Ask Athena: Communication Breakdown

Damage control in the age of divisiveness. 

Q: I got into a political disagreement on a community social media page that turned really ugly. A lot of anger and hostility was directed at me, and I recognized some of these names from my street. There’s a definite chill on the block now. None of my neighbors seem to want to talk to me anymore. Any suggestions for how to mend fences? ~ Lonely Liberal

Dear Lonely,

Oh dear. I have some ideas, but I am not at all certain they will fix the problem. Social media has really changed the way people interact, so these ideas are “in development.” It’s the best I’ve got — a three-pronged approach that I hope can change the unfortunate narrative affecting your peace and comfort.

First, deep breath. Social media attacks can feel extremely personal but try to remember it’s not real life. When things flame out on community groups, it’s easy to feel like everyone is watching but realistically the number of people who actually care about neighborhood squabbles is very small. Most of us have too much going on in our lives to invest much energy in other people’s political dustups on the internet. Don’t let a few grudge-holders make you feel unwelcome on your own block.

With this in mind, go back to the neighborhood page and speak your truth! Tell the group you’ve had some time to think, and you feel bad about the last thread you were on, that seems to have upset people. You can stress that it wasn’t your intention, but still own your part in the drama.  Even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, there’s no reason you can’t apologize for how the conversation turned out, and admit you could’ve handled it better.

Because the truth is, online conversations don’t go off the rails by themselves. And that’s OK. Every miscommunication is a learning experience. Keep this in mind when you post your apology to the page, because chances are your haters will have a problem with it, and maybe you’ll even get attacked again. Don’t sweat it, they’re not your audience — all the other members of the group are. Admitting when you’re wrong and apologizing for any disruption you may have caused will earn you good credit with most people. Just stay positive, say your piece, and let the post run its course.

Hopefully that will soften things up. Next, how about a neighborhood get together at your house when the weather warms up?  Invite everyone over for a cookout or host a multi-family yard sale or block party. Make light-hearted invitations, welcome everyone’s participation. If you are in a position to spring for a dj or bouncy house, go for it.

Finally, keep your eye out for your neighbors, and try to strike up short, friendly, one-on-one conversations. “Hello, nice weather we’re having, How was your weekend, Boy those are some beautiful marigolds, Would you look at the blue eyes on Sherry’s baby…” You get the idea. Doesn’t really matter what you say, just keep your chat upbeat and politically neutral. You can do that, right? Unfortunately, almost everything these days has been politicized so…. tread lightly. And good luck.

Athena recommends erring on the side of caution from here on out with your neighbors. If you want to build bridges, you absolutely must begin on common, neutral ground. Freedom of speech is one of the things we all can appreciate about our country, but sometimes all that speech opens up wounds. It is time to heal. We can have disagreements but we are all in this together.

The political divisions in this country are cavernous right now, and so uncivil. To bring back community, we all have to start — one conversation at a time.

OTHER TIPS FOR BRIDGING THE GAP

Solve a neighborhood problem

People build trust when they work together to pursue a common purpose, such as getting a new street light installed, cleaning up a park or painting over graffiti.

Small, Kind Gestures

Small gestures, like shoveling a neighbor’s drive or walkway, are a great way to show you value your neighbors, and it may even give you a chance to get to know each other better.

Be Appreciative

If a neighbor does something you like, tell them! “That’s a beautiful garden!” “Your son has the best manners.” “I love how inviting your porch always looks.” Etc. They’ll be pleased to hear you noticed their good work.

News They Can Use

If you hear of any neighborhood news (events, crimes, development, special garbage pickups or event parking restrictions, etc.) give neighbors a heads-up.

Start (or Join) a Town Watch

Looking out for the neighborhood can build a shared sense of community. (If enough neighbors have dogs, you might even organize a “Paw Patrol” to train dog walkers how to keep an eye out for crime!) To organize your own Town Watch, visit townwatch.net.

AGREE? DISAGREE? Please comment below. Send your questions to AskAthena@nwlocalpaper.com

Read last month’s Ask Athena here.

About Athena 28 Articles
When she’s not advising mortals, Athena spends her time on earth in NW Philly with her husband, two sons and a day job where she’s paid to tell important people what to do (naturally). Send your questions to askathena@nwlocalpaper.com.

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