as important as what one says. My friend was cordial when challenging my article. When I read his message, I told him, sincerely, that it was great to hear from him and to tell his wife hello.
Polite does not equal bland. One can be passionate, argue with conviction, and still maintain a sense of decorum. Since my friend and I have been polite and respectful in our exchanges, our dialogue continues two weeks in, replete with cites, links, attachments, and in one case a footnote in an email. (Your intrepid author can get carried away.) Indeed, as I write this column, I received another email from Alan with an attached letter signed by 78 Stanford faculty members.
(An historical example worthy of emulation is the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Adams and Jefferson had strong opinions about what was best for the young nation and were often at odds – Jefferson defeated Adams in his bid for a second term as President. Yet the correspondence between them endured for decades and the final words Adams uttered were in praise of his rival and friend.)
3. Admit your limitations. Beyond recognizing, admitting means stating your limitations in the dialogue. Recognize that as much as you may know, there is always someone who knows more. And even if there is not, your knowledge is not perfect. (Never confuse probability with certainty. Beware anyone who claims to be certain.) My model here is Socrates, who was convinced if he were wise at all it was only because he was more aware of his flaws than the next man. (In fact, the astute reader of my columns has probably already recognized the influence of Plato’s Dialogues. And those of you with long memories of 1970s TV may recognize a bit of Socrates in Detective Columbo. “Just one more question….”)
4. Pause and reflect before responding. Instantaneous communication is both boon and bane of the modern age. The ability to reach someone immediately in an emergency is a blessing and can be a lifesaver. The ability to respond immediately to a tweet or post is a curse and can be a life destroyer. Allow an hour, or twenty-four, to go by.
5. Realize less is often more. Mark Twain famously said in correspondence with one of his colleagues, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have time.” I had composed a long email in reply to one of Alan’s, but after letting it sit for a while (see #4 above) I deleted about 80% and went with a more concise reply.
6. Put the relationship first. This undergirds all the advice above. “Proving” your point is secondary and lack of agreement, consensus is not failure. (In fact, proving your point should not be an objective at all; finding an optimum solution, regardless of where the solution originated, is). My friend and I have not come to agreement or reached a consensus. But our dialogue has been excellent.
Kelley Williams, Jr. lives in Jackson, Mississippi.