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Avoiding the Angry Reply: Airing Your Dirty Laundry Online

Avoiding the Angry Reply: Airing Your Dirty Laundry OnlineThere’s a subset of the unemployed who are so embarrassed by their unemployment, they pretend to go to work every day — getting up, showering and shaving, dressing, and then heading out the door to a nonexistent job. The Washington Post published the story of such folks earlier this month.

What they hadn’t counted on was a domestic dispute taken to their comments’ section of the online version of the story.

The man profiled in the article agreed to have his real name published. In hindsight, this may have not been the wisest idea. His wife soon found the article online and disagreed with some of the things written about her husband in the article:

Cole’s wife blasted her husband. Rather than being laid off, Lori Cole wrote in a comment, he was “fired for poor performance.” She said their marriage is broken.

Then Elizabeth Cole, who identified herself as the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, posted a comment saying her father had mental problems.

Obviously Lori Cole was upset and angry by the story, and perhaps displayed a lack of judgment by posting such a comment for public consumption. In fact, she recognized that perhaps she hadn’t displayed the best judgment possible when she then asked The Post to retract the comment. But the editors refused:

Subsequently, Lori Cole contacted The Post and asked that her comments be removed because she’d acted in anger. But by then, her comments had prompted many others. Raju Narisetti, the managing editor in charge of the Web site, concluded they should remain. Other top editors concurred.

The Post’s ombudsman agreed with Cole’s husband, who was initially shocked by what he perceived as abusive and untruthful comments that were allowed to remain on the website. The ombudsman also noted the lack of followup reporting by the original reporter, failing to verify the basic story of the person she was shining a spotlight on. Isn’t a basic tenet of journalism is to get some verification of a story before going to print with it?

What this episode demonstrates is how one poor moment of judgment can reverberate for days, weeks — and in the case of online — forever. In some cases, you can’t take back what you say online. That opinion you shared in anger or spite or frustration may remain in some search engine’s cache or newspaper website for all time.

Avoiding the Angry Reply

Luckily, there are specific, easy steps you can take to avoid ending up like the Cole’s.

1. Compose your reply offline.

You’re allowed to be angry — anger is a basic human emotion that needs expression as much as any other emotion. Trying to stifle it or push it back down isn’t going to work for most people. Instead, give your anger expression, but do so offline first.

This means, compose your reply to an article, email, forum posting, or what-not in a word processing program or as a draft new email with the “To:” line completely blank. Take your time writing it and refining it. Doing so in a place that isn’t directly online or in reply to what angered you will prevent you from accidentally sending it before you’re ready. It also puts you in a different online environment than where the thing that made you angry is. Changing the environment can help take the intensity and immediacy away from your reply.

Then when you feel it’s perfect, move on to the next step.

2. Wait 24 hours.

Yes, this is the impossible part. But this step is also the most important, because it gives you a chance to sleep on it. “But wait!” you say, “I don’t want to sleep on it! I’m angry right now and I want them to feel the wrath of my words!!”

Absolutely. But when we’re angry, we’re reacting often purely from our emotions, and our cognitive side takes a time-out. This can blind us to reality or things we are overlooking. While this may feel good in the moment, it may not be beneficial for our long-term needs.

Indeed, angry email replies have resulted in people getting fired.

After 24 hours, your rational mind will likely be fully back in control, and you can look at the situation — and your earlier, unsent reply — with hopefully more balance.

3. Consider dropping it altogether.

At this point, it’s a good time to consider what is usually the best solution — no reply at all. Sometimes we feel like we have to reply, or the other side has “won.” But what have they really won? Some pretty meaningless argument or what-not that you won’t remember 2 weeks from now? Or demonstrating their own lack of control and immaturity level? Not every battle needs to met with a fight; some battles are best fought by a strategic retreat.

4. If you must reply, keep it short and on-topic.

Resist the urge to get in a little dig, and stick to replying to the facts. Replying to an emotional diatribe with a short, basic response that covers the facts or primary topic speaks far more loudly than 1,000 word rant. It demonstrates your maturity, mindfulness, and ability to rise above the fray.

Leave emotion out of any reply. Emotions are best communicated in-person, face-to-face. Online, it’s easy to misunderstand and misread the intent of a message. Humor can mistakenly be taken seriously, and something meant sarcastically might be completely misunderstood.

We’re not robots, but we can take control of our emotions. Especially when the result of our emotional outburst might be archived for all time online. When the stakes are potentially so high, we should make every effort to respond more carefully, taking a good break from the desire to instantly reply with our first angry thoughts.

Read the full article: Online Spat Provokes Questions on What to Publish.

Avoiding the Angry Reply: Airing Your Dirty Laundry Online

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Avoiding the Angry Reply: Airing Your Dirty Laundry Online. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Aug 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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