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?