Twice in the last week I have experienced pure rage after participating in Facebook exchanges with strangers. The problem begins when I feel misunderstood. One of my comments will lead to a responding comment that seems to address an opinion or thought very different from the one I actually expressed, and that feels like pin pricks in my ego. So, instead of doing the smart and self-preserving thing (letting it go), I try to clarify my previous comment. But then it only gets worse, and the ensuing discussion becomes more annoying, or even hurtful. I could get into the details, but the details are long, involved, sort of boring and ultimately don't matter. The result is that after the second of these interactions, I felt a heart-pounding, sobbing, sleep-depriving anger that was completely out of proportion to the situation. Jesus Christ, it all came from a discussion about "Sex and the City 2".
Fortunately, I had a therapy appointment at the end of my miserable yesterday, so I got to chat with my shrink about it. I know that it's easy for people who don't know each other to fight online, because there's no need for courage or physical strength to back up one's words. But why do we do want to fight online? And why are strong negative feelings so easily triggered?
My therapist brought up the idea of transference, which is defined on Wikipedia as "a phenomenon in psychoanalysis characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another". I think that some of the most common instances of transference occur at work. Have you ever had that coworker that you can't stand, and you wonder why other people don't dislike them as much as you do? Well, I've had that experience and usually I figure out that person reminds me of some jerk from my past. I may even look for commonalities between jerk-coworker and jerk-from-my-past (my therapist would call this "filling in the blanks"). It isn't rational, but I do it. Of course, if I get to know my coworker better, those comparisons break down and maybe I even get to a point where that person doesn't bug me so much. After all, I am dealing with a completely different person.
Ah, but we almost never meet that friend-of-a-friend online. It's a "filling in the blanks" bonanza! You can make any stranger the duplicate of some person you already despise. Especially on Facebook, where most people choose to limit access to their personal information so that only their friends can see their profiles, all we know of our friends' friends are their names and one photo. How funny. These privacy settings are supposed to protect us by keeping us well disguised, but our disguises make us vulnerable to so much easy judgment.
And of course, quickly written electronic communications don't allow enough time for reflection nor do they come with the subtle vocal tones and facial expressions that help us convey meaning in face-to-face conversation. In the midst of the "Sex and the City 2" discussion, some dude directed a comment toward me that I found creepy and sexist (though I guess others found it humorous). This triggered an awful reaction on my end, which I tried to communicate in yet another ill-advised response (that only made me feel worse). I have no idea what the dude thought of my last comment, as he has been silent since. But at the end of it all, our connecting friend - who presumably knows both of us - thought we were hilarious. I find this all very confusing, especially because I can't see or hear the participants. I don't know what to think. I feel like Charlie Brown with the little squiggle over his head in lieu of a caption. Well, as long as it keeps me from further commenting, I guess that being flummoxed isn't the worst thing...
The truth is, I've been feeling pretty sad these last few days, and it just didn't make sense that these Facebook exchanges could really be at the heart of my distress. So I did a little mental backtracking and the best I can figure is this - it happens I've been writing a story based on events that happened in my youth and in my struggle to keep it honest, I've unearthed a lot of weird feelings about some of those jerks from my past. Writing can be a crazy-ass experiment. Anyway, I guess the strongly worded run-ins with practically faceless strangers have heightened those yucky feelings (hence the out-of-proportion emotional responses). I wonder how many internet-related emotional outbursts are as disconnected from the matter at hand as mine was? In any case, being as sensitive as I am, I need to tread carefully with this tricky technology. Words on a screen are not really conversation, but they do have the power to ruin my day.
Speaking of unnecessarily ruined days, I'd like to close this post with a funny anecdote - I was riding the bus ride home from work on Thursday and had the chance to eavesdrop on a very dramatic cell phone conversation. A young woman kept pleading, "Mom! I don't know. I don't know if he lost his job. All I know is that he sent me a text that said, 'I'm on the bus' and I don't know if his car broke down or why he was on the bus or if he missed work or what." All the way from Mott Children's Hospital to Arborland Mall, this young woman insisted that she could not decipher her wayward brother's mysterious text message, and tried to make her mother understand that, despite repeated attempts, she had not been able to reach him by phone. Moments after she hung up with mom (which was followed by an enormous sigh), her brother called. I couldn't gather exactly what he told her, except that it must have been somewhat positive news, because she kept saying, "Oh my god! I was freaking out," as if it was all okay in the end. As soon as she hung up with him, she called mom back. "No, Mom, he didn't lose his job. His car's fine. He was never on the bus. I had sent him a text that said 'I'm on the bus' and he accidentally replied by sending me my message."
Isn't technology great? And to think that most of us didn't have these sources of stress and drama fifteen years ago. How in the world did we amuse ourselves then?