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7 Improv-Inspired Lessons for Staying Sane Online

Here's what improv comedy can teach us about online decorum.

Key points

  • Self-restraint is one of the best ways to avoid online conflict.
  • Improv's rule of agreement can help people have more productive and civil online exchanges.
  • Humility and self-reflection are important elements of civil online discourse.
Source: filistimlyanin/iStock

In my early days of parenting, I posted in a social media group about how Children’s and Infants’ Tylenol are the same exact thing, just packaged differently and with vastly different price points. It felt like the kind of thing an online parenting group would want to know about since it was a revelation to me when I first learned it.

And then came the comments.

Someone posted about how giving children Tylenol is akin to child abuse. And he should know. He’s a doctor!

Then people created their own thread about how they do not ever give their children medicine because they are good parents. Subtext: I am a bad parent for even posting about children’s pain relievers.

The internet is rife with exchanges like this. Actually, this feels tepid compared to the eviscerating flame wars that happen online every day. People are angry. People are defensive. People are ready to battle, even over seemingly innocuous “fun fact” posts.

Instead of responding to the comments, I deleted my post. Sometimes I do respond, but I try to follow improv-inspired rules to have more constructive, collaborative, and friendly online interactions.

1. Pretend it’s real life.

Improv is fun because it’s face-to-face. I get to say something… anything... and my teammates are going to take that idea and run with it. We can interact and look each other in the eyes. It’s a good time.

I try to bring this feeling with me when I’m reading social media comments or critical emails. These are real people with real feelings and lives.

Reminding myself that I’m interacting and improvising with real people helps me keep things civil.

2. Make others look good.

One of my favorite improv principles is to make people look good. Instead of trying to stand out, improv works when everyone is trying to make everyone else good. If my teammate starts flapping their arms, I might run out and start tweeting like a bird. The idea is that we’re all in this together, and I don’t want to leave anyone hanging.

This is a good netiquette rule, too. Make other people, even people who disagree with you, look good. Don’t try to shame or blame or belittle. I use phrases like, “That’s a good point,” or “Thanks for the feedback.” I don’t have to agree with them, but I also pride myself on not trying to make them look bad.

3. Take a moment before responding, or don’t respond at all.

Nothing riles me up like a critical comment. This is true in person as much as it is online. I get defensive and self-defeating. So I take another lesson from improv and try out some different responses before replying.

There’s an improv game called New Choice where someone yells out, “New choice,” forcing you to change your idea for the scene. Maybe I say, “I brought seven cookies.” “New choice.”

“I brought a cat.”

“New choice.”

“I brought a ham sandwich.”

Improv is great at beefing up our divergent thinking—our ability to come up with novel ideas. So, instead of firing off that combative email, take a moment, think of some other new choices, and go with something more collaborative, productive, and humane.

Or don’t say anything at all.

When a comment is especially off-base or malicious, I tend to just let it go. Often, other people come to my aid and put the unhelpful commenter in their place without forcing me to sound defensive.

4. Use the rule of agreement to avoid flame wars.

The term flame war has been around since the 1980s, but I’m just now learning about it. I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept, if not the term. Flame wars are “vitriolic online exchanges.” Think of two or more people on opposite sides of a heated divide just going at it online. I make it a point to avoid flame wars at all costs.

Say it with me: You are not going to change anyone’s mind in the comments section of a BuzzFeed article.

The first step is recognizing when a flame war is about to spark. If someone mentions anything political or religious, a flame war could be on the horizon. It’s the same reason I was brought up not to talk about money, politics, or religion at the dinner table. My parents wanted the flambe to be flaming, not the dinner conversation.

The second thing to do when you see a flame war brewing is to not throw kindling into the fire. Don’t feed into it. As Professor Ha-Kyun Kim writes, “The most effective way to reduce problems in cyberspace is self-restraint.”

Finally, try improv’s rule of agreement to make potentially flammable internet users feel seen. To avoid conflict during improv scenes, both parties go along with each other’s ideas and then add on. If my scene partner says my name is Nancy, then that’s just the way it is.

If I’m struggling to put out an online flame war, I might invoke the rule of agreement with an “I see what you mean,” “Good point,” or “That makes a lot of sense.” I don’t have to actually agree with my detractor, but I can agree that that’s their reality and that the fact that it’s their reality is totally fine by me.

Above all, take the high road so you don’t get burned.

5. Stay curious and open-minded.

Improv is also fun because improvisers focus intently on each other in a nonjudgmental and genuinely curious way. I can’t be thinking about how much I hate improvising with Buddy while I’m improvising with Buddy. I just don’t have the brain space to judge and focus at the same time.

Do this online, too.

Be curious about what might be making someone spread negativity online. Try not to judge them for it. We all have bad days.

This may also ultimately be the best way to change people’s minds. In a recent Arthur Brooks’ article, he explained that people are more likely to shift their perspective if they’ve been listened to first.

So do that. Listen without judgment instead of rushing to jump onto your soapbox or insult people.

6. Be open to being wrong.

Mistakes do not derail improvised scenes. Instead, improvisers justify them and then keep the scene moving forward. Justification is to make something make sense in the context of the scene.

My favorite example of justification happens in an improv game called Blind Line. Audience members provide the improvisers with some famous lines, things like, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Show me the money.”

Someone writes these lines down and spreads them out across the stage. Then the improvisers do an improvised scene incorporating the lines. The fun part is justifying how the lines make sense in the scene.

I might say, “My mom always used to tell me….” Then I pick up a line. “All the world’s a stage.” Then I continue the scene, “Which is such good advice since you’ve been acting our whole relationship, Brad. I want a divorce!”

I try to remember this idea of being OK with mistakes when I’m online. It’s good netiquette to be ready to admit mistakes. Recently, someone told me about a spelling error in an article I wrote four years ago. I responded with, “Good eye! Thanks so much for catching this error. I’ll make sure to let the editors know.”

Be open to being wrong.

Humility might just be your biggest netiquette superpower.

7. Unplug more often.

Finally, the less you’re plugged in and online, the less likely you are to get invested and wrapped up in online battles. Turn off your notifications. Delete social media apps. Have more real-life conversations with more real-life people.

This will give you more practice the next time you go online and see that comment from that person who’s not at all an expert in your field but has lots to say about your most recent post.

Good luck out there, people, and keep it civil.

References

Brooks, A. C. A gentler, better way to change minds. Arthur C. Brooks. Retrieved June 28, 2022, from https://arthurbrooks.com/article/a-gentler-better-way-to-change-minds/

Bukatman, S., Laidlaw, M., Schwenger, P., & Sobchack, V. (1994). Flame wars: the discourse of cyberculture. Duke University Press.

Drinko, C. Improv boosts creativity and psychological well-being. Psychology Today. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/play-your-way-sane/202005/impro…

Kim, H. K. (2019). An Empirical Study Affecting Content Characteristics of Cyber Culture on Acceptance Intention. Asia-pacific Journal of Convergent Research Interchange, 5(3), 63-70.

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