I signed up for Twitter last spring. As with all technology, I was so late to the party, I figured everyone had left. I Twitter-stalked a few writers I admired and stumbled onto unexpectedly entertaining feeds. Who knew that @MerriamWebster could be so funny? I also shared my own counselling and parenting columns and started to exchange ideas with other educators.
My 15-year-old son didn’t believe me when I said that I was tweeting. He asked me to hand over my phone and started scrolling through my followers. ‘Who is Passion?’ he asked, pointing to a scantily clad woman with a bio that read, ‘I don’t like clothes. I like naked.’ He looked up at me. ‘Why did you follow her back?’ I told him it felt like the polite thing to do. Who was I to judge or make assumptions? Maybe Passion wanted parenting tips. My son gave my 13-year-old daughter a look. ‘I know,’ she said, then turned to me. ‘Listen to us, Mum. No. Just no.’
Although I stubbornly insisted on following everyone back, connecting with people from Seattle to Doha, I was selective about what I actually read. I was following people with widely varying political ideologies and socioeconomic backgrounds, but I wasn’t actually digesting their diverse perspectives. I had entered what a friend calls ‘The Matrix’, but I remained in my own liberal, East Coast cocoon.
This became especially apparent after the US presidential election. Shortly after Trump was elected, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urged Democrats to start following smart conservatives on Twitter. He thought his readers should expose themselves to ideas that would provoke, anger, and stretch them. He made a slew of recommendations, including @arthurbrooks, @peggynoonannyc, and @Heritage.
Like Kristof, I think we all need to bust out of our bubbles, but I resolved to check out the suggested Twitter feeds for a more nuanced reason. As a school counsellor and therapist, his premise made me think about Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi’s TED talk about the dangers of a single story. Ngozi believes that every individual’s life is complex and multifaceted, and when we expose ourselves solely to news, people and views that confirm our biases, we reduce human beings to a single narrative. As a counsellor, that runs counter to the ideals of my profession.
The American Psychological Association spells this out, instructing practitioners to recognise cultural diversity in all its forms. As therapists, we need to understand that socioeconomic and political factors significantly impact different groups, and to be aware of how our own attitudes, background and prejudices impact our interactions. This won’t happen if we spend all our time – online or in real life – with people who mirror our own values. To start broadening my exposure, I needed to change my approach to Twitter.
I first turned to Kristof’s conservative picks, then waded through my own followers for people with different ideologies. Some of their bios made me laugh, like the one that read: ‘Right wing Alpha Male with a pickup truck, guns, and a barbecue pit who knows how to use all three.’ I am sure that guy has his own opinions about my Women’s March posts and quotes about mindfulness. I give him credit for following me.
Even if my opinions don’t change, I have a newfound appreciation for the broad range of beliefs people hold on everything from politics to education. I am especially drawn to personal stories about how someone’s philosophy shifted over time. One man tweeted that becoming a father made him more cognizant of our country’s safety. Others wrote about how they saw the world through a different lens after finding religion, losing a job, or joining the military.
Life is rarely black and white, and our personal experiences shape our outlook. I may have gone overboard when I followed Passion on Twitter, but I still believe in the inclusive spirit of the gesture. Whether we are counselling students, talking with colleagues, or interacting with strangers on Twitter, it never hurts to adopt a mindset of curiosity.
Phyllis Fagell is a counsellor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counsellor at the Chrysalis Group. She has extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in both the private practice and school setting. Phyllis is deeply dedicated to helping her clients gain self-awareness, sound problem-solving skills, a sense of resiliency, and a positive self-concept. She regularly writes about counselling and education for the Washington Post. She tweets @