This week, I ventured to write a longish opinion post on my Facebook feed. Rather rapidly, it attracted comments introducing two very emotionally-charged terms: hate speech, and intolerance.

Sigh. This is why we can’t have nice things. And it’s why I have so often hesitated to take up topics of social import on social media.

The fact is, we risk misunderstanding any time we use words. The reason is what I call the “mental metadata” problem – every one of us has definitions, ideas, life experiences, and emotions attached to terms. That means that we may be using the same words, but we’re talking right past one another due to different meanings.

The simple word for this is semantics. It’s a topic I address all the time in my corporate workshops on clarity. Because it’s not just on Twitter and Facebook that we end up with definitional dysfunction. It’s everywhere.


See that word I just used? You had an immediate emotional reaction to it. You have images and feelings and ideas attached to it. And if you gathered 15 people into a room and said, “Let’s talk about Feminism,” you now have 15 different starting points.

Sometimes, we might actually agree on 90% of certain ideas, if we took the time to figure out what we actually mean. But it’s much easier to think the worst of someone and accuse them of being on the “other” side if we’re using terms differently.

This is why social media is so awful for productive, intelligent discussions. Face-to-face, over an extended time, we can arrive at alignment on the semantics and begin to then dive into a real dialogue. But on social platforms, we use terms and assume that everybody: 1. understands, and 2. shares our meaning.

They don’t. And that’s what leads to flaming comment exchanges and rampant unfriending. Especially when people assume all the wrong motives and take offense at what you did, or didn’t, actually say. Or mean.

I wish I had an easy fix for this problem. And I wish I felt more free to express myself on social media without inviting misunderstanding and flame-throwing. After a while, you realize that there’s only so much time for explanation, definition, and clarification – and nuance tends to not go over well on these platforms.

Next time you’re ready to jump down someone’s throat, remember that they may have a whole different set of “metadata” in their mind and heart about that topic. What you think is clear may be murky to someone else, and vice-versa.

Words. I love them. Most of the time.

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