As a writer, I do a lot of different things – mainly to support my writing. Each of them has its own pleasures and regrets, and none more than teaching.
Most of my students are pleasant and interested enough in learning whatever I can teach them.
And some… well, they’re like those awful people at work, or in the neighbourhood, or on the bus, or on the road. Thoughtless, self-absorbed, selfish. The ones who always rock up late or not at all, never bothering with the assigned work or handing in assignments on time, either paying no attention or being disruptive when they do.
And they’re the ones who are always the first to complain about how unfair it is they haven’t received the mark they believe they deserve.
When I first started teaching, one such student issued such complaints directly to my supervisor, without approaching me first. Most of the claims they made in their complaint were wrong, and, in parts, defamatory.
I was, naturally, incensed. Who wouldn’t be, when so egregiously misrepresented? I dashed off an angry email, going through each of their allegations and refuting them one by one, pointing out their inconsistencies and insolence.
Then I sent the email and… you know what? I immediately regretted it.
And it occurred to me as soon as I’d sent it that while I may have felt great telling that student exactly how so very wrong they were, what was the point? Telling them off was hardly going to make them see the error of their ways.
While I might have been within my rights to respond as I did, especially to some of their more outrageous claims, and I was right (the faculty found in my favour, thanks to the email correspondence string I provided, and the student dropped their complaint) was I happy with the result?
Of course not. Even if I was right, I was reminded of the words of the Greek philosopher Xenocrates, who said “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
How often have we vented our anger and frustration at something or someone and felt really good afterwards? That email we sent or that tweet we fired off, that Facebook post or that finger from the car window, that tirade at the bank teller or the kids… or worse.
Everyone seems to be shouting: into their phones, on the bus, on TV, in newspapers and in the comments section, on Twitter and Facebook.
But doesn’t it seem as if we’re all getting angrier? Everyone seems to be shouting: into their phones, on the bus, on TV, in newspapers and in the comments section, on Twitter and Facebook. We seem perpetually outraged – and while there’s a lot to be outraged about, from Donald Trump to the treatment of refugees, terrorism to the census – what does all this outrage achieve?
As many researchers have noted, social media is making us more angry and alienated, and increasingly, as we get more and more of our news online, it’s becoming more and more like social media, intended to excite and outrage and provoke those all-important views and comments.
And many of those comments and tweets are things we’d never dream of saying to someone’s face – unless we wanted to get decked, arrested or sued.
While we might momentarily enjoy the catharsis of saying what we really think or feel, what do we expect will happen as a result? Will Rupert Murdoch, checking his Twitter feed, ever think: Ah, yes, that slightly tipsy, very outraged person in Erskineville thinks I’m a dick. Point taken. I’ll change my ways immediately.
Of course not. And really, how are you going to really convince anyone else that they’re wrong by shouting at them?
For some, like professional pedants like Andrew Bolt or Gerard Henderson, it’s more important to be right, at any cost. For them, it’s all about “the principle.”
But as many friendships or family relationships destroyed by small sums or long-forgotten arguments can attest, the principle doesn’t often involve very much.
After I’d sent that student that regrettable email, my supervisor called me into their office for a friendly chat. It wasn’t one of those “friendly chats” in the boss’s office we usually dread, but a genuinely caring one.
Like me, they’d received similarly offensive and disheartening complaints over their career.
But they went with the territory, and the best thing was not to engage with spurious complaints, so that we could concentrate on addressing more important issues.
And in the same way, I realised that for all the shouting and shaming that happens online or in the real world, there’s very little to be said for it other than the volume of the anger.
There are always two sides to any argument, and the best way to resolve any dispute is to compromise, not escalate. How can any discussion solve anything or come to any agreement when it descends into a shouting match?
And like those recalcitrant students or combative columnists or arrogant pollies, no matter how you might try to explain your perspective to someone, they just won’t hear you.
We need to pick our battles, and choose our arguments carefully.
But they’re even less likely to when you start shouting.
How often we hold our tongue to keep the peace at home, avoiding pointless petty squabbles by not sweating the small stuff? So why bother online or anywhere else, just because there are so many more strangers to disagree with?
But we need to pick our battles, and choose our arguments carefully, if we don’t want to be in an emotionally and mentally exhausting state of perpetual outrage.
Indeed, when I’ve simply walked away from a fight, I’ve found it’s eventually burned itself out. And as I’ve found in making complaints to the bank or the Council or the phone company, you’re more likely to get what you want done when you’re polite and understanding than when you’re angry and impatient.
And even then, you’ll often realise when you’ve calmed down, the complaint or argument was probably too trivial to bother with anyway.
Which is why I’ve decided to follow Xenocrates’ example.
I might not always get the last word or always get my way, but I think I’ll have a better chance of being happy.