How To Use Clean Language Questions On Twitter

Might using Clean Language questions make Twitter a friendlier, less confrontational space? And if so, what might be the best approach to take?

A thread of tweets started by Jose Casal and involving Steven Mackenzie and Dragan Jolic has got me thinking about the issue.

Jose posted: “Some people’s behaviour on Twitter is terrible. Confrontational, entitled, non-collaborative and several other bad traits. An example. Someone makes a categorical statement. Someone else asks “why”. The first person replies “not here to teach you”. So so poor.” (Original Tweet now unavailable.)

In the ensuing thread, Jose and Steven both suggested that using Clean Language questions might be more useful than asking a bald “why?”

I think they’re right.

The thing about “Why?” is that it is often experienced as an attack, rather than an inquiry. Even dressed up with softeners like “I’m curious…” or “I wonder…” it can seem aggressive. It’s also ambiguous: does it mean “From what cause?” or “For what purpose?”

So I’d ban the bald “why?” from any discussion that you would like to be civilised. If the intention is to get the original poster to explain what they meant by what they said in that “categorical statement”, pretty much any question would be better!

I’m all for using the Clean Language questions – and I would like to share some ways of doing so which will increase the chances of a positive response.

Disclaimer: I don’t spend a lot of time in Twitter conversations (or arguments). The following ideas are based on many years of using Clean Language questions in various text-based contexts including Facebook, Slack, forums and email.

Here are my tips for using Clean Language questions on Twitter:

  • Do use softeners like “I’m curious…” or “I wonder…”, especially as you initially engage. We don’t use those in “pure” Clean Language, but in the Twitter context, where so many non-verbal markers are missing, they indicate respectful curiosity.
  • Be clear about your intention, whether you share that publicly or not. What would you like to have happen as a result of this engagement? Allow your intention to guide your actions.
  • Choose your questions appropriately. Clean Language questions will be most useful when you seek to model the other person’s point of view.
  • Be precise with your questions, especially at the beginning of the conversation, indicating respect for the poster’s time. “What kind of X is that X?” is likely to be more appropriate than, “Is there anything else about all of that?”
  • Don’t obsess about the Cleanness of your questions. Sometimes (Dragan Jolic’s preferred) “How so?”, which would usually be contextually Clean, might be more useful than something from the core list.
  • Pay attention to what the other person actually says. “Listening” well is vital in text exchanges. It’s terribly easy to misread things!
  • “Parrot phrasing” their words will help the other person to feel heard. I wouldn’t recommend full Clean syntax, because that would look pretty weird. Instead, soften your parroting with phrases like, “You mentioned…”
  • Limit yourself to one or two Clean or Cleanish questions before adding something of yourself to the exchange, so it doesn’t feel like an interrogation or a coaching session.
  • Understand that not every Twitter poster intends to engage in conversation and discussion. Some just want to sound off. In a public space you have a right to ask questions, but not to demand answers.

Have you tried using Clean Language questions on Twitter? What happened? And what tips would you add to my list? Please comment below.

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