I Got Called In And My World Didn’t End

“Thank you for accepting my calling you in instead of yelling at me”

That’s how the last conversation I had on social media ended yesterday before I put my phone away and concentrated on getting ready for bed. In a state of high anxiety, I’d opened an app looking for connection. Instead, I found a follower had questioned my intentions about the wording of a post I’d shared a few days previously. It wasn’t the message I wanted to see and it would have been really easy for me to be defensive, given how I felt. I sat with it for a few minutes and hit reply…

On any average day, I hear about someone quitting Twitter. I read a story just last week about another influencer being called out and the subsequent pile on that followed over on Instagram. It’s not hard to see why there are a lot of people who feel that the online world is too hostile to operate in day by day. Everything feels quite urgent and demanding of our attention. I suspect that as people’s sense of social justice becomes increasingly heightened by fast response social media apps and the abrasiveness of world politics, there’s a lot of people experimenting with using their voice. All I can guess is that we are going to make mistakes with that and just as we need to develop listening skills to increase empathy and cooperation offline, we are going to need to learn the same skills online too.

I consider myself lucky. Thanks to the podcast, I’ve become known for honesty, vulnerability and advocating for conversations that often become sidelined. While I hope most people understand that I’m making visible a learning journey that I’ve chosen to go on, I also know that inevitably I will make mistakes and risk being called out. I often feel anxiety about getting it wrong, appearing tone deaf or offending others. However, I take solace in the fact that I have built up a set of friends who would hold me accountable if I found myself in that place. These people, the people whose opinions really matter to me, are a diverse bunch of some of the most forward thinking people I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet. They walk their talk. They understand that humans are fallible. We all share high expectations but above all, we exercise compassion readily.

When I’ve got it wrong publicly, I’ve been lucky enough to be Called In as I was last night. Calling In is when someone takes the time to privately message you about a problematic behaviour you’ve shown. It’s a brave act as evidenced by the relief this person showed when I didn’t yell at them. Did I feel shame in the moment? Yes, of course I did but I realised I’d been shown a great compassion of a personal approach and focused on that as a compliment, not a threat. All too often, I see and hear respectful conversation turning into a digital bunfight. What do I mean? Here’s a few examples:

  • “This isn’t about race/ gender, you are just an unhappy/ oversensitive person” — this response does more than deny someone’s lived and known experience. It discredits them as a person, labeling them weak and therefore dismissed. Systems of oppression are often discreet and rooted in language and imagery that we’ve grow accustomed to not questioning. It’s perfectly healthy to question whether something is an issue.
  • “That person had good intentions. Calling their behaviour problematic is too strong”- Intentions, even well-meaning ones, can hurt. Taking time to sit with the person’s hurt is important and articulating why it hurt can often lead to a better understanding for others going forward. It’s also important to refrain from encouraging them to explain to the person causing offence at that moment, they just need to hurt. Education can come a little later if they feel safe.
  • “You don’t know what you’re talking about” — Just…. Don’t on this one. Believe the person is speaking their truth, even if it is not yours.
  • “This is reverse sexism/ racism/ homophobia”- It isn’t. It just isn’t. See above about believing people’s lived experiences and truths.
  • “I have done XYZ so I can’t be racist/ homophobic/ ableist!”- Sadly, if this were true, the world would be a much more inclusive place. The social messaging that leads to internal bias is strong so it helps not to presume you’re immune to it. You can have attended a South Asian friend’s wedding as a white woman and still have problematic behaviour. Sorry to burst that bubble.

These are just a few examples of moments when the online world stops feeling productive and conversation breaks down. People double down, unfollow and seek solace from others about how they are right in their belief systems. It’s hard, so very hard but I’ve had really positive experiences of being Called In. In quite a few instances, I made some great online relationships that I still feel grateful for months later. The conversations were enriching and I came away with a better understanding of how this might have gone better. Was it easy? No. Did it make my anxiety spike? Yes but as I said above, that anxiety is always there because I so want to get it right.

Honouring someone else’s emotions and seeing why they are posting or responding the way they are can be hard to navigate with blood thumping in our ears.

My friend Kim recently told me about a Calling In moment from a friend and what I really noticed in her retelling of that moment is that Kim, who has always been committed to her openness to others, didn’t hold ground but instead welcomed her friend in:

“What [she] did was difficult for her and for me. But the way she approached the situation — “Here is this word and what it means to people in my culture. It’s a horrible word” — meant that yes, I was mortified that I didn’t know, yes, it hurt to hear I had hurt her, but the negative feelings eased away quickly and created real change in days, not years.”

In turn, Kim sharing this story with me enabled me to think about how I voice my frustrations and learning experiences online. It’s so incredibly easy to hit ‘go’ and walk away but for those following you, the words can be searing. As I’ve already said, even the best of intentions can hurt and I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it is to load shame into an app. I hold myself responsible in that.

Things became a little less painful when we start to understand that our emotional responses to any interaction or communication are warning signals that tell us a great deal about our personal comfort, boundaries as well as weak areas we might need to work on. That’s often where shame creeps into the equation I suspect and shame is a difficult emotion to move forward from productively. Honouring someone else’s emotions and seeing why they are posting or responding the way they are can be hard to navigate with blood thumping in our ears. Platforms operate within the communities that create them and the emotions we bring to those permeate them deeply. Shame to Twitter is like insecurity to Instagram and neither are useful emotions to build connections with. Sometimes, it can mean we have to sit with our discomfort, or another’s, and hold on for the ride.

For those curious? I changed the wording on my post after that DM. I did a Google search, read the messages a few times, asked questions and got to a more comfortable place. I’m glad I did.

Originally published at www.kateosullivan.org.