How do other people do it? How do other people deal with the etiquette of hate?
Even as a kid, I’ve always seen the world as one big potential pen pal. I try to answer letters and emails from readers as swiftly as possible. So grateful am I for a response to my column, I reply even to those written with toothpicks and nail polish (I’m hoping it was nail polish; it was deep red).
Most days, I answer the angriest and most scathing notes immediately. I’m driven neither by virtue nor by discipline. I simply want to get the vitriol out of my head because some of the language my correspondents use makes Anthony Scaramucci sound like Captain Kangaroo.
Despite coming from a background strikingly similar to that of our short-lived White House communications director — meaning that I am fluent in profanity — I nevertheless try to answer messages from Enraged Readers with as much grace and honesty as possible.
I’m no lady, but I try to write like one when the occasion demands.
What tickles me pink is when Enraged Readers suddenly become Reasonable Adults, which is what often happens once folks realize there’s an actual human being behind the column. Even the most passionate antagonists immediately withdraw their fangs (you can hear the clicking noise) and make cogent arguments in meaningful, respectful and compelling ways.
Although their opinions on whatever topic is under discussion — women’s rights, health care benefits, why major universities still need to have brick-and-mortar libraries and not only hot tubs — will not have changed, their demeanor will have shifted.
The change in tone makes my day.
Their replies back to me usually begin with “I never expected to hear from you,” followed by an apology for rough language. As my student Julia put it (because Julia is getting a good education at a university with a library), “They’re a little bit like Nietzsche, thinking that they’re simply shouting into the abyss without ever thinking that the abyss might not only shout back, but even more weirdly, reply immediately and cheerfully.”
Very few people have ramped up the rage. Quite the opposite: Several exchanges that began on a harsh note have become, if not harmonious, then at least entertaining. Very often they’re illuminating. I’ve come to enjoy these debates.
But what do you do when you get a note from somebody you’ve never met, or somebody you knew 35 years ago, or a friend of a friend who more or less demands a favor — and then despises you if you dare to decline? That’s a different kind of hate.
I’m far happier getting into a fierce argument over why the gender gap in wages is not only real but genuinely bad for all Americans than I am explaining why I can’t get read somebody’s 1,079-page manuscript by the end of the month (“Just print it out and make suggestions in the margin before you mail it back!”) or get them six tickets to UConn women’s basketball games (“I haven’t exactly read your stuff, but you gotta know coach Geno Auriemma, right?”).
If I don’t answer in the enthusiastic affirmative, I get replies that make me want to purchase Kevlar vests in a variety of charming colors.
Julia says that she stopped accepting every social media invitation to be “friends” in seventh grade and that I also need to be more discerning.
I did learn one lesson: I no longer let the whole world post stuff on my Facebook page. One actual friend explained that “your Facebook page is like your fridge door: You’re the only one who gets to decide what stays up there.”
Her analogy gave me the permission I needed to remove comments that are off-topic, annoying or belligerent. If, after repeated warnings, somebody doesn’t get the hint, I put them on the list of those who are unwelcome in my virtual kitchen.
I did this last week, only to have one guy fume that I was assaulting his right to free speech by refusing to allow him to call me an idiot on my own Facebook page. I suggested that, as a personal favor, he read the Constitution to grasp more fully the First Amendment.
Let’s see if he writes back.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.
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