“Are you the idiot who…” were the first words of a phone call last week.
Another fan, I thought to myself, bracing myself to have a conversation with someone who clearly disagreed with something we’d done at The Lima News.
Yet again, it was someone who started the conversation at Level 7, when Level 1 or 2 would’ve sufficed. I took a deep breath and tried to deescalate the conversation to understand the caller’s concerns.
As the immediate supervisor for our newspaper’s reporters, I admittedly get more angry callers than the average guy. It’s especially complicated since many calls are about mistakes, and people are stunned to learn that I don’t read every word of the newspaper before it goes to print or online. (My job is to make sure we have stories assigned, while someone else proofreads all those stories.)
Still, after doing this job for a dozen years, I’ve noticed something disconcerting. People just aren’t as civil as they once were.
I still have the pleasure of talking to some nice people. I don’t doubt some of the other people giving me a profanity-laced earful might be nice in other circumstances. It makes me wonder what people really hope to accomplish.
On a few occasions, I’ve told people who were in the midst of chewing me out and begging for a story at the same time that they had a strange way of asking for a favor. That usually freezes them for a second.
I’ve heard plenty of people start a sentence with “I want to know why” without ever giving me a chance to answer. I’ve heard people ramble on for four or five minutes at a time. When they finally pause for oxygen, I’ll ask if they really want an answer to their question or if they just wanted to rant, as I was fine with either answer. (Only half the people really want an answer, by the way.)
I see the same level of discourse too often online. It’s not hard to figure out someone’s motives: Ripping someone apart is obviously more important than understanding their point of view. It’s not enough to correct someone’s mistake; you must humiliate them too. It’s about drawing attention to yourself and your own superiority, apparently.
I try not to get pulled into this sea of misery. It’s not a superiority thing for me; it’s a happy thing. As I like to tell my kids, other people can’t make you angry unless you let them. It can be difficult at times, particularly when dealing with trolls who see it as a sport to get you to break from your professional demeanor.
I don’t honestly believe this week’s column will change the world. People will still start conversations angrier than they need to be. They’ll still want to call names and taunt.
But maybe, just maybe, my next angry call will start at a Level 5 instead of a Level 7, and that would be progress toward a better, more civil society.