Social media—Facebook and Twitter especially—have given rise to a lot of great advancements for civic life. After the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the Red Cross was able to leverage Twitter and Facebook posts to raise more than $112 million in less than a week—an amount staggeringly higher than any previous fundraising campaign for the organization. In 2014, Kensington Palace, on behalf of the Duke and Duchess and Prince Harry, joined Twitter and used the platform to promote one of the biggest mental health advocacy campaigns across the globe. When a hostage shooting devastated the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015, we saw how Facebook’s Safety Check feature, which allows users to alert their friends that they’re OK when in a dangerous area, could bring some immediate relief in times of chaos. Social media, to say the least, has changed the way we communicate and act in every sense.
But social media has a major downside, and it’s been rearing its ugly head for some time now. That is, that from behind a screen, insults flow with ease and fights are quick to ignite.
We are living in an age where we talk over each other more than we actually engage. Rather than having long discussions over dinner with our friends who disagree with us, Facebook curates a feed of those who mostly express opinions we’ll “like”—and we quickly unfollow those opposing stragglers who make it through the algorithm’s filter. Especially when we hold a strong opinion, it’s increasingly less likely that we’re talking face to face with anyone who disagrees.
Many of us were reminded of this when two men attending a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, drove cars into counter-demonstrators, killing one woman and injuring many people. Social media was, of course, a hotbed for the dissemination of the breaking news, but it also played host to hateful dialogue and relentless digital sparring between disagreeing people.
So where does social media engagement benefit us, and when does it become a crutch for unproductive monologuing?
I think many of us have likely found ourselves torn as to where exactly our voice fits in. Maybe you do have some strong opinions either way, but the last thing you want to do is to set off a series of nasty Facebook comments. Or perhaps you’re stuck right in the middle, feeling pulled both ways as you watch your friends and family heatedly discuss politics, best practices for raising children, or a myriad of other views that tend to be polarizing.
While there are certainly best practices for how to do so, research is making it clear that talking to people you disagree with can actually be good for you. You may not change your mind (or theirs) right away, but when you engage with those you disagree with, you recognize that the person you’re chatting with has specific life experiences that are different from your own, that shaped how they see the world, and that are just as valid as your own. This phenomenon is called intellectual humility.
According to the Journal of Positive Psychology, intellectual humility is defined by the ability to have an accurate view of one’s intellectual strengths and limitations and the ability to negotiate ideas in a fair and inoffensive manner. This might sound like it only applies to those awkward moments when a friend of a friend starts grilling you about your politics at a party, but it can be applied in plenty of other areas as well. Being receptive to new ideas can make you a better learner, better employee, and generally, a better person.
In one study, participants were asked to read essays arguing for and against religion, then answer questions about the personality of the author. People with intellectual humility showed little judgment on the author, and were able to discern the stronger arguments from the piece. Intellectually arrogant people, by contrast, gave low scores to the author for morality, honesty, and competence.
Intellectual humility is a trait that also makes people better employees. Diversity and inclusion in workspace settings have been proven to foster more business success. Think about the last boss you had that thought they knew everything; how easy were they to work with? Difficulties like these can curb office productivity. Basic tenants of intellectual humility, such as understanding that no one person is omniscient and looking for opportunities to learn, are good ways to help businesses, and people, grow.
Relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, MFT, told me that people who believe they know all the answers cannot grow intellectually. “Those who feel they are all-knowing remain out of touch with the ever-evolving state of the world and make biased decisions based on their own limited frame of reference. This can very quickly lend itself to behaviors that create great harm for those around them such as narcissism, egotism, and ignorance.”
Francis says being intellectually arrogant prevents human connection as well. “When folks believe they know it all, or are boastful about their intellectual prowess, they alienate others,” she says. “It is very hard to create peerage or partnership with someone whose intellectual ego does not make room for them to hear the perspectives of others.”
It’s easy to see a post online that makes you want to rapid-fire type a scathing response, but taking a breather might help you respond with more clarity and dignity. Plus, if you go into any conversation, online or not, with your hackles raised, you’re likely to get those you disagree with on the defensive too, lessening the chance of any real discussion. If you want a relationship, whether between friends, coworkers, or romantic interests, to work, you have to at least try to understand where that person may be coming from.
Intellectual humility doesn’t have to be limited to your online interactions. Knowing how to approach people with the intent to understand can help you in friendships, in work, even in your relationship with your significant other. But when it does come to online discourse, Francis says it can be hard to not think of conversations as platforms for your own ideas—but it’s good to resist that tendency. “Lead with curiosity,” she says. “Seek to understand the other person’s point of view, even if you disagree.”
We need to engage on issues that divide us now more than ever. The tragedy in Charlottesville shows us what happens when division has escalated past discourse. It’s not about supporting hateful or racist views; it’s about understanding that without respectful conversation, we can never hope to solve these issues. On social media and in real life, we should engage but respectfully and always remembering that no matter our difference of opinion, we’re equal as people.