Sarah Smiley Credit: Sarah Smiley

Writing is often a lonely profession. As writers, we sit alone at a desk, stare at a computer and type words. It’s a little like talking to yourself. Except, when those words get printed, you usually hear back from other people — the readers — in a quasi-, time-delayed conversation. In this way, the social aspects of publishing are an oxymoron: You write alone for an audience of many.

In almost 17 years of writing a weekly newspaper column, I’ve done a lot of sitting at a computer and “talking” to myself before publishing my thoughts for an audience. But the conversations with readers afterward have taught me a few things about people, and I’ve found these lessons cross over to non-writing aspects of life, too.

We don’t always read past the headlines

It’s true. There is nothing in print or online — no captcha, no verification, no check box or signed affidavit — that forces a person to read beyond the headline or first sentence before they form an opinion. You can witness this every day when commenters mistakenly — and sometimes angrily — argue the same point as the writer, even though they think they aren’t. Then, usually someone further down the comment thread will say, “Dude, did you even read the full thing?”

There is no better way to ruin your own argument than to unknowingly expose that you haven’t read past the headline.

Headlines can be misleading. Or, put another way: You can’t judge a book by its cover. You never could. But we try all the time.

Over the years, once each of us got past the “headlines,” I’ve become good friends with some of my harshest critics. Our conversations have moved beyond petty disagreements to deeper dialogue that explores our differences. Some of them, believe it or not, happily say hello to me in the post office now, a shock after reading a few of their comments online.

We are quick to criticize

When people write to tell me that they like my column, their message inevitably beings with some version of “I’ve been meaning to write and tell you.” When people hate what I write, however, it appears as if they went straight from their newspaper at the breakfast table to the computer in the backroom to sound off. There are no pauses, much less deep breaths, in between.

The same is true in the rest of life. When people get bad service at a restaurant, they don’t often waste time letting the manager know about it. When someone’s package gets damaged in the mail, they call the company immediately to complain. When someone is mad at someone else, they are quick to let everyone else know it.

But how long does it take us to share the good news, to let the manager know about excellent service?

Anyone who works with the public knows that “comments and suggestions” boxes should be renamed “Tell us how we’ve let you down today.” These boxes meant for good and bad feedback are usually overflowing with everything that is wrong. If you ask people to comment on anything, they usually feel compelled to mention what is wrong. We like to give our feedback when it is critical. We can’t always be bothered when the feedback is positive.

But we should.

It’s a tough world out there, and no one knows this better than the people who read the “Comments and Suggestions.”

We are more alike than we think

“Great minds definitely do not think alike.” That’s what my then-7-year-old son, Owen, told me one day, bucking the usual cliché. The range of opinions and viewpoints in this world is limitless, and that’s what makes newspaper commentary so interesting. Yet, we tend to want everyone to think like us anyway. And we get angry when they don’t.

What I’ve learned from many conversations with critics is that underneath it all, we really are more alike than we thought. Most of us want the same things, we just have a different way of getting them. And there is common ground and agreement in most things—you just might not find it in the comments section.

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