Minding your Ps and Qs when communicating in online groups

Wan Lixin
All too often, basic social etiquette breaks down in cyberspace, leading to misunderstandings, hasty judgments and animosity.
Wan Lixin
Minding your Ps and Qs when communicating in online groups

By tradition, meeting people has meant polite introductions, sincere handshakes and an exchange of niceties.

But in the cyber age, you can find yourself in a WeChat group with little idea about the people with whom you are communicating.

In more polite groups, your entry online may sometimes be noted by a string of welcome emojis, and you reciprocate the greetings in emojis.

One group may serve a short-lived purpose and then languish dormant when an exuberant group master does not feel called upon to dissolve the group. Occasionally, a group will be suddenly resurrected if some member needs to collect "likes" for some reason or another.

Probably many a qunzhu, or "group master," will think in this vein: "What's the harm of having you guys tied up in one group? Being a gregarious people, we have faith in collectivism."

But collectivism can also be a curse. It's often hard for members to exit a group for fear of giving the impression of not being happy with the others in it.

It's often very difficult for a group that coalesces around a specific, short-lived aim to keep up its momentum. Discord can appear. Some groups become downright confrontational, even in "family group."

In real life situation, communication among family members may be bound by rituals in light of seniority, and some subjects would be safely broached only after a few glasses of wine in a family get-together.

In face-to-face communications, misunderstandings, errors of judgment or rashly spoken words can be easily cleared up on the spot and, where subtleties are needed, you can always resort to non-verbal communications.

In a text-only WeChat groups, it's much harder, if not impossible, to take back words or smooth ruffled feathers.

If a good-natured and sensible "auntie" shares a post in the family group that you find objectionable for some reason, expressing your displeasure is a surefire way to provoke enmity.

Instead of wasting our time on the many posts deliberately written to mislead, we should perhaps heed the time-honored wisdom of Confucius, who said in the Weiling King chapter of The Analects: "When a number of people are together, for a whole day, without their conversation turning on righteousness, and when they are fond of carrying out suggestions of petty shrewdness – theirs is indeed a hard case."

The super efficiency of digital communication has created some unnatural and coercive demands on our attention. We feel we have to maintain vigilance for new messages. We impose on the recipient of a message the obligation of an immediate response without trying to understand conditions that might impede a reply.

What we need is patience, respect and courtesy when communicating in cyberspace.

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