A Plea for Polite, Civilized Dialogue

Earlier today I posted an article discussing the breakdown of polite disagreements about personal finance.
a plea for polite discourse
I cited two examples of this breakdown of polite conversation. The first example was the Suze Orman drama (long story short: she called a finance blogger an “idiot” for disagreeing with her. Read the full story here.) I cited a second example of a reader who used the word “idiot” twice because he disagreed with my definition of debt vs. leverage.

The point of my post was that polite debate is welcome, but name-calling is not.

IRONICALLY, that post triggered a slew of hateful responses. Most of my readers disagreed with me in a polite manner, and I thank them for that. But several readers barraged me with a long string of vicious and hate-filled remarks. (For obvious reasons, I did not approve those comments to be visible on this site.) These readers said things that were much worse than the original examples that I cited.

Finance bloggers disagree on all types of terminology. PK and Cameron — two writers on the site Don’t Quit Your Day Job — wrote point/counterpoint posts in which they disagreed with each other about the traditional definition of the word “savings.” (They hosted a two-person debate on “How to Define ‘Savings.'”) Similarly, I believe that the traditional use of the word “debt” is insufficient. I’ve also argued that the traditional definition of “millionaire” is insufficient.

These disagreements are common. Finance writers could spend years debating the definition of words like “savings” and “asset” and “millionaire” and “debt.” These terms are highly open to interpretation. No one should be subject to cruel remarks because we disagree about traditional definitions of finance terms.

As I said in my last post — it’s appropriate to say “I disagree” or to pose questions, but it’s wrong to devolve into name-calling and harsh language.

I have taken down my post from earlier today — the post that triggered such a vicious backlash. I do not understand why it has triggered some readers to comment with 4-letter (and 5-letter) words. Regardless, I prefer to get rid of the catalyst that is sparking hateful and cruel attacks.

And again, I will end this post with a plea for polite, civilized and rational dialogue. Personal finance is a controversial topic that raises a lot of emotions, but we should not allow it to devolve into the same incivility often found in politics.


  1. says

    I totally agree with you on this one. I’ve had to delete lots of comments from people who would rather call me names than actually share their thoughts on the topic. I’ve received death threats (toward me AND my son) via email and blocked IPs of would-be hackers. Sometimes it makes me wonder why people bother reading my site – if I make you that angry, why not read someone whose ideas line up more with yours?

    I wish people didn’t use the anonymity of the internet to attack those who opt NOT to be anonymous – who put themselves and their finances out there in hopes of helping someone. I guarantee none of them are doing the same.

  2. says

    what a shame…

    I read your previous post with interest – nothing more. I didn’t get worked up over it, it didn’t anger me, it didn’t make me want to comment. Yes, I have an opinion, but didn’t feel the need to share – or to be right.

    Isn’t that it in the end? What makes some people so ‘verbal’ – the need to be right?

    Try not to let it get to you and keep up the good work

    • says

      @Pat — I don’t know what makes people so verbal. The internet is a forum in which anonymous people can say things that they’re not held accountable for in “real life.” I wonder if that’s why some people think it’s okay to remove the filter and act like bullies. I don’t know why else people would act like that. And I certainly have no idea why some bloggers (like Andrea, who commented above) get death threats — thank goodness that has never happened to me.

      • says

        @femmefrugality — What I’m realizing is that — unfortunately — a few negative comments weigh on my mind more than the overwhelming majority of positive comments. I’ve been thinking about this a lot tonight. MOST people are great. MOST people are polite and intelligent. But it only takes a few people, with a few profane words, to really “upset the cart,” so to speak.

  3. says

    Well, I agree with you as well. It is OK to disagree and make a valid and persuasive argument, but no reason for name calling (or death threats). Sad that the world has come to this.

  4. says

    There are just a lot of unhappy people out there, sitting on their computers and looking for someone to be angry with. It’s scary-people are losing their dignity and rationality. So sorry it’s happening to you all.

    • says

      @suz — Thank you. It’s concerning how people use the veil of anonymity to write things online that they (hopefully) wouldn’t say in person. It reminds me of something I once heard about social media: Social media doesn’t make you a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ person, it just amplifies who you already are.

      I’m glad that people have an outlet to express their thoughts and feelings. I’d just like it if people weren’t so cruel and personal.

  5. says

    I support you fully, read the initial post with interest and agreed with your take. I’m so surprised by the severe backlash! I think some are bolstered by a sense of anonymity on the Internet and have license to say anything and everything without being “impeccable with your word” as don Miguel Ruiz teaches in The Four Agreements.

    Ironically I posted something at my site that may well help all of us take more responsibility for the words we speak and the energy we bring to any situation. Looks like the post will be attached this comment so visit and read if you’re so inclined.

    You know the energy and intention you bring to this incredible resource. You have always done it with honor and today is no exception. Hate, particularly on a day when many honor Dr. King, has no place in society, even when we disagree. So continue to shine in everything you do. Let light be your guide.



    • says

      @Tonya — Thank you for that great comment. I agree — when people say things anonymously, they’re not held responsible / held accountable for their words. And when people aren’t held accountable, there is the potential for all kinds of nonsense to come out …

  6. says

    Paula, I disagreed with some of your previous post but I can’t imagine what on Earth would cause someone to respond with the kinds of things you’re describing. By the way, I read all kinds of things online and from personal finance bloggers that I disagree with, but I rarely take the time to comment. The only reason I did on your post today was because I respect you so much as a blogger and I wanted to add to the discussion.

    • says

      @Julie — Oh, you had a wonderful comment! You, and Carol, and Kevin, and many others expressed intelligent, polite and well-thought-out remarks that enhanced the conversation. Yours are exactly the the types of comments I encourage.

      I don’t want everyone to agree with me (how boring would that be?) This blog will be at its best when people disagree in ways that are smart and civilized.

      My qualm was that a few readers (people with whom I have never interacted with previously) started lobbing profanities and all kinds of other nonsense. But I definitely appreciate all of you who added great comments to the discussion — that’s exactly what we need more of!

    • says

      I agree with Julie! I read all kinds of things I disagree with but I don’t ever feel the need to make my oh-so-important opinion known. I’m glad people use their blogs to share their views, and I respect them for that. It makes for a rich blogosphere. If I really feel I have something to add, I will comment, but never in an angry way, what’s the point of that?

  7. says

    I started my blog 6 months ago, and while I write about a completely different subject (sexual & reproductive health), it just amazes me that, as some of you have already mentioned, people abuse the anonymity of the internet to be hateful, hurtful, or instigators. I don’t mind agree-to-disagree dialogue, but never should it get to the point where posts have to be taken down because some people don’t know how to act.

    Instead of leaving ridiculous comments riddled with insults, these people should just create their own blog to get their opinions out there. That’s time better spent.

    • says

      @Nicole — I don’t know this for a fact, but I would guess that a topic like sexual and reproductive health would be much more controversial than personal finance. If that’s the case, then I imagine you have probably also experienced your share of outrageous comments.

      I agree — these commenters should start their own blog! If they really want to get their opinion out there, then starting a blog is a much better use of time than “trolling” around.

  8. says

    Wow! There are many ways to respectfully disagree with others without resorting to name-calling. Sorry to hear you’ve had such a stressful day Paula. Don’t listen to them. That’s just being disrespectful.

  9. says

    I’ve been blogging for five years and haven’t received what I’d consider a vicious comment yet. Maybe I just don’t write controversial enough posts. Although your post from this morning wasn’t one I would have predicted to spark vicious comments.

    • says

      @Andy – I was surprised by it too (and I thought it was pretty ironic.) One blogger once told me that the more you 1) share details of your personal life, and 2) express opinions that are unconventional, the more at-risk you are of having anonymous people trying to ‘hit you where it hurts.’ The more I blog, the more I’m finding that to be true, at least in my own experience.

      I’m just glad that I don’t blog about some ultra-controversial topic like politics. I don’t think I’d have the stomach for that.

    • says

      P.S. I suspect — although there’s no way to prove this — but I suspect that it’s precisely because that earlier post was about name-calling that it triggered more name-calling. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy or something?

      • says

        Don’t forget about trolls. Some people purposely put nasty stuff out there just to see what turns up. Like stepping on an antpile. I still hope that what we are seeing is people acting that way who never would in real life. But I’m starting to wonder.

  10. says

    Folks…it is HER blog, thoughts and opinions. Don’t like them? STOP READING her blog. In fact, start your own blog and subject YOUR writing to scrutiny.

    • says

      @Barbara — Thank you :-) I welcome (and encourage) people to disagree with me, if they’re productively adding to the conversation. It’s the negativity and name-calling that’s unproductive.

      I think some people feel that since they can be anonymous online, they have license to be rude. Like you said: they should start their own blogs and see how they like it!

  11. says

    I totally agree about the need for no name-calling. This post, and some of these comments, lends insight into what it must be like to gain some popularity, because with that popularity is a world of “haters” that can’t wait to spread their negativity. Keep doing what you’re doing! :)

    From House to Home

  12. says

    I guess there are just some people who can’t debate rationally and professionally. Though a lot say that there are always people who are rude, I still think that its time people try to control that kind of behavior. It is wrong that you have received such harsh comments and it is impressive how you stayed rational.

    • says

      @Sandra – Thank you. I’ve been thinking about it a lot today. I think it helps that the vast majority of comments are polite, civilized and reasonable. It just takes a few profanity-laced remarks to rankle the buttons, but I take comfort in the fact that those comments are in the minority — and the majority of comments are reasonable and professional.

  13. says

    Paula, sorry to hear about the experience today but, to some extent, it shows you’ve arrived! In my humble opinion, blogging requires an individual to take a stand and be vulnerable. You’re putting your thoughts, ideas and personal beliefs in the public eye and are braced for any response (educated and under-educated). Few people have that courage and passion and I hope that today’s experience does not dissuade you from writing what you believe is right for your audience.

    • says

      @Alok – Thank you!

      I once had lunch with a woman who published a personal finance book. She mentioned that she was upset about one particularly hurtful comment, and I told her that it was evidence of her success. Now I need to take my own advice and start viewing it that way! :-)

  14. says

    I just don’t understand why everyone got so up in arms. It’s one thing to disagree, but who on earth got so upset that they did exactly what you were saying shouldn’t be done? I got some pretty awful comments when our layoff story from the New York Times reached the Yahoo front page. People were saying some completely unforgivable things that had me quite upset. I understand where you were coming from and I hope those rude people don’t come back. By the way, were any of those people previous readers? People who had commented in the past?

    • says

      @Briana — No, none of these people have ever commented in the past. I don’t know if they came here through a Google search (maybe for “Suze Orman” or “idiot,” which is in the news right now). It might be possible that they’re previous readers — But they are certainly people I’ve never “heard of” (they never posted a previous comment).

      I suspect the comments might be due to the “law of attraction” — if I post about name-calling and negativity, I’m going to attract more name-calling and negativity. Maybe that’s why?

  15. says

    Since this article features my site in a prominent position, I’ll leave you a guest post/comment, haha.

    James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal once wrote, roughly, that absolute free speech is great since it lets you see who the idiots are. You, Paula, are the farthest thing from an idiot – even if a few from that aforementioned group snuck into your comments section (and let’s thank the First Amendment for revealing them to us!). Far from it, in fact – the posts you write are more interesting than most pieces from the Personal Finance echo chamber.

    The effect you described is exactly why I thought I would try to discuss politics civilly on my site (ooh… how naive, haha). What site on the Internet is frequented by a cross section of every demographic calmly discussing the nuances of their platform? Not the Journal, not the New York Times… not a single site, from my perspective. People need to recognize that disagreeing with a post they dislike shouldn’t mean that a followup comment necessarily devolves into a string of four letter words and a proof of Godwin’s law.

    For the most part, when I see an article I disagree with I merely avoid commenting. If it’s a blogger I know invites discourse, I leave a well reasoned rebuttal to their points… respectfully. I hope that people know that they’re free to disagree with any of my posts (and I know I write plenty of controversial things – probably more than Cameron does).

    Paula, if you ever want to do a Point-Counterpoint, let me know. Maybe the PF realm needs a few people to lead by example? Haha!

    To everyone: Don’t feed the trolls!

    • says

      @PKamp3 — I looked up Godwin’s Law through the link that you left, and literally laughed out loud. I’ve seen that law come true on other (more-trafficked) sites!!

      I guess the point of Godwin’s Law is that the more people who comment on posts — especially people outside of the normal “community” of readers — the more likely the conversation is to devolve.

      I have a fantastic “community” at Afford Anything with great regular readers and commenters. I also have people who (presumably) arrived at my previous post through a Google Search for “Suze idiot” and decided to leave a profane messages. “You claim such-and-such but you’re just a blank-blank-blank.”

      That’s Godwin’s Law at work — or at least a corollary of Godwin’s Law at work. :-)

  16. says

    It is sad that you had to experience that. It is true that there are rude people out there. It is disappointing that they still act that way even knowing that they are adults.

    • says

      @Mary — It reminds me a bit of middle school. I think some people use the anonymity of the internet to say whatever they want — since they won’t be held accountable for it. I thnk all the people who made those comments were first-time visitors (none of them were people who had commented here before).

  17. says

    Your “Quit Calling me an Idiot” post was a good one, I’m sorry to see these Negative Nancy’s made you want to take it down. The hateful people couldn’t help but respond because that post hit them where they live. They really don’t like that. I can certainly understand why you would want to remove the catalyst, it’s just sad to see a well written, thoughtful post drowned out by the rabble. Don’t let them get to you Paula, you’re writing some of the most interesting and useful material in the personal finance realm right now. Keep it up.

    • says

      @Kurt — Thank you so much. :-) One of my readers pointed out that Suze Orman is a polarizing figure — as polarizing as some political or sports figures. My post probably attracted the most extreme contingent of her die-hard fans. I suspect (though I don’t know for certain) that’s the source of some of the negativity.

      Other people have written about her too, but they tended to focus specifically on her prepaid card, while I focused on the name-calling … which spurred some people to say “You criticize such-and-such but you’re just a blank-blank” or “You think you’re so high-and-mighty but you’re really a blank-blank-blank.”

  18. says

    I agree with you but this extends to many aspects of life. Too bad you took the article down. If people disagreed with you, that’s their issue and no need to succumb to pressure because others disagree with you. Your blog is yours!

  19. says

    Calling someone an idiot for disagreeing is hardly the best way to get your point across.

    It reminds me of our current election campaigns. Instead of spending time enunciating all of your unique strengths and viewpoint, front runners bash each other.

  20. says

    It is okay to have a “Terms of Service” or a “Terms for Posting”. As long as you set the ground rules for appropriate behavior — although it may be obvious to most — you can point to it and politely explain the terms. If that does not work, abmonishment, and eventually banning would be appropriate. You will always find trolls, bullies, and keyboard warriors anywhere you visit on the web. Remember, there is no such thing as free speech on a private site. It really is okay to ban people that are not nice. It does take more work, but it is a necessary evil. You should also be able to “hide” comments (or move them to a private area) versus “deleting” them so you can establish a pattern of abuse.

    • says

      @TekGems — If a person if a first-time commenter, I read their remark (it goes into a “pending” folder) before it appears on the site. In that way, I am able to prevent new commenters from posting things that are visible without my approval. I really like your idea of also having a “Terms of Posting” — that’s a great idea. Thanks for that suggestion!

  21. says

    I think Suze Orman lost a lot of past followers and potential would-be followers by acting so unprofessionally. It is always okay to politely offer another way to look at something, but it’s never okay to call people names.

    I didn’t read your post, so I can’t comment too much on that. What I can say is that it’s a shame that so many people would take offense to your post and respond so unprofessionally.

  22. says

    Paula, I read your initial post, and the original one that caused Suze Orman to be “up in arms”, and as others have indicated, I can’t understand what would illicit so many hate filled words, but as others have said, “You HAVE arrived!” Best to you and keep on doing what you do.

    That Chick Te’

  23. Millie says

    Unfortunatey I think it’s simply that some people on the Internet are a bit pathetic and feel the need to bully others. Luckily there’s still a delete button on the Internet!

  24. says

    Disagreements occur. I’m over the whole name calling drama with Suze and others. If she decides to pull the card or keep it…its up to her. Let’s talk about the products and the ideas, not the people pushing the ideas. Yes, name calling and pointing fingers is very juvenile. As I parent, if you ignore a toddle pitching a tantrum, they usually stop their fit. Same thing might work with personal finance writers too.

  25. says

    Hi Paula,

    Take readers criticism as a positive factor! It only helps you to improve your site, plus it sparks interesting debates between visitors. I think your doing a good job though haha


  26. says

    The only reason these people are so verbal and call people names is because they can hide behind a computer screen and in reality are ill mannered cowards. Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t take any notice of them Paula! The internet is meant to encourage discussion, not for people to abuse it.

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