How to Disagree With Style

by Dr. Peter J. Meyers February 9th, 2009 

Pick a topic, any topic. No matter how small or insignificant, somewhere on the internet there are two people right at this moment threatening each others' lives, mothers, and sexual orientation over it. Our own community, which should spend enough time online to know how to behave, is no better " every week theres some new SEO drama that gets played out, and it usually starts with a misunderstanding or over a topic that no one sane could give an airborne rodents posterior about.

argumentI like to think I'm a reasonable person. Maybe it's because Im creeping up on 40, or maybe Im just nave, but I don't think anyone needs to die over whether the PS3 is better than the Wii, or whatever Miley Cyrus did last week. It's ok to disagree with people, but there's a big difference between disagreeing and being, for lack of a better word, a douchebag. Here are a few tips for how to disagree with style:

1. Listen and Learn

Ever have somebody verbally disembowel you who obviously didn't even bother to read what you wrote? We're all in a hurry, especially online, but take the time to read what people have to say. Its pretty rare that someone is completely, 100% wrong. Theres a fact that we've sadly forgotten, whether its in our relationships, jobs, or politics: Disagreement is how we learn. Before you tear into a total stranger, stop and ask if theres any truth to what they're saying.

2. Dont Make It Personal

Flame-wars are like road rage " somebody cuts you off, you assume they did it on purpose, you flip them the bird, and pretty soon you're creating your own intro to a CHiPs episode. Most of the time, it's not personal " it's careless, stupid, insensitive, possibly even a mistake. Don't escalate one mistake with another one. Step away from the computer, take a breath, and don't take it personally.

3. Know When to Walk Away

What if it is personal, or someone is deliberately attacking you? There's no denying how nasty the internet can occasionally get. Sometimes, you still need to walk away. Inflammatory personalities love attention, and fighting fire with fire usually just burns down both your houses. If youre a moderator or blog owner, dont be afraid to remove comments that are personally insulting, bigoted, or purposely inflammatory. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said - freedom of speech does not include the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

4. Show Some Respect

Maybe it sounds silly, but why not take the time to be polite? There's such a thing as respectfully disagreeing with people. Instead of starting your comment with: "You're a total idiot, and here's why..." how about something like:

  • "I understand what you're trying to say, but"
  • "Sorry, but I've got to disagree with you on this one."
  • "You make a good point about X, but I've got to argue with Y."

5. Separate Opinion from Fact

Maybe its an American thing, but when did we start to think that all of our opinions were handed down by God Almighty? Think about it: how many things do you really know for sure, and how many are just opinions you have because someone once told you thats how it was? I'm not talking about major, philosophical truths or deeply held beliefs, but the little stuff. Did you scientifically test that SEO practice you just tore someone apart for, or did you just read it on some blog once? Don't be a victim of your own confirmation bias.

There you go " a few strategies for how to play nice online. In closing, let me just say that I own a PS2, Wii, Windows Vista laptop, and an iPhone. If you don't like it, suck on it. 😉

(Photo courtesy of - Photographer: Diego Cervo, Milan)

Dr. Peter J. Meyers

Dr. Peter J. Meyers ("Dr. Pete") is the President of User Effect, a cognitive psychologist, and an accidental entrepreneur. In his spare time, he raises a daughter and writes about procrastination at 30GO30.

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18 Responses to “How to Disagree With Style”

  1. mike ashworth says:

    One tip i have is instead of using the word "but" to substitute it with the word "however".

    When you use the word "but" it tends to be received in such a way that any comment prior to it is ignored by the recipient.

    So if you start with a compliment, understanding or apology, and then follow with "but…" all that is forgotten and the part after is remember (the negative bit generally)

  2. Jake says:

    Can't disagree more and before you write anything more, I must say that I've never liked your writing style. This will be my opinion always and I will return to post more similar statements to this post despite your reply. Oh yes, I forgot to say you are a total idiot and to my opinion it's a fact that nobody likes this article.

    With such a flooding of ill will it is often easy to bully colleagues at workplace. It works extremely badly in media like internet where people have time to think before they launch their retaliation, hence web is perfect playground for hate.

    Good post, should teach some people some manners. Sorry I underlined your points with a strong example.

  3. Rob says:

    If I was running a forum, I would have this as a sticky. Too many crazy rants.

  4. @Mike – That's a good point, but… 😉 You're absolutely right: "but" can be a loaded word and is pretty tricky to use sincerely. Still, it beats the way a lot of comments seem to start.

    @Jake – It's funny, people really do have more time online to stop and think (unlike in an in-person, emotional situation), and yet we seem to do it less and less. It's so easy to be reactionary – I found I had to get away from commenting on political blogs for that exact reason. We're all guilty of occasionally getting caught up in a mob mentality.

  5. nextbrett says:

    Nice article. Interesting topic.

    I find myself quite a logical and critical thinker which puts me smack bang in these situations. I find that finding common ground is a good technique.

  6. jan says:

    And referring to an airborne rodent's posterior is the way to put across your arguments in style? Why not dress up the "douchebag" reference as well while you're still at it?

    But at least you're being truthful here, especially your admission you're creeping up on 40. Your reference to Chips attests to this fact.

    Oh boy, I'm not good at this. :) My inner douchebag is not happy at all. Insightful list you've got here. Enjoyed it immensely. :)

  7. Rick says:

    I agree that people should make an effort to be more civilized online. The unfortunate fact is that people will always speak differently online than they would in a face-to-face due to the anonymity of the web – or at least they don't need to look someone in the eye when they say aggressive or hurtful things.

  8. Bev says:

    Great post! People forget that what they intend as a witty zinger can actually be very hurtful and counter-productive. Sometimes the best answer is to step away from the keyboard….

  9. GIochi Pc says:

    This was an interesting article, but the anonimity of the web make very difficult that people speak online as they would do in front of the other persons so … It's not so easy !

  10. I am always surprised by how often people think that they are making anonymous threats online without even the hint that everything can be traced online. The best advice is to truly just walk away..well put.

  11. […] How to Disagree With Style | Search Engine People | Toronto Great read about online arguments (tags: blogging etiquette discussion internet politics office) […]

  12. MiriamEllis says:

    Greetings, Pete,
    What a good and thoughtful post. Civility makes the difference between a good day and a bad one, and it is pleasant to see you thinking this out. It never hurts us to act with respect for the dignity of others and can only make us feel our day has been a better one when we lie down to sleep at night.

    I continue to be such a fan of your writing, Pete.


  13. Utah SEO says:

    Very good post Pete. I think they entire Internet should read this so they can do the same practices.

  14. Metaspring says:

    Your point no. 4 is really important, people dont take the time to be polite. There is just such a lot of rudeness and intolerance for another person's point of view on the internet it can be really off putting. I suppose the reason behind it is the high degree of anonymity that the internet gives.

  15. Thanks for the positive comments, everyone – I was half-expecting a flame war to break out.

    @Jan – This is the SEO community: I figured that if I was too polite, they might get confused 😉 (JK – I love you guys)

    @Bev – That's a great point. I actually tend to be a bit sarcastic at times (more with friends than professionally), and it just doesn't translate well online. We lose a lot of subtle cues and body language in emails and blog comments, and emoticons don't cover the gap. Besides, you can only use so many winky faces without becoming annoying, a fact that I'm living proof of.

  16. Take a deep breath…..and slowly count to ten…..that is about the most sage advice I can offer to prevent adrenalin causing bad decision making and poor replies.

    What works for me is to compose a loooong email about what is bugging me, to read and reread it, and to then press delete, rather than send. All the time chuckling over the discontent actually sending the message would'vve caused…..heheheheh

  17. @SEO Tips – There are many, many times when I've written a long, ranting response to something and then closed the window without hitting send. Sometimes, you just have to get it out of your system.

  18. Too bad people will always disagree and they will always react before they think. That just seems to be human nature.