When someone attacks you online, they’re often falsely empowered to say more and cut deeper because they’re hiding behind a screen and they’re insulated from the real world. I think that false sense of protection or anonymity somehow gives people bigger balls. Also, when people go on the attack through a screen, they often do it as a part of a conversation thread and that almost always incites other people on the thread to jump on the bandwagon. And that can be bad. On the flip side, when you’re attacking someone in person, it’s usually just you and them and people tend to be a bit more reserved when the other person is right there in their face. Honestly, I think they’re both different degrees of sucky. Having the whole world watch you get attacked online hurts a ton, and so does having someone attack you right there in the flesh. Personally, I try to avoid both.
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Lisa Sugarman. Lisa is an author of the nationally syndicated humor column It Is What It Is and the author of How To Raise Perfectly Imperfect Kids — And Be Ok With It, Untying Parent Anxiety: 18 Myths That Have You in Knots — And How to Get Free, and LIFE: It Is What It Is. Lisa is a regular contributor on GrownAndFlown, Thrive Global, This Mama Wines, MommingHubb, More Content Now, Wickedlocal.com, and Care.com. And her work has also appeared in TIME Magazine’s TIME for Parents, on LittleThings, Mamalode, Hot Moms Club, and on PBS Kids. She’s also the founder and moderator of The Vomit Booth, the popular Facebook parenting group where parents go to bond over the madness of parenthood. Lisa lives with her husband and two daughters just north of Boston in a tiny coastal town of twenty thousand people crammed onto a teensy peninsula. Visit her online at www.lisasugarman.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Lisa! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Sure! I’m the mom of two daughters, 19 & 22, the wife to my summer-after-high-school boyfriend/best friend, an author, a columnist, a speaker, and a perfectly imperfect parenting expert. I like having lots of balls in the air.
I’ve been a writer since I was about five, when I wrote neighborhood newspapers for all the houses on my street. And I’ve been writing ever since. I was an English Major with a Psychology minor in college and eventually dabbled in journalism when I started contributing to my college’s newspaper as a sophomore. By senior year I was the editor of my college paper and I’ve never looked back. I wrote for a bunch of small community newspapers on the South Shore of Boston, commuting about ninety minutes each way just to earn enough money to fill my tank with gas for the next week. After a couple of years, I moved on to some other spaces in the writing profession and worked as a non-profit writer, editing and writing national fundraising campaigns. Then I moved over to a healthcare publishing company based in my hometown where I did marketing and PR for their book division. Then I took a big break from writing to have my daughters. It was when my oldest was about twelve that I started contributing random columns to my local community newspaper just as a way of reconnecting with my wiritng. And people seemed to like what I had to say because the editor asked me to brand the column and make it a regular thing. So I called it It Is What It Is and I’ve been writing it for the last ten years and now it’s syndicated nationally and in over 500 newspapers around the country. My first book, LIFE: It Is What It Is, was actually a collection of my 50 favorite columns. Shortly after that came out in 2014, I caught the attention of Familius Publishing, publishing house in central California who shares my mission of helping families be happy. And we’ve been writing books together ever since. My second book with them, How to Raise Perfectly Imperfect Kids And Be Ok With It, just came out on September 1st.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Hmmmm, the most interesting story since I started my career is probably how I ended up with my publisher Familius after being rejected by them the first time around. After self-publishing my first book in 2014, LIFE: It Is What It Is, I started working with a Boston-area publicist to help me develop my brand and connect with potential publishers. Well, my publicist, David Ratner Publicity & Publishing Consulting, had a relationship with Christopher Robbins, the Founder and President of Familius Publishing, and he pitched him my first book to see if they were interested in publishing it as a series under the Familius label. And after a couple of promising phone calls and a very thorough proposal, it looked like Familius was leaning toward signing me. Until they weren’t. And it was a pretty crushing blow because I was totally convinced that we were meant to write books together. The reason they passed, though, was simply because my first book was a collection of my humor columns and they had already been published all over the country, so it would’ve been tough for Familius to sell material that had already been so widely circulated. And I totally understood. But I was still certain we were supposed to collaborate somehow and so was Christopher Robbins. In fact, the feeling we needed to work together was so mutual that we agreed to talk again that fall to see if either of us had another project idea in mind. That was the beginning of the summer of 2014. So, I created a reminder in my calendar to reach back out to him three months later on September 1st and committed myself to creating a brand new book proposal. And with my husband Dave’s encouragement, I fleshed out that my sweet spot was parenting and that that would be the subject of the book. Then, one morning in July, sitting out on our deck drinking coffee, we started talking about how much the parenting world had changed since we had our kids and how wrapped around the axle parents were now about raising perfect kids. And how that was complete [email protected]*!&. That was the moment when I came up with the title How To Raise Perfectly Imperfect Kids And Be Ok With It, and I knew that was my book. So, at 8:00AM on September 1st I reached back out to Familius with a proposal letter for the project and they signed me within a week. And here we are.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh wow, that could take awhile because there have been so many. But the real standout screwup would have to be agreeing to take my very first job as a field reporter for a newspaper company that was an hour-and-a-half drive away from where I was living at the time. And for almost no money. I was so excited that I was offered a job the week before I graduated college that I didn’t even stop to think twice about logistics like commuting and salary and the work/life balance. I just said yes on the spot. Not my savviest business move. I remember my mom almost falling off her chair when I told her I accepted a job on the South Shore of Boston while I was living on the North Shore. It was insane, especially when you consider that there was no such thing as the internet or telecommuting. All I had were a bunch of cheap floppy disks and crappy all-weather tires on my truck. I ended up driving about three-plus hours a day to and from work, not to mention all the driving to the towns I covered each day. It was crazy. But I was committed to making it work so I could get the experience I needed to get me to the next level as a writer. And sticking with that job for as long as I did was a great exercise in time management and commitment and putting in your time. Super grateful for it now as I look back because I’ve appreciated every job opportunity I’ve had since (especially the ones where I’ve gotten to telecommute haha).
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on something pretty exciting right now, but it’s in the very early stages of development. It’s a new book but it’s something really, really different from everything I’ve written up to now. And because it’s super early on in the process, I’m not going to say too much. Yet. What I will say is that this one’s a very personal book, with a completely different feel and vibe. And even though it’ll have the same conversational tone that people are used to in my books, the subject matter is heavy and timely and incredibly important. Without giving away the farm, what I will say is that it’s about depression and suicide and suicide awareness and prevention. And even though it’s not my story, it’s the story of someone very close to me that I’m finally ready to tell. Because I know that by simply starting the conversation, it’ll help others start theirs and feel less alone.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
As a writer whose writing focuses heavily on family, I’ve definitely had moments when people have reacted badly to the things I’ve written. Not often, thankfully, but a handful of times over the years. The shaming moment that stands out the most is probably the time that I wrote a column about my mother for Father’s Day. Having lost my dad when I was ten, my mom was everything to me. As an only child, she was my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, my confidant, my best friend, my everything. So, on Father’s Day, I wrote a piece dedicated to her and all the single moms out there pulling double and triple and quadruple duty for their kids. It was a purely anecdotal piece, so it was first person and very personal and very loving and I got slammed for it by a ton of parents. It was posted on a bunch of big lifestyle sites and the comments ranged from unconditional support and praise to anger that I had the nerve to wish my mother Happy Father’s Day when that’s a holiday that should be reserved just for dads. It was crazy. And even though people came out of the woodwork to support me for writing it, the handful of people who just didn’t get it really had an affect on me because they made me second-guess myself. And although I knew my motivation for writing the piece came from a place of pure love and gratitude, it really left a skid mark on my heart for a pretty long time. The positive thing that came from it, though, was that it toughened me up as a writer and reminded me that regardless of how innocent and pure your intentions are, there’s always someone out there who’s going to find fault with what you have to say. So you need to stay your course and write from the heart and let the haters hate. Because that’s all they know how to do.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
I think it was just time that helped me shake off that icky feeling — time and sitting back down at the keyboard and getting back to it. It was the whole getting-back-on-the-horse thing that ultimately helped me move past the experience.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
Honestly, no. I’m hyper-conscious of never saying something out of turn anywhere, least of all on social media. As a writer, I’m acutely aware that things will always find their way back to you to bite you in the ass. And I always try to remember that there’s a real person on the other side of the screen who has feelings just like mine, and I’m super sensitive to that.
When one reads the comments on YouTube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
Being criticized just hurts. It hurts when someone says something unkind or cruel to your face; but it’s a totally different kind of hurt when someone cuts you down on social media because that sh*t goes everywhere, and it stays there. Forever. It’s a very different kind of vulnerability because you’re hung out to dry for the whole world to see and that’s a harsh feeling. You feel exposed and targeted and victimized and those are horrible feelings to feel.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
That’s a tricky one because both kinds of attacks sting for different reasons. When someone attacks you online, they’re often falsely empowered to say more and cut deeper because they’re hiding behind a screen and they’re insulated from the real world. I think that false sense of protection or anonymity somehow gives people bigger balls. Also, when people go on the attack through a screen, they often do it as a part of a conversation thread and that almost always incites other people on the thread to jump on the bandwagon. And that can be bad. On the flip side, when you’re attacking someone in person, it’s usually just you and them and people tend to be a bit more reserved when the other person is right there in their face. Honestly, I think they’re both different degrees of sucky. Having the whole world watch you get attacked online hurts a ton, and so does having someone attack you right there in the flesh. Personally, I try to avoid both.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
I think when someone is shamed online the cut is often a little deeper because it’s not just relegated to you and another person… it involves the whole cyber world. And even when an issue is resolved, it’s still floating around out there in cyberspace, so it’s never totally gone. And that can haunt a person for the long haul.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
To me, the fact that social media brings out the worst in some people is one of the crappiest aspects of the internet. It’s sad and it’s damaging and it’s unnecessary. And I think the main reason why people tend to be harsher from behind their screens is because: 1. People can’t see the person they’re attacking from behind a screen, so it becomes easier to sling insults when someone feels like they’re anonymous. It’s a false sense of security and anonymity. 2. Trolls usually forget that the people on the other side of the screen have actual feelings and can be hurt by unkind comments. 3. There are no real consequences for acting like an a**hole on the internet, so people feel like they’re beyond reproach.
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
- Be authentic when you’re online. Be the same person on social media that you are in the real world.
- Stop and think before you engage on social media.
- Treat everyone you connect with online with kindness and respect.
- Don’t be a bystander. If you see something or someone inappropriate online, speak up, intervene, or report inappropriate activity or behavior.
- Honor everyone’s opinion, even if it differs from your own.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
I think it’s the responsibility of every person, whether you’re a private enterprise or a private citizen, to monitor their own voice on the platforms they frequent. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep ourselves in check and ensure that we don’t act in a hurtful and slanderous and unkind way to the other people around us. I think it all boils down to self-regulations and our own ability to be sensitive of what we put out into the world, both on and offline. And I think the same goes for private enterprises. Everyone needs to show zero tolerance for hate and slander.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
If I was in charge, I’d just mandate an across-the-board zero-tolerance policy with a one-strike-and-you’re-out attitude. Like, don’t be a dick to people, it’s as simple as that. Be a good person, agree to disagree, validate everyone’s right to their own opinion, and be respectful. Free speech doesn’t give anyone the right to be a bigot or an anti-Semite or a hater. Have your own attitude and views and political affiliations and beliefs but also maintain a certain degree of respect of everyone else’s opinions and backgrounds and belief systems. It’s really that simple.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is probably, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” by Mahatma Gandhi. It’s always been relevant to me in my life because it’s this idea of actually being the person to effect change in the world around us that’s so powerful when you really internalize it. For me, it’s that idea that motivated me to write my first parenting book to help change the conversation about the way we all look at parenting. And I haven’t stopped since. I’m a big believer that we all need to take action when we think that something in the world around us can work better. Because it only takes one person to start a ball rolling. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
No thought required on this one… it’s Sarah Jessica Parker. 1000%. Because as much as I love her for the obvious reasons that everyone loves SJP, like being a talented and accomplished actor and fashion icon, and publisher, I love the fact that she’s a mom and a wife before she’s anything else. I love that, even as an award-winning and super-famous and visible actor with a hundred professional and personal balls in the air on any given day, her kids and her marriage come first. I respect that her family life has managed to stay self-contained and not contaminated by the media bullshit that often derails Hollywood couples. I just think she’s the realest of the real deals and I’d love to just grab a couple of coffees to go and hang with her on a bench in Central Park for the morning and talk kids and life and writing and marriage. That would be a perfect day for me. Really hoping she sees this because I make it to Manhattan in less than four hours from Boston whenever she’s got a little slice of time.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me online at:
Website: [email protected]
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About the author:
Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder of Medium’s Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.