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Meaner Behind A Screen: Exploring Customer Behavior In-Person and Online

Written by Ian Landsman, published on 05.03.2016

Hello. You’re here, so that means you’ve been on the Internet.

And that means you’ve probably seen the humor, happiness, positivity, sarcasm, and, unfortunately, downright ugliness that occurs online.

By now, it’s been well established that how people interact and what they say can dramatically change depending on where they’re saying it, especially if that communication is occurring online.

Sometimes, it’s juvenile nonsense that leads to story intros like this:

“Just when you think Internet trolls can’t possibly get any meaner, a 17-year-old was arrested this week for harassing Olympic diver Tom Daley after he failed to win a medal.” – Health.com

But other times, this ability to be more bold in text online can lead to troubling scenarios for businesses looking to protect their reputation, retain customers, and recruit new ones.

Today, we’ll review some thoughts behind why people are “meaner” on the Internet – and what it means for your customer service efforts.

Why Are People Meaner Online?

We’re not the first to notice, and we’re certainly not the first to ask that question.

How people interact with each other online can have tremendous (and traumatic) effects. These angrier, more vocal online personas come out in the forms of:

  • Internet trolls looking to stir up trouble
  • Cyberbullies of all ages
  • News outlet and social media commenters with impassioned and often inflammatory opinions
  • Customer comments and reviews (sometimes deservedly) bashing their meals, flights, and purchases… as well as the employees they encountered during those experiences.

There’s no doubt that what gets typed online is quite often harsher and more critical than what would get said in-person. Among the many discussions about why the online environment is so harsh, two key themes are spoken of repeatedly:


Quite often, the most brutal of Internet conversations and commentary is shared by users with nondescript usernames that hide their true identities. It’s easier to say something awful online if you knew it wouldn’t get traced back to yourself.

For customers, it’s similar. It’s much easier to say how you really feel and what you really think if it’s in an anonymous forum. It’s easy to complain about a brand when your Twitter username doesn’t give away your identity. It’s easier to ask troubleshooting questions or give negative opinions about products on Reddit and Amazon when you don’t always have to share who you really are.

online disinhibition effect: any behavior that is characterized by an apparent reduction in concerns for self-presentation and the judgment of others.

Despite their anonymity, these comments have impact. Take for instance this anonymous review of a digital pedometer.


If that was your brand, you certainly wouldn’t want that review out there about your customer service people.

You similarly wouldn’t want to be the target of any of these anonymously-posted threads.


Anonymity certainly grants a certain sense of power and control over the conversation. Any negativity posted by you can’t get attributed to you.

Lack of Eye Contact

Turns out being anonymous (or not) is not the only reason people are more willing to say what they really think on the Internet.

Psychologists have largely blamed this disinhibition on anonymity and invisibility: when you’re online, no one knows who you are or what you look like. A new study in Computers in Human Behavior, however, suggests that above and beyond anything else, we’re nasty on the Internet because we don’t make eye contact with our compatriots. – Scientific American

Think about the critical reviews you’ve read when choosing a place to eat. Maybe you’ve come across one like this:


The general manager is a “joke.” But would this reviewer say that to his or her face? Would you say it directly over the phone, even to his or her supervisor?

Maybe, maybe not.

But these online conversations go well beyond restaurant critiques, hotel reviews, and Amazon-purchased commodities.

Customers are talking about brands of all types online right now. They’re talking about software. They’re talking about hardware. They’re talking about your services – and your competitors’. Whether they’re posting in public forums or aggressively arguing in your company website’s live chat, they’re speaking up and they’re not mincing words.

So, how do we handle it?

Communication Tips for Online Customer Service

The forms of digital communication that have evolved over the past 20-30 years have certainly had their benefits. Texts, emails, IM – they are where some our most important conversations take place, personally and professionally.

That said, they certainly aren’t perfect, especially when you are charged with providing support to customers.

No eye contact? Make them see you anyway. In text only, a customer service provider is just a name. Adding a photo helps users see them as a person.

That’s why you should always try to introduce your users to your customer service people. Profile them on your website, blog or in social media posts. Share the work that they do in their local community. Introduce them to their personalities. And if you can? When a user initiates a conversation with one of your customer support people, share information about who your user is talking to. A smiling head shot will go a long way in showcasing the people behind the screen working to help your customers. And it might even make your customers feel like a real person is listening to their concerns – making it easier to help your customers feel supported.

Hard to read tone? Overcommunicate. Your voice won’t be able to indicate whether you feel sorry for your customer or totally lack empathy. So tell your customers you’re sorry for the issue they are having. Tell them repeatedly.

Your voice won’t indicate that your customer’s question is in fact a great question, or that their idea is a new idea you haven’t heard before. So tell them. Overcommunicate. Tell them that is a fantastic question. Tell them their feedback is tremendously appreciated and that it’s getting immediately sent on to the right people.

No facial expressions to guide you? Ask questions. Online communication means you don’t have smiles, frowns or inquisitive looks to tell you if the customer is happy. You won’t immediately know if your explanation cleared up your user’s questions. You won’t immediately see if the “good news” you just typed got any excited expression at all.

So ask. Check-in repeatedly throughout the conversation. Get the person on the other end of this conversation to tell you what they’re feeling, and make sure they know you’re here to listen and to help them.

Take advantage of the benefits of online communication, too. Just do so urgently.

No facial expressions means they’re not seeing yours either. You have the opportunity to collect your thoughts, to consider what the customer has said, and to react appropriately. You have the moment to consider how you can most accurately and helpfully respond, whether to answer a question, make an individual happy, or protect your brand’s reputation even when losing a customer.

It’s better to act correctly than to act quickly. There’s no fault in taking a moment to collect your thoughts, but make sure your customer knows they’re on your mind, as you’re considering the best solution to their question or concern. Any extended and unexplained pause may be misunderstood by the customer as you not having an answer. And that doesn’t help your cause, at all.

By taking the tips above into consideration, you can start to make online customer service experiences friendlier, and most importantly, productive and delightfully satisfying to all individuals participating. Online is not always the nicest place to be, but if you’re ready to dive into these conversations, there’s hundreds and thousands of people ready and willing to engage with you.

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