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Social Skills in Social Media
By Maryam Motia

Virtual connections via the Internet have become part of our cultural landscape, and as someone who tends to scrutinize relationships, I have seen something troubling in the way we relate to each other.

A while ago in a WhatsApp group that had been initiated for an ethnic community in a city located in Ontario, Canada, a small number of members, as planners and organizers, left an announcement for a virtual ethnic party to celebrate a cultural event. Some members of the channel attended the party. However, one of the participants left a post to express her complaints and regrets afterward. She wrote: “I’m very upset with attending that party. I had even invited my friends with their children to join me. I didn’t expect to see what I saw there. It was very shameful. I expected such a public party to be planned for families and appropriate for children, but I was wrong. I wished they [organizers] would have been more attentive to ethical, cultural, and religious values of their guests and, prior to the program, informed them that the program would be appropriate for 18+.”

As a reader, while I did not know that community program (i.e., party) or the complaining person, I could understand and empathize with her feelings. As a mother, I imagined how it would be irritating to spend some time with my children watching something (i.e., virtually attending a party) not ethically appropriate, at least for me, given my values. I could even imagine the person and her friends; how experiencing such an undesired situation might have generated discomfort in their relationship, at least at those moments. Imagine you have proudly explained to your friends about a particular community channel you are a member of and invited them and their families to join you to watch a program presented by that supposedly competent group. Then, you suddenly face something opposite to what you expected. Personally, I could relate to the complaining member and her request to provide clear direction in advance.

The first comment by another member immediately after such an expression of discontent was replying to the invitation post: “Excellent. Well done!” and the second comment by someone else was also referring to the invitation: “I wish we could have more of such programs!” and the third post came from the admin of the channel directly addressing the complaining member: “As someone living in [the name of the city] for [several numbers of years], I tell you that if you go out in the warm weather, everywhere is appropriate for 18+ only, or even for 81+ only! Especially the beach! …”

Upon reading these posts, many thoughts and feelings invaded me simultaneously. I thought how easy it could be to reject an opinion inconsistent with ours; how brutal it would be to suffocate a minority voice; how self-fulfilling it could be to downgrade others’ values, views, and lifestyles, and experience a sense of supremacy, given our (social) power. There are a few important concepts tied to this example that I am going to elaborate on.

In our interpersonal relationships in general, and in virtual groups specifically, the first skill we should develop is our capacity to see the world through another person’s eyes. It is important to be aware of the uniqueness of every single one of us, our lived experiences, and understanding and meaning-making of those experiences. It is of great benefit to differentiate our values from those of others. Our worldviews, goals, preferences, and tastes are ours and other people have theirs. Many characteristics and qualities that we live by are not of the matter of right or wrong; they just represent our understandings, preferences, or even limitations, and we should profoundly learn these differences and uniqueness and respect them.

With that being said, the skill of empathy—putting ourselves in others’ shoes and viewing the world through their eyes—is a foundational skill of emotional intelligence. By emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ), I mean the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own and others’ emotions to relieve stress, overcome difficulties in relationships, and communicate effectively. Such an ability is different from the cognitive intelligence or intelligence quotient (IQ) which is an ability to learn, remember, find solutions, and make an intact judgement.

It is worth mentioning that possessing a high IQ does not guarantee an EQ advantage. Moreover, while biology and inheritance play a significant role in determining the level of our IQ, we can grow our EQ through intentional work on ourselves. Thus, when reading others’ posts on a social platform, we should consider the uniqueness of the person’s worldview and lived experiences and try to empathize with them.

Another crucial point to take into account is the complexity of the group dynamic. Group dynamic refers to a set of behaviors and thoughts and emotions that exist within a group or between groups. It is very common to see some members of a group forming a coalition, working together against another member, typically a minority opinion, purposefully or inadvertently. In this sense, one whose view is of less desirability or expectation is countered directly or indirectly. In the exemplar, the first and second persons who immediately left their compliments for the organizers of the party have actually (even inadvertently) joined a coalition to make their voices louder than the complaining member. These actions represent attempts to remove or diminish the effect of the complainer’s opinion.

Such behaviors represent negligence of their peer’s experience and associated emotions, which is in contrast to the concept of empathy. Therefore, when encountering a different or even an opposite idea, view, or feeling, our emotional intelligence, ability to empathize, and knowledge of the group dynamic should prevent us from shaping a coalition. Rather, we should leave some space for others to be themselves and share their thoughts and feelings with us, as mature and understanding human beings.

The problem of coalition becomes more serious and troublesome when we are negligent of the role of power in the group and the ways ones with high power lead members’ opinions and shape the “direction” of comments. In the exemplar, the admin of the channel, as the group leader and the person with the highest power, left a post that revealed their personal worldview. Given the power of the admin, posting a personal comment on controversial topics such as religion or parenting styles drastically impacts the ways members of the channel negotiate and treat each other. This is more of a matter in some cultures, given the sensitivities around those subjects.

Upon reading the admin’s explanation of Canadian context and how the environment could be 18+ or 81+, as a parent, I thought I might not be strict about what my children would encounter outside, given my values, but certainly, I do care about what I intentionally watch with my children at home. To me, the admin’s justification for what is seen outside can also be watched inside is like saying because the use of cannabis is legal in Canada and there are many cannabis stores and many people use it openly on the streets, then it is OK, as a family, to watch a program showing the production and the use of cannabis!.

Moreover, the admin’s comment in the exemplar could function as a green light for members to challenge the complaining person. It could lead to the formation of a coalition against the minority voice. Hence, in such a cultural context especially, the admin of the channel or anyone with a high level of power for any reason, should be careful of when they should or should not participate in the discussion among members and comment on the topic.

The discussed issues are notable, given that comments and posts in social media are not easily removable or forgotten, but they are long lasting. This characteristic of the virtual world warrants paying more attention to the ways we, the technology users, treat one another on those platforms. Moreover, given that the pandemic has expanded and accelerated the need for familiarity with the implications of these technologies, postpandemic we will need our commitment to using them ethically and empathetically. Boosting our knowledge of the aforementioned concepts, practicing empathy and respect, and distancing ourselves from determining right or wrong for others can fulfil such a demand.

— Maryam Motia is currently a PhD student in Social Work at Wilfred Laurier University. Her area of interest includes the mental health of immigrant women in Canada. Holding a Master's of Counselling, Motia used to work as a family counsellor before immigrating to Canada. She has been volunteering for Immigrant Services - Guelph-Wellington in the past years.