Empathy Online

Edward Loveall

When talking to people online, (at work, in open-source, on social networks, etc.) it can be difficult to communicate tone of voice. One easy thing to do is to acknowledge someone’s emotions. Similarly, good use of emphasis and Emoji go a long way.

Consider the following interaction:

Devin: Hmmm… when I start up the app it crashes and I get this error message: <error message>

Edward: upgrade your ruby version

It’s not untrue! That did fix the issue, but it created another. Edward’s response was so terse that it left no room for empathy. There was no sense that he was sympathetic to what Devin had struggled with, even if the fix was trivial.

What if the response had been:

Edward: Oh no! 😕 If you upgrade your ruby version, that should fix it

This small acknowledgment of their emotions (Oh no!) and attaching an emotion (😕) can turn a rude message into a helpful one.

Also try:

  • Phrasing messages as a question: Hmmm, what if you try…?
  • Be welcoming: Hi Devin! Glad to see you here.
  • Using emphasis to show tone of voice: I think the root cause is…
  • Avoid dismissive words: (Just) try upgrading ruby. It’s (only) a dependency.
  • Use complete sentences: That error message appears due to an old version of Ruby. Can you try again after upgrading?

These small acts can be the difference between a friendly community and a toxic one. We could all probably use a bit more kindness.