From time to time, I find myself in a social or political debate on Facebook. Sometimes it’s something really important to me, like LGBT rights or health insurance reform, and sometimes it’s less important, like whether or not a church should sponsor a gory zombie walk at Halloween. Having been on Facebook for more than seven years (HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?), I’ve developed a list of rules for myself when it comes to these debates and discussions. I believe this list is why I get to have such wonderful conversations with people who agree and who disagree with me, usually in a phenomenally civil and respectful way. It’s why I’ve had friends tell me that they respect the way I represent myself online, especially when it comes to controversial topics. This list is why I don’t have to later regret things I’ve said online. Perhaps these rules can be useful to you, too.

  1. If you wouldn’t say it in public, where other people could hear you, don’t say it on Facebook. I don’t swear loudly in restaurants, and therefore I don’t swear loudly on Facebook, either. If I want to share a really emotional story with a friend and we’re at Starbucks, I lower my voice and talk about it quietly so that it’s private. In the same way, I take private stories that could make my friends uncomfortable to private messages on FB instead of my timeline.
  2. Don’t make fun of people. Don’t make fun of their beliefs, their looks, or their interests. If you’re friends with more than a dozen people, someone on your friends list is going to identify with whatever it is you’re making fun of, and what is the point of making that person feel bad? I don’t mean that it’s not okay to laugh at some absurd thing that a politician or public figure has said–but make sure that you are criticizing ideas, not your friends who hold those same ideas. If you want to make fun of people, join a private FB group made up of people who agree with you on a particular subject, and post your excellent quips and jokes there instead.
  3. Ask yourself before you hit enter: If this person were sitting right in front of me right now, would I say this to them?
  4. Don’t assume that because someone believes differently than you, that they are a bad person or an idiot.
  5. You do not have to respond to every stupid thing you see posted in your news feed.
  6. If you don’t converse with the person in real life and you have no online relationship to speak of, don’t pick a fight with them online. In other words, don’t start debating with that random person from high school just because they said something that you really, really disagree with. You are not the person they are likely to listen to. If you want to help them find a better way of looking at the world, at least rekindle a relationship/friendship with them first. Then be an example to them of what you believe and care about in the world. That will go much farther than a debate ever could.
  7. Don’t let your friends attack your other friends. You are the moderator of your own conversations. If someone is getting out of hand, ask them to take a breather, even if you agree with them.
  8. Don’t pick apart a person’s grammar or spelling.
  9. In general, debating on Facebook isn’t going to change a person’s mind on something. Instead, view FB debates as a way to show the people who disagree with you that you are a thoughtful, intelligent person, and that thoughtful, intelligent people can disagree on things.
  10. Think about the person you are talking with. When is the next time you will see him or her? Imagine that encounter. Are you still comfortable proceeding with the debate? If so, continue. If not, reconsider.