How I Learned to Deal With Conflict By Responding to Hate Mail

I'm an "avoider," but I may be changing my ways.

Dec 28, 2011 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

In almost every sense, I’m an avoider.

As a kid, on the playground I hid under the slide to avoid the mean girls. To get out of bad relationships, I move. Often to another country. I hate it when people are mean to each other. When I know that people have negative thoughts about me, it eats me up inside. Because I ahve this kind of personality, I a not always very good at standing up for myself.

Sometimes being a writer is a strange dichotomy because while I hate personal conflict and confrontation, the things I write I often stir up controversy anyway.  I have received my fair share of hate mail for the stories I’ve published.

Not just in the comments though of course there as well -- my favorite response to a story about sex tourism was something along the lines of “you must be a fat lesbian who is jealous of the prostitutes” -- but actual emails and Facebook messages.

It is always a bit of a surprise having it show up in your email inbox; the knowledge that you are so easily found always a shock.  I know writers talk negatively about comments all of the time, and you’re probably sick of it. However, it is still a relatively new experience for the profession -- which I think by nature attracts those who are overly empathetic and vulnerable to criticism -- to have instantaneous feedback on their ideas. I will say that here on xoJane, I mostly love the things people have to say.

The bad ones normally I just swallow. I suppose it is par for the course to have evil things said about you as a writer and complaining about it is kind of like movie stars being upset about paparazzi. (Even though movie stars can afford bodyguards.)

But I don’t think even Superwoman could get called a “stupid bitch” 500 times and have it not chip at her ego a little bit. 

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A few weeks ago I published a story on Slate about the Dutch tradition of dressing up as Zwarte Piet for the holidays. Zwarte Piet literally means “Black Pete” and true to his name, Dutch men and women paint their skin a deep black-brown, don wigs and hoop earring to celebrate their version of when Santa comes to town on the 5th of December.

Unsurprisingly, a Dutch newspaper caught wind of the story and wrote an article about my critique. Then the hate mail really came.  A woman wrote to me. In her message she called American women brainless, our kids drug-addled. She called me “cold-hearted”, “egocentric” and “pompous.” She hoped I never had children.

I was floored, and then I was angry. I was about ready to accept it and let the it run its course and wash through me until it was evenly dispersed across the ocean floor I’ve made in my mind with all of my frustration and disappointment. And then I noticed she had sent it from her work email.

It was from an organization devoted to promoting peace in the Middle East.

“Being that you are involved with peaceful conflict resolution, do you really think this is a good way to respond to someone you don’t agree with?” I asked her.

I sent it almost nervously -- as I said, I normally avoid -- but what I received in response shocked me even more. It was an apology.

She was sorry she said “disgusting” things to me. Because I had replied, she had seen me as a person. And because of our conversation, I was able to move past the initial letter, which would have bothered me for a long time. I don’t know if I will be able to stop avoiding in the future, but for now at least, her letter is one less negative thought to clog my brain with.

And maybe I'll have the courage to stand up for myself more often. How do you deal with conflict, in real life or online?