How to Write on the Internet without Offending (Too Many) People

I piss off a lot more people on the internet than I do in real life. In real life I’m actually pretty timid and apologetic. But on the internet I say things with a lot more confidence, and I expend a lot less energy trying to be likeable. Sometimes that makes people mad.

So I’ve offended my fair share of readers on the internet. Almost everyone hated my anti-Mother’s Day post (one person said it “dishonoured all mothers” — !), and several people were pretty ticked off by my post praising my husband for supporting my home birth (“So are you suggesting that my husband is a bad husband?”).

I may play all nonchalant about negative feedback on my blogs, but in reality I get quite distressed when someone is offended by my writing. I feel horrible and sick and worry that I’m a big jerk. I honestly have trouble eating and sleeping for days. (Okay, let’s be honest. I never have trouble eating. But the food doesn’t taste as good).

Of course, some people will find ways to get offended no matter what you write. I once saw a bunch of people get in a tizzy over a post disparaging flip-flops. No joke! Another blogger once mentioned that she was considering writing a post about using breastfeeding as birth control, and a reader advised her not to because it would be insulting to women who got pregnant while breastfeeding. What? Seriously?? We can’t even talk about biological realities without offending people?

But offended sensibilities are especially inevitable when dealing with big issues like Morality and Religion and (worst of all) Parenting, as this blog does. If you write about how you made a certain moral decision, someone is bound to say, “Oh, so you think you’re so much better than me?”

There’s only so much you can do about this. A lot of times it’s just the reader’s own insecurity coming out – they’re lashing out to alleviate their own guilt — and you can’t be held responsible for that.

And I also have to keep in mind that Jesus offended people all the time. Some folks are going to get upset when you make them question their habits of thought or ways of living. That doesn’t mean you should be quiet about these important issues.

But it’s essential to speak with love and understanding. I think there are some ways to minimize offending people in your writing by remaining humble and sensitive. It’s important to avoid sounding judgmental and condescending when you talk about the Big Things, though I know I haven’t mastered the art.

I will say this: of course I think I’m (mostly) right about the things I write about. Otherwise I wouldn’t hold the opinions that I do. And of course I think the decisions I’ve consciously made are the best ones – that’s why I made them.

Moreover, when I discover something that has made my life easier or more beautiful, of course I want to share it with the hopes that you’ll try it, too.

But is there a way I can share my ideas without implying that you’re ignorant, lazy, or less evolved than me for not having stumbled upon them yourself?

For example, I hope to write a post exploring some of the ethical benefits of breastfeeding. I hope I can discuss such a touchy subject without alienated mothers who bottle-feed.

Here are some ways I’ve discovered to avoid sounding judgmental. If you have any further suggestions to add, please list them in the comments. If you have some really good ones, I’ll add them to my list (and highlight them in blue).

1. Share stories rather than advice.

(I recognize the irony of offering you this tidbit of advice).

When you offer advice you suggest that you know better than your readers. Which might be okay when it comes to things like social media tips, but not so much when it comes to talking about parenting or ethics.  These are sensitive issues, and everyone’s doing their best.

 Telling personal stories simply demonstrates that you’ve had experiences that have taught you things. A good story about how you changed a certain behaviour might inspire others to do the same; but if you outright tell them they should do it, they’re less inclined to give it a try. For example, “Why I chose to breastfeed” is probably more effective than “Why you should breastfeed.”

 2. If you must offer advice, take time to acknowledge your limits.

I don’t know that my idea is best for all people at all times in all situations. So I note things like, “I don’t know all the details of your situation,” to emphasize the fact that I understand that there might be legitimate reasons to choose differently.

For example, if I’m discussing the benefits of breastfeeding, I’ll want to observe that I can’t possibly know everything that might lead to a decision to bottle-feed. Perhaps you lacked support from your husband and the nursing staff during those incredibly vulnerable first days after birth, which led you to doubt yourself and quickly lose the opportunity. I know what worked for me but I don’t know what will work for you.

3. When telling your story, avoid saying things like, “I used to think/do X . . . Boy, was I an idiot!”

I just saw this one recently and it understandably upset quite a few people, though I might not have seen it if I’d been the writer.

The fact is, your readers might still do or think those things, so you’re effectively calling them stupid when you say things like that. Instead, you might want to explore the negative consequences that resulted from your former ways/beliefs. It might help your readers to see the potential harm in their current views without insulting them as people.

4. Emphasize that you’re still on a journey yourself – you haven’t arrived at Enlightenment.

Even if you’re an expert in the field, you might still have an experience or come across a new fact in the future which will alter your views. We’re all still learning and sharing. Make a point of noting that.

So, what am I missing? What are some other ways to reduce the chances of upsetting people’s feelings in your writing?  What kinds of thing have upset you, or what kinds of things have upset your readers? I would especially appreciate recommendations for tackling an “ethics of breastfeeding” post. Thoughts?

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  1. I am not a blogger. I love reading your blogs Kathleen. As hard as it is for me to admit, sometimes offending people is good rhetoric. There is a time and place for making people uncomfortable. That being said, I am also a person who tries to be aware of the feelings of others around me. As such, the thing I have noticed that offends people most is an aura of pride. Using strong language like, “finally,” or “its about time…,” or the recent one, “if you are thinking about doing x, you might change your mind after reading this…” This air I read on blogs or in articles demeans the reader for even thinking the opposite opinion. Or it could make one think he/she is a failure for not having researched the subject to death. People don’t mind controversy, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their narcissistic mindset. Not every article or blog is a bash against the reader (if he/she doesn’t adhere to the same opinion, or hasn’t considered it before). But that’s the sting that comes with most offence.

    Regarding your potential post on the ethics of breastfeeding – I think it will be so important to keep it personal. I agree that its a difficult topic, but I think you can do it. Try not to use final language – that this is the only way – but don’t be apologetic. Be confident and share from your passion to encourage others. You are an excellent writer, I can’t wait to read your post.

  2. Ok for the record I LOVED your anti-Mother’s Day post. It helped me understand and clarify things in my own heart that had been pretty muddled before.

    While I don’t always agree with everything you write, I think writing posts that are controversial or potentially offensive is the only way to write anything worth reading. If you had to work too hard at not being offensive there wouldn’t be much substance. I don’t like offending people either (I accidentally offended my neighbor yesterday and am still mortified, and it was not even a big deal) but I’m glad you’re willing to now and then for a good cause.

  3. you don’t like Mother’s day….I’m going to have to find that post

    But thanks for the advice! I am off to share some stories
    priest’s wife recently posted..A Day in the Life of Kh. Jen- part two of a guest postMy Profile

  4. i have to admit, when i first heard that you had a new blog about Jesus and “crunchiness” and everything you mentioned here, i wondered if it was going to be hard to read. for 2000+ years people have been interpreting what Jesus meant when He said the things he did and for some reason the internet has helped make everyone’s individual opinion that much louder, for better or worse. BUT, i must say that you’ve been pretty even keel about what you’ve written about which makes it easier to read. the way you write doesn’t feel like preaching, but as an exploration of faith and morals. i believe that’s because you’re following your own advice here! like you said, tough things need to be written about, but if we speak without love, we are resounding gongs, no? i think showing the process by which we come to conclusions we can learn a lot from each other (kind of like #1 and #4 combined). and you foster a good discussion too, which is also the point, right? its ultimately about not taking it personal. after all, the person writing the blog doesn’t know you, right?

    unless they do.
    and they’re writing about something you did.
    and then you probably should consider why you do things rather than get mad at them for having a different opinion!
    incidentally, i think this is usually why i stay away from writing about (more) controversial things on my blog until i can water tight convince myself that i really believe 100% what i’m writing about!
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

  5. Jeanette says:

    I’ve been reading through your blog today and I think you do a wonderous job of expressing yourself. I’d say 15-40% of things you say, I disagree with, but you make it so clear that you’re opinions are your own, that I couldn’t even imagine how someone could get offended. You express things so respectfully and humbly and even your responses to negative comments are always positive. The whole internet could take a lesson from you.

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