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The internet is a dumpster fire. Forget about the bots, I’m talking about real people … people you work with, live near, went to school with, or are friends-of-friends with. Those people sometimes say awful things, ranging from unintentional to galling to hateful, what I call “UGH” comments. Whether you are hooked on social media, invested in election news, or working in a virtual world, these internet dumpster fires and their UGH sparks create toxic fumes you can not avoid. And if you are a member of a group prone to be targeted, dehumanized, or belittled on the internet - such as black people - the UGH sparks leave burns. 

Ugh Ugh Ugh. 
Graphic with three emojis, labeled Unintentional, Galling, Hateful, to make up acronym UGH comments

My Confession

Sometimes, when I see a dumpster fire full of UGH comments, I feel repelled by the heat and I run away. Then, I peek back at the fire to see how high the flames are, while taking shelter behind my screen. Ugh on me. I know I am not alone.

This inaction is, of course, both natural and problematic. It makes us complicit in systems and narratives and violence that we don’t support. It leaves our targeted friends alone to fight for their humanity with the painful knowledge that people like me scrolled by a friend in need.

Why do we run away instead of standing up for a friend, or even a stranger who shares our beliefs? I suspect it’s partially because we don’t know what to do. We cannot find the words or we do not see the point of arguing with an UGH-ster whose mind is set.

If you relate, I have good news. Even (especially) if you don’t want to spend all day in the comments section, there are things you can do to fight the dumpster fire, or at least make the fumes less toxic. The 20/60/20 Rule can help.

Black hands typing on a laptop

The 20/60/20 Rule*

Let’s break down this rule (which I have adapted from Susan Lucia Annunzio). Think about the people reading the UGH comment. The framework says 20% of those people will be open to your perspective on that comment, even if some explanation is needed to get them there; I will call them the “open 20%.” Another 20% will be closed off to your perspective and will outlast you in the comments section; I will call them the “closed 20%.” 

The remaining 60% is not deeply engaged on this particular issue either way. They are reading the UGH comments without weighing in, so we tend to forget they are there. They will be (unconsciously) influenced by where they think the winds are blowing. These "perceived norms" shape human behavior more than we realize (as Princeton University professor Betsy Levy Paluck explains in this masterful presentation). If we are not careful, the closed (but vocal) 20% can create a misleading perceived norm. If we walk away from the dumpster fire, the middle 60% may misread the norm. This is the key insight of The 20/60/20 Rule:  we can seize the opportunity to send cues to the middle 60%, because they can be influenced.
Graphic titled The 20/60/20 Rule, with a bar split into the three components of closed 20%, middle 60%, and open 20%.  Adapted from Susan Lucia Annunzio (2001).
The 20/60/20 Rule is what keeps me from running away from dumpster fires. I don't want to preach, name call, argue, or spend the rest of the day in the comments section. I don't want to spend waste my time in discussions with people unwilling to hear me. This rule lets me avoid all of those things.

It works for heated disagreements - the type where people are fighting fire with fire, with long sermons (data optional) and/or short fuses (profanity and name calling optional). And it works in heated agreements - a string of repetitive, dissent-free UGH statements with the fire feeding on itself. Remember, the idea is to minimize the injury UGH comments have on people getting burned and to influence the middle 60% ... not (necessarily) to change the minds of the closed 20%. 

Five Ways I Use The Rule

  1. Be quick to click: Be visible. Let the people covered in soot from fighting the fire in the comments section know you are there; do not assume they feel your support. Think of this as passing them a bucket of water. It sounds so simple and obvious, but it is often overlooked.  When we keep scrolling, we leave those we support feeling like others have abandoned them. By signalling your support, you also help generate more support, as I suspect that the more likes a comment gets, the more it gets liked.  And, by signalling your displeasure, you are doing the same in reverse. Clicks add up to norms. (Sometimes, even that closed 20% might be dissuaded if they see the winds shift.) Things to try:  
    1. Hit the “like”/”love”/"care" buttons for comments you support and the “anger”/”sadness” buttons for comments you do not support
    2. Send your signal publicly, rather than solely through a private message which still leaves the individual alone in the fire without allies
  2. Be clueless: A lot of unconscious and even conscious bias is subtle and veiled in coded language, which makes it easy to deny, hard for some people to see, and particularly harmful. It is useful to make these biases visible so more people, especially those falling within that middle 60%, can recognize what is happening. So, be clueless and ask people to spell things out. This forces people throwing UGH matches into the flame to stand next to the fire. This will allow the middle 60% to see things for what they are. Some UGH-sters will engage, and some won’t (and if they won’t, that may slow the flames). Sample questions to ask: 
    1. "What is your concern?"
    2. "What do you think will happen?"
  3. Be focused: Don't forget who your audience is. Reply to the UGH-ster but write for the middle 60%. This can be hard because human nature is to mimic the behavior and tone of others, which might lead you to get into an angry back-and-forth with the UGH-ster that takes you off task. The key here is to not fire back when fired upon. So, if someone says, “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve ever gotten, unlike you and all these lazy protestors,” you would reply with the message you want the middle 60% to overhear, not with the scalding mic drop comeback you just came up with. In this method, you outwardly appear to be responding to the UGH-ster because you are hitting reply under their comment. But, in your mind and in effect, your message is for the middle 60%:
    1. “I like how Trevor Noah explains the importance of protest in this funny clip (then link to the clip).”
    2. “I'm really grateful for all the private conversations I've had with people expressing their support for this movement. Many of us seem to be noticing things we overlooked before and trying to learn more.” 
  4. Be a wet blanket: This is my favorite tool. It is especially effective when there are a bunch of comments from the closed 20% one after another, fanning the flames in unison. Research shows that offering a unique perspective does make the echo chamber less echo-y. Break up the momentum and before you know it, others may magically appear with a like or comment, changing the perceived norm in the room. You know how nobody goes on the dance floor until somebody goes, and then everybody goes? Hit the floor like “September” just started playing. A word or two is enough to do the job of sending a strong message that there is not unanimous consensus with the UGH comment. A couple of examples: 
    1. “Ouch!
    2. “Huh?”
  5. Be curious. Even if you don’t think you can change the UGH-ster’s mind, are you sure you know what they had in mind? If not, check. Digital communications are easily misunderstood and lost in translation (so much so that author Erica Dhawan built a toolkit to help us decode it all in the workplace). If a misunderstanding is possible, give them a chance to set the record straight (or maybe rethink). Here are questions you might pose:
    1. “I worry that I misunderstood your meaning. Can you say more?”
    2. “Can you clarify what you meant when you said XYZ?”
White woman typing on laptop

Let's Keep Going

For those who fight unintentional, galling, and hateful dumpster fires day after day, bless you. For the rest of us, the 20/60/20 Rule can help us fight the UGH. None of us can respond to all the UGH all the time, but all of us can respond to some of the UGH some of the time. These days, I aim to engage in one dumpster fire a week using the techniques above. It’s one way I (like many of you) am striving to do “10% More” (the key idea from last month's newsletter). Let's keep it going.

To that end, every month, I’ll send you the Dear Good People newsletter, with a five minute read about the psychology of good people and what it means to be a “good-ish” person. Just like my book, the newsletter will feature evidence-based and actionable advice which I am trying to use myself, all written in and for today's times. Please feel free to share the newsletter with all the good people in your life as I want it to reach as many hearts and minds as possible.  And let me know what you think by hitting reply to this email. 

Thanks for growing with me,

Dolly ChughDolly Chugh


* The numbers are stylized, not precise.

This month's artwork credits from top: Jeana Marinelli (books), Evelyn Parker (graphic), @tolubamwo from (person with laptop), Evelyn Parker (grapic), and StartupStock Photos from Pixabay (person with laptop). Special thanks to Evelyn Parker and Katie Sutton for help with writing, design, programming, and promotion of this newsletter.

Dolly Chugh is the Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor at the New York University Stern School of Business in the Department of Management and Organizations. She studies the psychology of good people and teaches leadership/management courses. All views are her own.

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