To Speak or Not To Speak? The Unexpected Side Effects of Speaking Out Online

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I used to be uncontrollably reactive. Being a hyper-sensitive soul, I would blurt out the moment I came across a social issue. I would write long posts on social media justifying why I felt the way I did. This behavior went on until realization hit – maybe, I was not helping by speaking out.

Maybe – worse – I was unintentionally fuelling hate.

Historically, a person speaking out against injustice with complete bravado has led to inspirational revolutions. The past is a witness to bold and courageous people who had kickstarted life-changing campaigns by speaking out (à la Rosa Parks). But I am beginning to think that similar changes emanating from collective online hysteria might be an exception in the modern era and not the norm.  

What am I on about? The whole point of speaking out is to bring awareness and extend our support. But the reality is that we end up attracting only those who already feel the way we do. It is akin to having yes-men around you. The people I should have influenced with my pitch retorted defensively instead of listening, much to my dismay. Real change only happens when people are open to change – when they are willing to listen, acknowledge, and evolve. Real change is when a person with a different ideology finally understands the seriousness of the issue – when a bulb goes off in their head, and they tell you, “Now I get it. I am sorry for thinking otherwise.

But how often do we hear that?

Instead, most refuse to listen. We talk again to explain further, and they get angrier, resulting in a never-ending cycle.

Bringing my personal experience into the picture, I will list down 3 sensitive topics I had often ranted about on social media and the outcome of each.

Spoiler Alert & Disclaimer: No one changed their viewpoint because of me. No one became any better because of my posts. I have only my personal experience to narrate. Your experience might be much better.

Topic #1 – Politics

I have strong political views. When my country is bleeding, I take it to heart. My loyalty lies with my nation and not any political party. I might prefer some over the others, maybe because they believe in some of the things that I deem important. But I have not pledged blind love to them – I can be rational and put them accountable if they fail.

Since I am not biased toward any political party, I tend to point out the pros and cons of each. Mostly, I like sharing the pros because India gets its fair share of negative publicity.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Let’s assume there are two political parties – Political Party A (PPA) and Political Party B (PPB). The moment I laud PPA for implementing something noteworthy, the supporters of PPB get agitated. “But what about this other thing the PPA did? ” they ask me. When I applaud PPB, the supporters of PPA express their agitation. Of course, the opposite happens when I point out any cons of the party they support. No one wants to hear debauched stories about the political party they support either. There is no win-win situation here. This bias does not change even when you are armed with data and facts.

Did anyone change their political views because of me? Absolutely not.

Are they still blindly supporting the political party they love? Yes.

Did my energy get wasted in the process? A big YES.

Topic #2 – Women Empowerment

The #MeToo movement was a gamechanger for women across the world. It gave them the courage to speak out. But was it successful in powerfully conveying the message to the opposite sex that sexual molestation or abuse will not be tolerated? Not on the scale we wanted to.

Instead of supporting sexual abuse survivors, I have witnessed men (offline and online) explain haphazardly that women too can be abusive liars. Of course, without a doubt, women can be all of that. But when a man gets into a fight-or-flight mode citing #NotAllMen whenever you start talking about women’s issues, you know something has gone awry. When people are more invested in the #NotAllMen issue than the primary #MeToo issue, it means the whole purpose of the movement has been defeated.

Here too, we fell short of making a real change.

Topic #3 – Religion

Religion is a super-sensitive topic that should be handled with extreme caution. The “me” and “mine” mentality takes precedence over the collective well-being of a country when religion comes into the scene. Each one thinks other religions are inferior compared to theirs. Each one thinks their compatriots can never be wrong.

The more someone stresses the hate their religion gets, the more it seems to make the other communities angry. The responses become similar to what I had penned concerning women empowerment – the whataboutery starts.

When the minority communities talk about the harassment they face in the country, the religious majority gets offended, and vice versa. Religion is the trickiest of all the sensitive topics because it hits people right where it hurts the most. Each one thinks their religion is in danger. One community thinks, “What if our religion becomes a minority?” In contrast, the other one thinks, “What if they demolish our religion?” The main culprit is fear. The more we talk about our religion-based fears, the more it seems to be escalating the fear of our own and others.

Since there are more religious people than atheists globally, politicians worldwide undoubtedly know that the way to any country’s heart is through religion. And they take this to good advantage. Stories are planted, fake data is presented, and all types of hara-kiri happen, especially in corrupted nations. We fall for such antics. They string us around like puppets, and we dance to their tunes blissfully unaware.

The most sensible thing one can do is not give undue attention to toxic, hate-mongering politics. The more attention we give it, the bigger the hate-spitting snake seems to get. When attention wanes, the snake shrivels and dies. It does not know where to go, this attention-seeking monster.

In practicality, restraining oneself from polarizing topics is not easy. It definitely wasn’t for me.

Why is this happening?

I subconsciously knew that speaking out wasn’t panning out as intended. People seem to be getting more polarized. It was only after I read an article by Amit Verma that the truth stared right back at me. I am quoting the results from the 2005 Sunstein experiment from his page. It holds the answers for all this ruckus.

In almost every group, members ended up holding more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. […] Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity. […] Moreover, the rift between liberals and conservatives widened as a result of discussing.

Sunstein called this effect ‘Group Polarisation.’ Sunstein defined it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

In other words, the more we discuss something, the more polarized we become. If we look around us and observe what’s happening from a distance, we might realize the truth of it all. With the advent of the internet, it has become easy to discuss things and become more polarized.

I have found that I, too, get agitated after discussing a sensitive topic. My rants do not make anyone better, nor do they enlighten anyone. The only adverse effect is on me – I feel agitated and unhappy. And wait for it – more polarized. I get angry when people with a different thought process don’t get what I’m saying. I get angry when people are quiet and not saying the right things. Of course, being right is subjective. My right might not be the next person’s right – this awareness can help calm our emotions in those moments of despair.  

Hypothetically speaking, if someone were to question my long-held beliefs constantly, it would be okay the first few times, but how long would I be okay? Everyone, unfortunately, has a listening threshold. It might explain why men get fed up with constant women empowerment and feminism stories, why religious people find it hard to constantly hear someone criticizing their religion, and why politically-inclined people find it hard to disown someone they blindly love. Beliefs and habits are difficult to break. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You can lead a person to facts, but you cannot force them to think.

As an experiment, I decided to stop myself from sharing or discussing polarizing topics online. It has been a few months (I’ve stopped counting). I do express my discontent occasionally when someone is not being empathic, but only offline, in a more closed and restricted environment, not subject to foreign voices.

The outcome of this was that I immediately started feeling less agitated and secure. I stopped feeling angry over the slightest things. In short, I felt less polarized and more open to contrarian views. When the interaction is face-to-face, you get to express things more gracefully and compassionately – the things we often miss out on when we tweet or post on social media.

An Ode to Feeling Moody, Meh, and All That

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It has been a strenuous few weeks at work. At a point where I am just craving to take a break and go somewhere. Or just enjoy the weather and read. Even the usual weekend break is not cutting it.

But a vacation has to wait because of work deadlines.

I have realized something over the years—whenever I am stressed at work, I also tend to overthink a lot about my life in general and become unwelcomely crabby, subjecting myself to mind-numbing questions “Where am I heading? What am I doing? Why are people like this? Why is the world so bad?” And sulk about it even if I have no plans to shift out of the zone I am in because it is quite perfect for me otherwise, outside these moody phases. So I just sit with the feeling and wait for it to pass, like a hermit in search of worldly answers.

When work is more relaxed and I get a breather, life seems calm and harmonious. Professional life does affect your personal life, no matter how much you try to separate the two. I didn’t realize this behavioral pattern till I saw it repeat, time and again. Now, I know, and tell myself, “Yeah, it’s because you are mentally tired. You just want to take a few days off and do what you like best. You will be okay once you get that break.” This self-realization is cathartic in a way and a problem-solver because you know where the issue lies. But here’s the catch—it only comes when you choose to sit with your feelings and introspect, not run away.

So I am in that phase right now where I get moody seeing others’ travel posts on social media. I get moody when an ex’s update pops up somewhere on my social media feed because of a mutual friend. (Yup, social media is bad for your mental health, especially when you are stressed.) I even get moody when there are too many people around. The things that don’t usually affect you with much intensity, start gnawing at your brain and make you overthink.

As you grow up, you become more familiar with your emotions. You start to ask why you feel the way you do, so that the next time you face the emotion again, you know how to handle it better. Self-realization builds with experience. The more you encounter a feeling, the more you get to learn about its dynamic range and complexities. I feel the manner in which each person deals with their emotions is as unique as their fingerprints. All your experiences shape the way in which you handle or feel about things. What one person goes through in an emotion might be different from the next person as each one’s life story is exclusive and uncommon. So how can we say with finality that we should deal with an emotion only in one particular way? What if there are multiple okay ways to deal with things? And being moody is also an okay way contrary to popular belief.

Most people’s advice would be to snap out of being moody. Movies and tv series show loud friends whisking away their moody buddies to a party to dull down their emotions, hoping it would make them feel better. A person like me would have dissociated myself from such friends even if they meant good because the last thing I would need is a party.

Basically, the world wants you to do just about anything other than feeling your emotions. But I would say, just sit with it. Acknowledge its presence and understand it is only human to feel “nothing” or “moody” for a while. It is not a prison that you need to escape from. It is an intricate, delicate, and overlooked part of you that craves your embrace and attention.

An Ode to the Kind Stranger at the Café

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A bitter argument,

A door slam,

An empty apartment. A heavy heart.

Tears. Surplus tears.

Misery spanning the entire morning and half of afternoon,

No breakfast, no lunch; hunger killed by words as sharp as a knife,

Hunger killed by heart-numbing brashness.

Soul crushing, sky falling, world burning,

It feels like death – this beginning of the end.

Death of a person still very much alive,

Death of a marriage,

Death of love.

I push myself up, wiping away tears,

I head outdoors,

I walk aimlessly, like a lost soul,

And I spot a small café.

Self-care beckons,

I should eat something.

An order placed with gloom. Face full of despair.

Eyes down. Gaze lowered. No strength to face anyone,

No strength to smile.

A cup of coffee and a sandwich.

The order arrives,

I lift my gaze, and I smile,

The coffee has a heart on top.

A beautiful little heart.

Intrigued, I look at other cups around me,

No, this one is just for me.

In a sea of pain, it felt like a wave of comfort,

A compassionate message,

A comforting hug.

I look around for the waiter,

I spot him in a corner,

Working but eyes fixed on me.

He smiles compassionately,

I smile back,

Warmth.

A sign that the world is not so bad after all,

A sign that I’ll be okay – even if it’s the beginning of the end.

Context: The magic of kindness. A stranger I’ve never met before provided me hope on the most hopeless of days. I never met him after that. The incident happened years ago, but I still think of it fondly. I feel a cocktail of emotions whenever I remember that moment in the café. It still makes me smile.

An Ode to Supportive Strangers

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As a kid, you’re told not to talk to strangers. But with experience, I have come to the realization that talking to strangers is not such a bad thing after all. In fact, I would say, out with the old “don’t talk to strangers” and in with the new “reach out to more strangers.”

It all started with my first blog. I received the most support from strangers.

Then came my business (now defunct). Again, I received incredible support from strangers.

At each phase of my life, I was indebted to the fact that strangers have always been more kind to me than the ones I personally know. With some observation, I realized this is the story for a lot of people. Strangers often tend to support more.

Is this because strangers are more kind? Or because more strangers than friends/relatives are on the lookout for what you have to offer? Maybe distance makes the heart go fonder, and up-close we are full of blunder? Or perhaps, it’s because strangers know how it is to feel unseen, to be treated like a stranger.

The world is vast, and people are boundless with distinct personalities and mental models. If our content does not cater to the needs of a small group of friends/relatives, instead of sticking to the archaic scripture of not talking to strangers, we should, maybe just maybe, reach out to more. The ones who would eventually become your tribe. The ones who understand your thought process and techniques.

I often feel intensely grateful to the strangers who have taken the time out to support me, often juxtaposed with an uncomfortable question, “Why are the people I know less supportive?

Some of these kind strangers have moved on, but in that short span of time, they have offered me more love and encouragement than any person I know. I am armed with the knowledge that strangers can be beautiful, and probably this is why I am more open to newcomers joining any close-knit community that I am in, whereas others appear to be wary or hostile.

I am convinced that this is why the universe sends us strangers—to play an important but short role in our life. So we don’t lose hope in our core beliefs, the ones we would love to passionately share with the world.