UNCLE KEITH: Never argue with an idiot and 11 things on being social for your organisation

860372850_bfa68652cc_bTim Berners-Lee, Paul Otlet and Clay Shirky add to that list of web visionaries if you will my Uncle Keith.

Bear with me on this one.

When I was 18 he came back from Australia to visit and he took me to the pub in the Cumbrian village Portinscale near Keswick where he was born.

He buys me a pint and after we take a drink he tells me he’s doing to tell me something really important.

He levels with me and I’m expecting some tips on how to chat up women. Or at the very least play cricket better. He leans across the table.

“Dan,” he says, “the best advice I can give you in life is never argue with an idiot.

“You end up on the same level and to a passer-by it’s just two idiots arguing.”

At the time it didn’t really register.

When that advice made sense…

Years passed by and as the social web became something that started to fascinate I end up helping train and advise people. Often, people are worried about being inundated with abuse from trolls when actually that very rarely happens. In my long experience most people are not looking for a fight but looking for information or maybe sometimes to let off some steam. A professional and human voice can really help.

But sometimes my Uncle Keith’s words came back as good sensible advice. It’s Cumbrian for ‘do not feed the trolls.’

When Cineworld looked a bit silly…

A customer unhappy at the pricing structure that Cineworld had fired a questioning tweet at them. It wasn’t an unreasonable thing to ask. The response was a masterclass in how to be a bit overbearing.

Maybe as others have said Cineworld’s Twitter operator was having a bit of a bad day. But their response was at best high handed.

You can read the entire exchange via this storify here.

Eleven things to remember when you’re operating social media for an organisation

1. You’re the public face of that organisation.

2. In a little guy v big guy row you can expect people take the side of the little guy as a default setting.

3. The vast majority of people you’ll come across are really decent.

4. If they’re not you need to rise above it.

5. And count to ten.

6. You need to not take things personally when you are the voice of the organisation. They’re not having a go at you personally when they’re complaining.

7. You need to print off the picture at the top of the post and stick it by your screen.

8. Remember the Channel 4 social media policy of  ‘don’t make your boss look stupid.’

9. Most of the time you’ll not need the above at all. Seriously.

10. Be human. It beats everything. The @londonmidland Twitter bio has the words:  “We aim to reply to all tweets, but pls try to be polite if things have gone wrong – we’re real people just trying to help!”

11. Shout a colleague for a second opinion or help if you’re unsure.

Creative commons credits

Two men arguing (remixed) http://www.flickr.com/photos/97248642@N00/860372850/sizes/o/

Join the Conversation


  1. Dan,
    Thanks for an interesting and pithy post. I wish I could write as well. Alas, as you will see, I suffer from logorrhea.

    I would take issue with the idea that a customer or anyone who disagrees is an idiot. In using that phrase, which is quite popular on the internet (another variant is do not argue with crazy), we simply dismisses the other person’s point and put them in a category. Such an approach is bad customer service. The language has a way of dismissing the other person and making them sound unreasonable. The implicit message is that the organisation is not an idiot. Unless you are also telling customers that they have no need to argue with idiotic companies. Perhaps we could rephrase the advice to be “Do not be an idiot when you argue.”

    What we see from the exchange is that we have two uninformed people arguing. The person asking did not know and the person responding did not know. In any exchange, it is quickly evident if the other person understand anything or even knows what they are talking about.

    The whole exchange is bad customer service because they could have explained the level of cinema prices. They could have looked at articles like this http://themovieblog.com/2007/economics-of-the-movie-theater-where-the-money-goes-and-why-it-costs-us-so-much/
    The price of popcorn for example, is more expensive because corn is now more expensive. Again, this is explained herehttp://web.merage.uci.edu/~mckenzie/pdf_doc/Column%20Popcorn%20080708.pdf
    Also popcorn is used to subsidize the movies because the studios take all the first week’s profits.

    There are other sites as well that answer this question. In part, people are intellectually lazy so they want to be given the fish rather than learning to fish. Sometimes, they just want a quick answer because all they need is the fish and it is easier to ask for the fish or buy the fish, instead of having to take the time to learn to fish and become good at fishing. Sometimes they ask for a cheeseburger and then you really are in trouble.

    I find that most people when they ask a question just want to know they get a reasoned response. I know twitter does not allow for long or detailed responses that can explain the issue. In many ways, the pithy comments can become seen as sarcastic so extra care may be needed such as pointing people to relevant links or relevant research on prices. Starting with the assumption that someone who is argumentative or will not accept the response is an idiot is a recipe for disaster.

    A better response might have been “Market conditions require us to charge this rate and will take your views into consideration when we review the next price decision.” Or they could have said “Our price is made up of a number of variables that we cannot control and we appreciate it has gone up but it is less than rate of inflation over the same period.”

    When I use twitter, I want to learn from people. In many ways people come to twitter to win an argument. I only argue to learn, which is a different goal. The former is someone who is eristic the second is heuristic. I agree that there is little to be gained from arguing with eristic people, but one can do that without being unpleasant or thinking they are idiots. If you do not know something simply say “I do not know, but I can try to find out for you.” Or “You have a good point, I had not considered it, I will have to consider it. Thank you.”

    I think Socrates understood this best, which is why I like this quotation about the dialogue Meno. http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/the-web-and-the-problem-of-the-examined-life/

    Just as an aside, Meno was a very unpleasant fellow and Socrates took the time to talk with him and learn from him. Would we have had such an instructive piece of philosophy if Socrates took your uncle Keith’s advice? 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lawrence. Oh, Lordy, if I’ve given the impression that anyone who asks a question I’ve failed a bit. That wasn’t the intention at all and the man who tweeted the question to Cineworld was entirely reasonable.

      I suppose my point was that not everyone who asks a question is doing so constructively. Most do and I’d always make a point of trying to answer a critical question wherever possible.

      Thanks for the links and putting time and thought into the answer. When I’m off the ferry I’m now sat on and find a better connection I’ll take a look : )

      1. Dan,
        Sorry about the post. I read into it too much. My concern was that many people working inside an organisation will see this as communications advice. I agree that your points do not support this view in the slightest, it was just the phrase “never argue with an idiot” is often used to dismiss someone we disagree with rather than to find the reason for the disagreement.

        Thanks again for the stimulating post and the good writing. Always a treat to read.



      2. No, it’s a good point to make. People can be too ready to dismiss someone as an idiot. When its someone who disagrees or happens to be the 100th person to ask that question unknowingly then the idiot will be the person in the org having a giddy hiss as anyone. Cheers, Lawrence!

  2. @Lawrence – I agree with thrust of what you’re saying, but I think you’re probably expecting too much of the Twitter operator to have time to go off and do the necessary research to answer the question fully; I think probably the best response would have been no response in that instance.

    I actually think as a society (for whatever definition you want to put on the word) ‘we’ have created a bit of a monster when it comes to organisational use of Twitter, with unreasonable expectations on both sides, especially when it comes to using it as a customer services channel. Organisations seem to feel the need to reply to every comment directed to them, even when a reply will either be unhelpful, unnecessary, or inappropriate. The people operating the Twitter accounts are often put in the position of having to defend the indefensible, left with nothing to say but bland platitudes. The people addressing corporate Twitter accounts often have unreasonable expectations of the level of power to act or access to resources of knowledge of the individuals operating the accounts. And I’ve seen far too many incidents of real human beings being utterly, utterly nasty to corporate Twitter accounts, behaviour which is bad enough at the best of times, but unconscionable on the occasions when I’ve known for a fact that the person being nasty to the corporate account personally knows, indeed is a former colleague of, the person operating the account.

    So it gets back to the question, how realistic is it to expect to be able to offer a good, meaningful customer services experience over Twitter? Maybe it’s time to manage the expectations of the channel, to lower the bar to ‘we’ll try our best to be helpful but don’t expect miracles’, and from there build up to an improved service?

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