An online attack from a stranger can feel pretty bad, depending on what is said and how important the subject is to you. On YouTube, it seems that many of the comments on women’s videos are about how they look. For those of us who have not been told our whole lives how pretty we are — and have been told we are valued less because we are not pretty — these comments can cause our brains to get stuck on the memory of our biggest rejection. That is often the first rejection from a parent and is deeply rooted. In real life, most people know where our wounds are and won’t intentionally target the deepest ones. Online, they are fair game.
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 Nance L. Schick, Esq. Nance is a New York City attorney and mediator who focuses on keeping people out of court and building their conflict resolution skills. Her holistic, integrative approach to conflict resolution draws from her experience as a crime victim, human resources supervisor, minor league sports agent, and United Nations representative. She has successfully resolved thousands of business and employment disputes and trained hundreds of professionals in the funeral, human resources, and legal professions. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process and author of DIY Conflict Resolution: Seven Choices and Five Actions of a Master.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I’ve been resolving conflict for as long as I can remember. There was a lot of chaos in my childhood home, where I was abused emotionally and physically by a family member. This person also gave a friend permission to have sex with me when I was 12 years old.
My mom did the best she could to keep us in a safe neighborhood and give us a strong work ethic, but she didn’t have the tools to protect me. That has probably driven my desire to find those tools, learn to use them, and share them with others.
As I read this back, I realize how simple that seems. But my life has hardly been characterized by simplicity. Almost comically, it still takes a lot of effort for me to embrace simplicity and calmness. By default, I will occasionally go looking for the storm I expect to follow any calm. That’s how I coped growing up. I either kept myself busy — at school or work and with sports or friends — or I was on high-alert at home, trying to read the moods of my abuser.
The more I’ve shared my story, the more I’ve learned how many people grow up in similar environments. I am committed to reducing that number by empowering people to rise and lead from wherever they are. This is why I now coach, teach, and mediate. It’s a bonus that I can do all this with a law degree.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I planned to come to New York City for five to six years, so I could build a strong resume that allowed me to open my own law practice. I expected that would be in a smaller city and closer to my mom. God, the universe, or something smarter than I am apparently had other plans.
My first post-law school interview was on Long Island, and I drove up from Kentucky with a cousin who offered to share the driving. She had never been on the island, and we looked forward to spending time together at the beach after my interview.
We arrived in the NYC metropolitan area on September 10, 2001. My interview was at 9 AM the next morning, and I was nervous. I didn’t want to be late, expecting my interviewer to be as strict and judgmental as my law school professors. Rather last minute, we decided not to stay downtown, so I wouldn’t have to drive to the interview in unpredictable rush-hour traffic. On the morning of the interview, I got lost and was six minutes late. I had kept my radio off in the car, focusing on what I would probably be asked and how I should respond. I had no idea what had happened only minutes earlier.
A few days later, I ended up getting that job, but I knew I would have come back to NYC, even if I hadn’t. I planned to volunteer, if nothing else. This became my home, and when my first litigation job became unstable almost two years later, I took a chance and left, not knowing I would have my own law practice by the end of the week. It hasn’t been easy. I was violently assaulted on my way home from a peacemaking workshop five years ago, and I lost most of my deep family connections after my mom died last year. But I’ve been able to stand firm on the foundation my mom laid for me. I’m committed to building higher — with the help of other strong, resilient people who share my vision of lifting others up. We’re on a mission to raise the world, and we’ll be doing that on the days we die.
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?
This can’t be the funniest mistake I made. I must be funnier than this!
Anyway, when I was in my first year of law school, I had to do my first oral argument in a business suit and running shoes because I had broken my right metatarsals the weekend before during a softball tournament. That was nerve-wracking, but I apparently hid it well by being well-prepared. Then, came a question I hadn’t thought of. I was briefly stumped, and my instructor pointed to the water on the table, hinting for me to take advantage of a tiny break. When I went to lift the cup, my hand shook so much that water started spilling from multiple angles. I put the cup down and finished my argument. The feedback from the judges was generous; they said they didn’t realize I was nervous until I spilled the water all over. I learned a few lessons from that:
- Be prepared for anything (if that’s possible)
- People will overlook a lot of superficial things you concern yourself with, especially if your work is good
- Use the opportunities presented, even if they aren’t perfect
- Lighten up and trust yourself (unless you know you didn’t prepare)
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m usually working on several exciting new projects, and now is no different. I’m doing a lot of sexual harassment training through October 9th, due to changes in the state and city laws. In that training, I focus on the relationships more than the law because that is what people seem to struggle most with. That’s also why I’m co-creating a workshop on Persuasive Conversations and launching online versions of my other conflict resolution courses. More and more, I’m getting calls for coaching because people want to connect with each other, but they don’t always have the language to effectively do that. I help them develop and practice the language because we will never have it, if we don’t:
- Take a few risks
- Make a few mistakes
- Forgive each other (and ourselves)
- Keep practicing
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?
Yes. A couple of key incidents instantly come to mind because they shocked, hurt, and confused me. One involved a man I had gone to high school with. We weren’t close, but “Steve” had been in my older sister’s class and eventually graduated with mine. We had several friends in common then and still do, so we connected on Facebook and often discussed reunions, memories, and funny stories. Then, the political discussions increased, and we often found ourselves with different opinions. I was interested in reading his comments, even when I disagreed. I tried to understand his circumstances and how he chose his positions. I’ve even quoted him several times, when explaining alternative viewpoints to people who think more like me. I respected where he was coming from, even if I didn’t like some of his behaviors and comments. Then, the #MeToo movement caught fire. As a survivor of abuse and rape, my emotions were high. I tried hard to maintain a neutral, mindful approach to each story, but I got baited during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Steve attacked me for having new doubts about the justice’s fitness for the Supreme Court. Rather than consider my concerns — or ignore them — Steve began comparing my history of abuse to girlfriend’s rape. He looked for my vulnerabilities and targeted them, admitting he was triggering me because he saw me as weak. My mom had died earlier that year, and I was deeply grieving that loss and several others. I decided life was too short to spend energy on this tangential relationship, and I unfriended him. I am sad that we couldn’t have a compassionate conversation and at least agree that it is okay to disagree, but I am also proud that I have started insulating myself from people who attack me. I probably won’t attack back, and I will still love you from afar, but I don’t need to stick around so you have an outlet for your unresolved anger.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
Putting my well-being first was a huge step for me. I called my best friend and talked through the situation. At first, she was the overprotective mama bear she has been since we were 12 years old. That made us both laugh because we knew it wasn’t necessary. It hurt to be shut down and dismissed, but I was safe. I decided to assume how he has been feeling shut down and dismissed, so I forgave him. I can still wish good things for him and love him from afar, even if I don’t want him too close.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
Yes! And I’m sure if you look far enough back in my social media feeds, you’ll find them! That is both an invitation and a warning. I’d like to see how I’ve evolved, but I’m also afraid to see who I have been when my emotions were high, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I have probably done a lot of the things online I am going to tell you not to do. That is how I learned not to do them. I was not always at my best, and there’s permanent evidence of that. Learn from my mistakes!
Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?
I can’t remember exact arguments that occurred on social media, but I know I let a couple of people bait me and pull me into arguments over small issues. For example, I teased someone I had a close relationship with. She understood I was joking and teased me back, but the baiter spoke up and said what a horrible person I was. Then, there was a series of “vaguebook” posts about people who think they’re special, etc. I posted my own vague responses about people who stir trouble for fun. It was awkward and embarrassing for the people who knew and loved both of us. Our relationship looked like that in person, too. It was so painful. What I regret most is that I allowed it to go on for so long. When I chose to love her from afar, my life — and my behavior — improved in many ways. I’m still learning not to get baited into arguments, but I’m much better at recognizing the bait and walking away from it, so that I don’t write, say, do, or be things I don’t want to be.
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?
As you will see in my five tips below, we can do a lot of harm when we use social media to vent our uncomfortable feelings. We are not at our best when our emotions are high, and we say things in loneliness, boredom, or frustration that we might never say to another human’s face. We try to make other people feel lonely, thinking maybe that will mean we aren’t alone anymore. At least we can share a space of loneliness. Right? Or maybe we are bored and want to be entertained, so we say outrageous things to see what people do. The problem is that the people on the receiving end of the comments have probably gone online to eliminate their uncomfortable feelings, too. That person might be contemplating suicide, grieving the murder of a loved one, recovering from rape, or dying from cancer. Even if they are not dealing with something so grave when they read your critical, harsh, or intentionally hurtful comment, you will probably trigger a memory of something traumatic. That’s how the brain works. You’ve basically just kicked a puppy and have now opened yourself up to being attacked as a jerk. This is a fast-moving, nausea-inducing ride you will want to get off of — if you can.
Do you think a verbal, online attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
I don’t think you can easily say one is always worse than the other. An online attack from a stranger can feel pretty bad, depending on what is said and how important the subject is to you. On YouTube, it seems that many of the comments on women’s videos are about how they look. For those of us who have not been told our whole lives how pretty we are — and have been told we are valued less because we are not pretty — these comments can cause our brains to get stuck on the memory of our biggest rejection. That is often the first rejection from a parent and is deeply rooted. In real life, most people know where our wounds are and won’t intentionally target the deepest ones. Online, they are fair game.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
I’ll defer to the psychology experts on this one, but I suspect the long-term effects are not directly related to being shamed online. They are likely long-term effects re-triggered by being shamed online. Brene Brown, feel free to chime in. I’d love to know your thoughts on this!
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?
Again, I’ll defer to the experts to affirm or reject my theories, but I suspect social media brings out the worst in people because:
- We go online at less than ideal times and aren’t intentional about our activities there.
- Because we are online when we are distracted, frustrated, or lonely, we might not care so much if we make someone else feel the way we do.
- People out in cyberspace don’t seem as human to us as someone nearby because we can’t use all our senses to connect with them.
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?
- Choose when to engage (and when not to). As I’ve said repeatedly — because I really want you to get the message — we often go online when we are lonely, bored, or frustrated. This only makes us more likely to be inflamed by posts that are designed to trigger responses. Slow down. Know your purpose for opening an app before you do it. If your purpose isn’t to learn something or contribute something kind and useful, consider taking a walk or calling a friend to lift your spirits.
- Don’t read the comments, unless you know you can read them without getting upset. I’ve learned to laugh at and predict most of the comments people will make on social media. I can often see them as further evidence of everyone’s human weaknesses. At other times (probably when I am lonely, sad, or already frustrated), I will take those comments more seriously or personally. I can feel a quivering in my gut or heart and burning from the tears welling up in my eyes. Then, I know to close the app and save my energy for something else. Not surprisingly, I’ll take a walk, go to the gym, or call a friend.
- Don’t engage with bullies, haters, or self-appointed omnipotent experts. You are not going to change them or their minds, and they are often baiting you. Do as you would at a cocktail party, holiday dinner, or work event when someone drones on about what you perceive as nonsense. Roll your eyes as you move to another group that you enjoy more. You don’t have to attack, and it will probably only hurt you, if you do.
- Understand how social media platforms work. You might not be paying a fee to use the service, but there is a cost. Social media companies are businesses, and businesses need to make money to keep operating. Many are overvalued and have yet to generate a profit, so they need you to help them do that. They need you to click on their advertisers’ posts or ads, and they are very good at creating them to trigger emotions that cause you to click. They deeply understand human behavior and sales. Outsmart them and their most popular users by expecting psychological tricks and by not going on social media when you are most vulnerable to them.
- Have a social media strategy, even for your personal accounts. If you joined Facebook to keep in touch with distant family members, stick to that activity on the site and consider carefully whether you need the games or quizzes that might increase your risk of personal information being shared globally. If you created an Instagram account to get recipes, tips, or inspirational memes, focus your time on that — and give yourself time limits. Use the platforms for your purposes; don’t let them use you.
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 will defer to the constitutional lawyers on this and invite them to comment. The profession is still trying to sort out the limits on free speech. There are limits. So, no. American citizens don’t have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by private enterprise. Just as a restaurant can invite you in but prohibit you from writing your comments on its walls or bathroom stalls, the platform owner might have a right to restrict what you write on electronic walls. Similarly, the profession is trying to determine how to protect the public from violence and other harms, without resorting to high levels of censorship. Regardless of how the courts eventually rule or what new laws might get passed, we can take it upon ourselves to be more mindful of our communications — online or off.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
I don’t want full control over anything but me, and it’s not clear what is considered a harmful or hurtful attack. But perhaps I would start by defining that and updating the ground rules for using the platforms.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi ya oki,” which is typically translated as, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” This is one area of my life that I have exceeded the standard. I’ve gotten up at least 50 times at this point. Sometimes, it was easier than others.
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 🙂
Since I already tagged Brene Brown, I’ll invite Daniel Kahneman to join us. We can talk about brain science, how our brains play tricks on us, and what we can do to manage them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
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.